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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 21/10/11

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1. Burma to drop ban on satellite TV 2. A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore 3. Sixty-five percent of foreign investment concentrated in resource rich
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 21 1:56 AM
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      1. Burma to drop ban on satellite TV
      2. A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore
      3. Sixty-five percent of foreign investment concentrated in resource rich Kachin, Rakhine, Shan States
      4. Natural gas from new projects to be distributed for domestic consumption
      5. ‘Serious’ rights violations persist in Myanmar: UN
      6. ‘Marching steadily along the path’
      7. ‘The doctrine a person embraces is important’
      8. No let up in Rohingya forced labour
      9. China behind Myanmar’s course shift
      10. Myanmar’s Suu Kyi vows fight to free dissidents
      11. Health ministry urges doctors to return home
      12. When a multi-ethnic nation ignores ethnic rights
      13. Myanmar’s token reforms
      14. Army committing abuses in Kachin State
      15. Burmese Army mounts multi-front offensive against KIA
      16. Ethnic parties back Suu Kyi to contest election
      17. Reforming Myanmar looks to India for enlightenment
      18. Japan to restart development assistance to Myanmar
      19. How far can Burma bend for change?
      20. CSW urges international community to address impunity and maintain pressure for real change
      21. India opens US$ 500 mil credit line for Burmese infrastructure, irrigation projects
      22. Myanmar engagement bearing fruit
      23. Democratic reform in Myanmar provides opportunity for India
      24. Time to lift Myanmar sanctions
      25. New law gives Burmese right to strike
      26. Myanmar tycoon’s riches grow amid sanctions
      27. The Burma conspiracy: Sanctions debate intensifies

      Burma to drop ban on satellite TV – Shwe Aung
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      Licences for satellite television receivers are likely to be issued again in Burma following a six-year ban claimed at the time by observers to be an attempt to control the flow of information into the country. The notification came from communications minister Thein Htun after a question about the possibility of reintroducing satellite permits was raised in parliament. The minister said the process would take time, although state media appeared optimistic that it would be successful.

      Phone Myint Aung, an MP for the opposition National Democratic Force, quoted the minister as saying that that the law regarding the licences has already been drafted.

      The move is part of a reshaping of the communications law, and follows introductions or amendments to a number of laws that signal the government is loosening its vice-like grip on Burmese society.

      Most satellite users in the former capital Rangoon are without permits. Locals there welcomed the news as a sign that the media environment is further opening up, following the relaxing of an internet ban on certain news website, including DVB.

      The ban in 2005 was not the first such restriction by the government – in 1993 it enacted a ban that wasn’t lifted until 2001, and during those eight years only around 2,000 satellite dishes were legally in use, mostly by hotels and businesses.

      Despite the periods of prohibition on satellite licences, exiled media such as DVB has still managed to broadcast into the country. Government ministers are believed to garner much of their information from these independent sources, and thus have been reluctant to block the service.

      A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore – Shi Jiangtao
      South China Morning Post: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      Halt to construction of a barrage in Myanmar should be an eye-opener for its Chinese builders, but it’s unlikely to give dam boosters pause for thought. China’s growing ambition to tap into the latent power of international rivers hit a major snag when one of its largest hydropower projects abroad was unexpectedly halted in Myanmar late last month.

      The suspension of the Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River was seen as a rare victory in a nation long ruled by an authoritarian military regime. It was also read as the latest step in a diplomatic balancing act by Myanmar aimed at wooing the West and its Southeast Asian neighbours by showing the country is no longer so dependent on China.

      The controversy should sound all too familiar to mainlanders, aside from the relatively happy result – for the moment – in the Myanmar case. But what lessons should be learned from the dispute over the Myitsone dam?

      The fact that China has been snubbed by a long-time political ally that was once dependent on its political and financial support is extremely telling for environmentalists about how unpopular China’s reckless push for big dams and its keenness to flex its economic muscle beyond its borders have been.

      Myanmar’s new president, Thein Sein, who visited China just five months ago after taking office in March, announced the decision to halt the US$3.6 billion project on the eve of China’s National Day, saying the dam was “contrary to the will of the people”.

      The Myitsone dam, as part of a hydropower development deal including a further six mega dams on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries, was reportedly initiated in 2005 between Myanmar’s then junta chief, Than Shwe, and President Hu Jintao .

      At a cost of US$20 billion and with a total capacity of 20,000 megawatts, the dams, being built or planned by China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC), were seen as a symbol of China’s growing regional influence. Mainland media dubbed them China’s overseas Three Gorges Dam project. But the Myitsone dam, in the ethnic Kachin region near Myanmar’s northern border with China, has long been a magnet for criticism, protests and even violence by local people and green groups.

      Apart from concerns about potential ecological destruction on the Irrawaddy and the resettlement of 10,000 people, locals were aggrieved that 90 per cent of electricity generated by the dam was supposed to go to power-hungry China.

      The dam, with a capacity of up to 6,000 MW, was allowed to go ahead in 2009 despite the CPIC and Beijing allegedly giving the cold shoulder to various local concerns.

      Home to roughly half of the world’s biggest dams, China is the world’s largest producer of hydropower and the largest dam builder in the global market, according to International Rivers, a US-based NGO.

      However, China’s dam builders and financiers – usually power companies with a national monopoly and banks that are often criticised at home for their blind pursuit of economic profits at the expense of environmental and community welfare – seem to have made little, if any, progress when it comes to business dealings abroad.

      Such insensitivity to local needs and environmental concerns, as well as a lack of transparency about dam construction projects on rivers that cross China’s borders and in political hot spots, have not only provoked hard feelings that threaten to ruin their business opportunities but have also made China the unwanted focal point of numerous controversies in recent years.

      Environmentalists have warned that China’s global image and its friendships with affected countries, such as Myanmar – friendships that are often the result of years of political patronage – are also at stake.

      Last year, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, one of China’s Big Four state banks, made international headlines with its plan to help finance the controversial Gibe 3 dam in Ethiopia, the largest hydropower project in sub-Saharan Africa.

      China’s plan to build a cascade of eight dams on the upper reaches of the Lancang (Mekong) River in Yunnan , four of which are already in operation, has long been a source of tensions with downstream countries such as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
      These countries have often accused China of manipulating water flow with its dams, which they blame for severe droughts in recent years, and say the Chinese dams are killing their mother river.

      “The authoritarian government in Myanmar has taught China a lesson, as they appear to be willing to heed public concerns,” Professor Yu Xiaogang , founder of the Yunnan-based Green Watershed NGO, said.

      He noted that Chinese companies were used to pouring investment mainly into undemocratic countries, where they could focus on forging ties with authoritarian governments while ignoring environmental and social costs and public opinions. Yu said: “Things have changed a lot with the rising environmental awareness, and this type of business strategy has been subject to mounting challenges and is doomed to fail.”

      With increasing publicity and awareness about the grave risks inherent in the building of large dams, best exemplified by the Three Gorges Dam, dam construction has been one of the most contentious issues on the mainland in the past decade. Although it has slowed since 2004, Beijing has renewed its push for big dams to be built in the coming decade as hydropower has gained in importance as the pillar of China’s clean-energy drive. As a result, hydropower capacity is expected to rise by half to 300,000 MW by 2015.

      Despite growing public support, environmentalists have been largely unable to influence the decision-making process or help those affected make their voices heard.

      Liu Shukun , a professor of hydraulics at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, said that unlike Myanmar, China was unlikely to see a victory of public opinion in the debate over hydropower, given the development-minded government and powerful interest groups.

      “The Myanmar case is encouraging, but I don’t think it can be replicated here in China or help prevent the social and environmental havoc, given the damage already caused by the damming of rivers,” he said.

      “We are good at talking about sustainable development, but it remains a question whether it has turned into reality.”

      Sixty-five percent of foreign investment concentrated in resource rich Kachin, Rakhine, Shan States – Marn Thu Shein + Chan Myae Thu
      Eleven Media Group: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      Sixty-five percent of foreign investment in Myanmar is concentrated in states that are rich in natural resources like Kachin, Rakhine and Shan while only eight percent was invested in the manufacturing sector in Yangon Region. “It became obvious when statistics about foreign investment in respective states and regions were released. About twenty-five percent has been invested in Kachin State where jade is mined and hydropower projects are located. Top three states for foreign investment include Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states. In Kachin State, foreign investment totals US$ 8.3 billion while that in Rakhine State amounts to US$ 7.5 billion. Shan State has received US$ 6.6 billion. Foreign investment in these three states makes up 65 percent of overall foreign investment in Myanmar. Foreign investment in remaining states and regions is only 35 percent of foreign investment of the country. This shows that foreign investment is injected mainly in places rich in natural resources and where hydropower projects are located,” said an economist.

      Although foreign investment is concentrated in exploration of natural resources and hydropower projects, only a little was invested in the agriculture sector relied on by 75 percent of the population of Myanmar. As a result, the main rice growing regions of the country like Ayeyawady and Bago stood at the bottom of the foreign investment statistics with only meager investment.

      Similarly, major oil crops growing Magway Region received the third least foreign investment with only about 0.5 percent of the total.

      “According to the statistics released, least foreign investment of only about US$ six million flowed into Ayeyawady Region. A total of US$ 70 was invested in Bago Region while Magway Region received US$ 169 million foreign investment. Another major agriculture region of Sagaing Region got US$ 2.7 billion foreign investment as there are gold mines in the region,” said an export-import entrepreneur.

      * Translated and Edited by Myint Win Thein + MYA

      Natural gas from new projects to be distributed for domestic consumption – Wai Yan Phyo Oo
      Eleven Media Group: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      Natural gas to be tapped from two new offshore gas projects will be distributed for domestic consumption rather than for export, according to an official from the Ministry of Energy. To increase the domestic consumption of gas to 160 million cubic feet per day, natural gas to be tapped from two new gas projects as of 2013 will be supplied for domestic consumption.

      In addition, a master plan is to be drawn to revamp the existing gas supply system in the country to distribute increased gas production from Aungthinkha Project- M3 in 2016.

      Under the plan, about US$ 126 million and K 17 billion will be spent in two years on the substitution of iron pipes with PE coated steel pipes and the installation of new pipelines.

      The plan to divert pipelines in salt-land areas and to substitute old and rusted 20-inch pipelines with PE coated steel ones in Kanbauk-Myaingalay and Yangon-Myaingalay sections and 14 inches and 10 inches pipelines Nyaungdon-Insein-Hmawbi section will start in November this year and will be completed in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 fiscal years.

      “Gas pipeline burst out and gas leaked out near Daka Village in Kangyidaunt Township in Ayeyawady Region at about 8 AM on 1 October. Some sections of the pipeline are old and rusted in that area. Responsible officials should repair the pipeline,” said a resident.

      Test wells are being drilled for natural gas in Maubin, Nyaungdon and Aphauk at present.

      * Translated and Edited by Myint Win Thein + MYA

      ‘Serious’ rights violations persist in Myanmar: UN
      Agence France Presse: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      United Nations — Serious human rights violations persist in Myanmar despite a mass amnesty for more than 6,300 prisoners including some political opponents, the UN rights envoy to the country said Wednesday. “Despite these positive developments, many ongoing and serious human rights issues remain to be addressed,” the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said in a report to the General Assembly.

      Quintana said while progress had been made on the human rights front in recent months, he noted that ahead of by-elections expected by year’s end, “there should be no prisoners of conscience remaining in detention.”

      “This is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy,” the UN envoy said.

      Last week, the new military-backed government in Myanmar released thousands of prisoners including Zarganar, a prominent comedian and vocal government critic.

      However, most of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, including key figures involved in a failed 1988 student-led uprising, remain behind bars.

      President Thein Sein, a former general and senior junta figure, has surprised critics by signaling a series of political reforms since taking power following a controversial election last November.

      Quintana called for the removal of restrictions on the activities of political parties, and said that “respect for the freedoms of expression, assembly and association should be ensured.”

      “I firmly believe that much more is needed,” the envoy said.

      He called on Thein Sein’s government to address “ongoing tensions in ethnic border areas and conflict with some armed ethnic groups,” which he said “continue to engender serious human rights violations.”

      Those violations include “extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labor,” he said.

      Myanmar’s democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi Tuesday pledged to work for the release of the country’s remaining political prisoners following the amnesty.

      ‘Marching steadily along the path’
      Irrawaddy: Thu 20 Oct 2011

      Last week, one of Burmese President Thein Sein’s political advisers, Ko Ko Hlaing, told Radio Sweden that Burma has only around 600 political prisoners—a figure much smaller than the more widely accepted estimate of around 2,000 (of whom some 220 were freed last week). The Irrawaddy contacted Ko Ko Hlaing to ask him about this disparity, and for his response to critics who say that the relatively small number of political prisoners released suggests that recent moves toward reform are losing steam.

      Question: In your interview with Radio Sweden last week, you said that there are only 600 political prisoners in Burma. Can you explain how you arrived at that figure?

      Answer: I don’t have exact figures for the number of prisoners of conscience. If you want that, you can contact the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHF), which is responsible for compiling a list.

      Q: The United Nations and other organizations watching the human rights situation in Burma say there are around 2,000 political prisoners in the country. Why do you think their numbers and yours are so different?

      A: It may be because organizations operating outside the country have little opportunity to collect the exact figures. I don’t think they can compile an exact list. They may, for example, include some people on the list who they assume are in prison. It is also possible that they don’t know about those who have already been released. The MOHF’s list may be more exact, as people in the ministry have compiled it based on verifiable statistics. I think the differences may also depend on how people define prisoners of conscience and ordinary prisoners.

      Q: We have heard that more prisoners may be released soon. Can you comment on that?

      A: I don’t know for sure, but authorities responsible for prisoners have said they will release more. We are advisers, so it is quite difficult for us to provide detailed information.

      Q: The suspension of work on the Myitsone dam project was seen as a positive move by people within and outside the country, but many were disappointed by the small number of political prisoners who were released last week. Some are now saying that reforms seem to be stalling. As an adviser to the president, what are your views on this?

      A: Many people want many changes to come quickly. I think the recent prisoner release was not the last. According to the Constitution, it is within the president’s authority to grant amnesties, so more may come. I think it is premature to say that the pace of reforms has slowed. There are many other things we need to do. We can’t just sit still and do nothing. So I think that whether reforms are slowing down or not is mostly a matter of perception.

      Q: Another issue is armed conflict in ethnic areas. The government has come up with plans to stop the ongoing war in those areas, but ethnic groups say they want a nationwide ceasefire and an inclusive political dialogue, not just one-on-one talks with the government. What are your views on this?

      A: There are demands from both sides in a dialogue. It’s like bargaining—the seller has his price, and the buyer has his. But if both parties just stick to their demands and refuse to do anything unless their demands are met, an agreement cannot be reached.

      What is happening is between brothers and between ethnic nationalities. I haven’t heard any group saying that it will secede from this country if the government doesn’t comply with its demands. Arguing is just a normal part of the process. I think they can come to an agreement if they negotiate. By exchanging their views, I hope both parties will meet half-way through a process of give and take.

      Q: We’ve heard that Parliament is discussing an amendment of the political parties registration law. How much negotiation do you think will be necessary before the government and the National League for Democracy (NLD) can agree upon a registration process?

      A: It’s a bit difficult to make a guess from the outside. The NLD’s Central Executive Committee members will have to discuss this among themselves and with other organizations. Likewise, the government will have to have to hold consultations within the administration and with Parliament. We have to keep an eye on this issue. I can’t say exactly when both parties will finish their negotiations. I think we have to give a bit more time, but I don’t think it will take too long, because both sides have already understood that it is necessary to negotiate.

      Q: But isn’t the government under pressure to achieve results within a fixed time, since it wants to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and convince foreign countries to lift sanctions—both of which depend on how much political reform the country can achieve?

      A: In fact, according to the Asean Charter, Burma doesn’t need to go through a placement test in order to become chairman of the bloc. The chairmanship is granted to every member state in alphabetical order. But for specific reasons, we once handed over this position to someone else. Now it is our turn to accept it.

      We are not doing things just so we can become the Asean chairman. We are working in the interests of our people. We are steadily marching along the path, the way it should be. So it’s up to regional organizations to decide for themselves whether Burma should be granted that position. If, after visiting the country and observing the overall situation, they believe that we are sincere us, they will hand it over to us. I think it is quite likely that Burma will be granted the chairmanship, because it is now on the right track. If Burma isn’t given the chairmanship with the excuse that we haven’t made enough improvements, I think it will reduce other Asean member countries’ trust in the regional bloc.

      Burma is not the only undemocratic country within Asean, so I think we have a good chance to be granted the chairmanship. But as I said, that’s not why we’re doing things. We are working for the good of the country and its people. We will move forward steadily. Making reforms is not like sitting an exam. Reform involves different circumstances and challenges. It also faces different kinds of opposition and resistance. The most important thing is that I believe that international and regional organizations will support our endeavors.

      ‘The doctrine a person embraces is important’ – Min Ko Naing – Zwe Khant
      Mizzima News: Wed 19 Oct 2011

      New Delhi – “The location of a person is not important, only the doctrine the person embraces is important.” That’s the 49th birthday message of 88-generation student leader Min Ko Naing, who is serving a 65-year prison term in Kengtung Prison. His 49th birthday ceremony, on Tuesday, was held at Thaminemyoma Monastery in Insein Township in Rangoon. He sent the birthday message from his prison cell, adding: “My birthday party should not be only for me; it should be a ceremony of remembrance for all.”

      Mi Mi Lwin, Min Ko Naing’s sister, told Mizzima: “He wrote the message as a remembrance.” Min Ko Naing was arrested on August 21, 2007, for leading massive protests against a hike in fuel prices. He was not included in the prisoners released under the recent presidential amnesty.

      The birthday ceremony was attended by NLD leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD Vice Chairman Tin Oo and central committee member Win Tin. The newly released prisoners Zarganar and rights activist Su Su Nway also attended. Also present were diplomats from France, Britain and the U.S. embassies, ethnic leaders, political parties and young people. About 2,000 people turned out for the event.

      Mi Mi Lwin said, “I can’t say how sad we feel because his birthday party was held without him. I hope we can hold his birthday party with him next year. We hope it every year.”

      During the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Min Ko Naing was elected chairman of All All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). He was arrested in March 1989 for his political activities and released in 2004. Then in September 2006 he was detained again and released in January 2007. He was arrested again during the protest against the hike in fuel price.

      To mark the birthday, guests released helium balloons and doves and prayed for the freedom of political prisoners. Opposition leader Suu Kyi, comedian Zarganar and 88-generation student leader Phyo Phyo Aung spoke.

      Suu Kyi said that she wished all political prisoners would be released and urged all people to work for their freedom, according to 88-generation student Myat Thu, who organized of the ceremony.

      Families of political prisoners gave 5,000 kyat (about US$ 6) to each of more than 100 recently released political prisoners who attended the ceremony, which included a birthday song and poetry recitation.

      Myat Thu said, 42 publishing houses donated books and the books will be sent to 42 prisons to open libraries. The total value of the books was more than 2.7 million kyat.

      More than 20 portraits of Min Ko Naing were displayed at the ceremony.

      “After the ceremony, only three portraits remained. Some people asked for the portraits by saying they loved Min Ko Naing. They asked for the portraits from other people, not from me. I’m sorry to lose the portraits,” said artist Myo Yan Naung Thein, who painted the portraits.

      The new ABFSU that was reorganized in 2007 also sent a message, saying “We students pay deep respect to Min Ko Naing; the role of the ABFSU is still active.”

      NLD-affiliated networks in Kachin and Karen states, Sagaing and Mandalay regions and Chauk and Yaynanchaung in Magway Region also held ceremonies to mark his birthday.

      “According to the information we have, political prisoners will be released in three batches. In the first batch, Min Ko Naing was not included, but Zarganar was included. We heard that Min Ko Naing will be included in the last batch,” 88-generation student Myo Yan Naung Thein said.

      Burmese pro-democracy activists in New Delhi held a ceremony to mark the birthday in the office of the Women Rights and Welfare Association of Burma. Food was donated to Buddhist monks and prayers for political prisoners were recited by people of various religions.

      No let up in Rohingya forced labour – Francis Wade
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Wed 19 Oct 2011

      Evidence from surveys carried out among the ethnic Rohingya population of northern Arakan state suggest that contrary to pledges made by the new Burmese government, forced labour has not abated.

      Some communities in the impoverished region of western Burma claim that instances of forced labour had in fact risen since the elections in November last, as local authorities push ahead with the completion of infrastructural projects.

      The surveys were conducted by The Arakan Project, which has a number of covert fact finding teams working in the area.

      “During the period immediately preceding the elections, forced labour demands had noticeably decreased, raising hopes among Rohingyas for a better future under the new government, including some respite from compulsory labour,” the report, ‘Forced labour after the elections’, says.

      “Unfortunately, their expectations were short-lived. Within days, forced labour exactions did not simply resume but, by December, reached a peak unseen since the early 1990s due to extensive repair of the [Burma-Bangladesh] border fence.”

      Civilians are mainly sought to work on infrastructure aimed at securing the porous border between the two countries, and allowing for better maneuverability of Burmese troops close to the fence.

      The eventual by-product of this, the report warns, will be an intensified militarisation of the region, where abuses of the Muslim minority at the hands of the army and local border guard force, known as NaSaKa, are already rampant. Moreover, the orders for civilians to join the workforce are given by a unit within the army known as Garrison Engineers (GE), reinforcing claims that discrimination against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma largely on the basis that they are Muslim, is state-sanctioned.

      The report says that while enough government funds have been allocated for the labourers working on the fence and surrounding infrastructure, little of it reaches its supposed destination.

      “GE subcontract most construction projects to the NaSaKa Sectors, who siphon off the budget earmarked for the manpower and use forced labour instead.”

      According to observations made by Arakan Project teams, children make up as much as 40 percent of the forced labour workforce in the region around Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the north of the state. Some of these may be as young as 10.

      Reports emerged in Bangladeshi press earlier this week claiming that Dhaka had struck a deal with Naypyidaw to return the thousands of Rohingya refugees living in the two official camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara.

      Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, however rubbished these claims, and said there was no evidence of any sort of bilateral agreement being struck. Moreover, the prospect of many of these people being forced to return to Burma to face a situation that has apparently not changed since they fled, will trigger alarm.

      “The consequences of these Bangladesh statements are often renewed pressure and abuses on the refugees. Fear is already spreading in the refugee camps, and acts as a ‘push-factor’ for camp refugees to flee by boat to Malaysia,” she told DVB.

      Up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh, but Dhaka has allowed only 28,000 to be registered by the UN, leaving hundreds of thousands eking out a precarious existence in unofficial camps and on the fringes of towns. The Rohingya have been described by various groups as one of the world’s most threatened minorities.

      China behind Myanmar’s course shift – Bertil Lintner
      Asia Times: Wed 19 Oct 2011

      Chiang Mai – Recent developments in Myanmar, including talks between new President Thein Sein and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, a relaxation of media censorship and the release of some political prisoners, have stunned many foreign observers and sparked speculation that the historically military-run country is on the verge of a new era of democracy and openness. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has published optimistic reports claiming that fundamental changes are under way in the country’s political landscape, while Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide recently exalted after a mid-October whistle-stop to the country: “I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

      After decades of broken promises and fake reforms, Myanmar’s population has been tellingly less enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Zarganar, Myanmar’s most famous comedian, said in an interview shortly after his release from prison on October 11: “Originally, I was encouraged by the new government. But not anymore, not since I was released. We [jailed dissidents] are like hostages in the hands of Somali pirates. It now begs the question, for what ransom was our freedom secured?”

      Indeed, what was the behind-the-scenes “ransom” paid for the release of approximately 200 political prisoners, and what is the reality behind recent seemingly daring moves by Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under the old military junta?

      As an army commander and later government leader, he was not known for his initiative, boldness or liberalism. In May 2001, for instance, while serving as chief of the Myanmar army’s Golden Triangle Command, he said in a speech before local leaders in Mong La on the Chinese border: “I was in Mong Ton and Mong Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa group are real friends.”

      Wei is named in several US drug reports as the kingpin of the Golden Triangle narcotics trade and both American and Thai law enforcement authorities have a bounty on his head. Both of Thein Sein’s “real friends” have been indicted by US courts for their involvement in the Golden Triangle’s narcotics trade.

      There are also questions about the foreign company the supposedly reformist president keeps. On August 1 last year, the Pyongyang’s official news service, the Korea Central News Agency, reported on a visit by Thein Sein, then prime minister of the previous military junta, where he “noted with high appreciation that the Korean people have made big strides in strengthening of the military capability and economic construction under the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il … The government of Myanmar will continue to strive for strengthening and development of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries.”

      These are less the statements of a reform-minded liberal and more of a puppet leader who takes and exercises obediently orders from above.

      It is becoming clear that there are serious disagreements within the military over relations with North Korea, and more importantly Myanmar’s heavy dependence on China. This became evident on September 30 when Thein Sein announced that he had decided to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion joint-venture Myitsone dam project in Myanmar’s far north Kachin State.

      However, the official explanation that the project was “against the will of people” is hardly credible in a country where popular sentiments have long been ignored and popular calls for political change met consistently with brute military force.

      The dam would have flooded an area bigger than Singapore, 90% of the electricity was scheduled for export to China, and once online would have done grave harm to the Irrawaddy River, the nation’s economic and cultural artery. A massive popular movement against the dam was gaining momentum and an escalation of anti-China tensions could have led to riots even more serious than in 1967, when angry mobs ransacked businesses and homes owned by ethnic Chinese in Yangon, then the national capital.

      China’s commercial presence is more pronounced nowadays, as tens of thousands of Chinese merchants and migrants have recently settled in the country, mainly in the old royal capital of Mandalay. China’s domination of local commerce and rising ownership of local lands has stoked Myanmar nationalist sentiments and risks potentially destabilizing splits inside the still ruling Myanmar military.

      It is this dynamic that is mainly driving Thein Sein’s political course shift, not a newfound desire for democracy and human rights.

      My friend, my enemy

      The controversial dam project reflects the strained relationship Myanmar has always had with its powerful northern neighbor. From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until Myanmar’s 1962 military putsch, Beijing maintained a cordial relationship with the non-aligned democratic government of prime minister U Nu.

      Myanmar, then known as Burma, was in fact the first country outside of the communist bloc to recognize the new regime in Beijing. Trade was negligible, but the common border was demarcated and relations were friendly.

      After General Ne Win’s 1962 coup, the Chinese, long wary of the ambitious and sometimes unpredictable general, began to prepare for all-out support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The 1967 anti-Chinese riots in Yangon, orchestrated by military authorities to deflect public anger at a rapidly deteriorating economy, provided a convenient excuse for China to intervene directly in Myanmar’s internal affairs. On New Year’s Day 1968, the first armed CPB units entered northeastern Myanmar from China’s southwestern Yunnan province.

      During the decade spanning 1968-78, China poured more aid into the CPB effort than any other communist movement outside of Indochina. Assault rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, radio equipment, jeeps, trucks, petrol, area maps, and even kitchen utensils were sent across the frontier into the CPB’s revolutionary base area.

      Thousands of Chinese “volunteers” also streamed across the border to provide additional support to the CPB. Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, and more importantly the return to power of the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping a year later, marked the beginning of the end of massive Chinese aid to the CPB.

      It was no longer seen to be in Beijing’s interest to support revolutionary movements in the region, but neither could the Chinese completely cut off the CPB, which still controlled most of the strategic border areas inside Myanmar. Chinese support continued, albeit on a much reduced scale, until the hill tribe rank-and-file of the CPB’s army rose in mutiny in 1989 and drove the entire Maoist Burman leadership into exile in China.

      The CPB subsequently split along ethnic lines into four different regional armies. All of them soon entered into ceasefire agreements with the government, which also made cross-border trade possible for the first time in decades.

      It was also clear that China coveted Myanmar’s forests and rich mineral and natural gas deposits, as well as its hydroelectric power potential. In fact, China first mooted its intention to build Myitsone in an article in the official Beijing Review in September 1985.

      Entitled “Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion”, the officially written article outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade for China’s landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. It also mentioned that the Myanmar railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the northeast and the Irrawaddy River as possible conduits for Chinese exports.

      At the time those trade links were a remote dream, but the 1989 CPB mutiny ushered in a new, more cordial era in Sino-Myanmar relations. Apart from supplying Myanmar with vast quantities of military hardware at a time when the West shunned and sanctioned the military regime’s abysmal human-rights record, Chinese experts also assisted in a series of infrastructure projects to rehabilitate Myanmar’s poorly maintained roads and railways.

      Chinese military advisers formally arrived in 1991, the first foreign military personnel to be stationed in Myanmar since Australia dispatched a contingent to train the Myanmar army in the 1950s. Soon after the Chinese officials arrived, cross-border trade between China and Myanmar began to boom.

      By the late 1980s, China had begun to penetrate the Myanmar market through an extensive economic intelligence reporting system. This network monitored the availability of domestically produced Myanmar products as well as the nature and volume of trade from other countries in the region such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

      When the border was opened for trade in the early 1990s, more than 2,000 carefully selected items were reported to be flooding the Myanmar market – among them bicycles, sewing machines, beer, soap, cigarettes, cheap textiles, stationery, spare machinery parts, radios, medicines, and petrol. These goods were priced deliberately cheaper than those from other neighboring countries and Myanmar-made products.

      In March last year, China’s official People’s Daily Online reported that bilateral trade between the two countries hit US$ 2.9 billion in 2009, an increase of 10% over the previous year and up from virtually zero in the late 1980s. The trade balance weighed heavily in China’s favor: in 2009, Chinese exports amounted to $2.3 billion, while its imports from Myanmar totaled a mere $646 million. More current trade figures are not publicly available, but are believed to be even higher and still weighted in China’s favor.

      While Myanmar has been denied access to international monetary institutions due to US and European Union sanctions, China has provided Myanmar with low interest loans and major investment capital. That is particularly true of the energy sector.

      An agreement to build a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal will be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying fuel imports from the Middle East to skirt the congested Malacca Strait. In September last year, China agreed to provide Myanmar with $4.2 billion worth of interest-free loans over a 30-year period to help fund hydropower projects, road and railway construction, and information technology development.

      Myanmar’s growing economic and financial dependence on China has caused considerable consternation its military leadership. Aung Lynn Htut, a former intelligence officer who sought political asylum in the US in 2005, wrote in a September 30 commentary for exile-run The Irrawaddy that the country’s military leaders have not forgotten that they once fought against the China-backed CPB and that many of their comrades were killed by Chinese arms.

      For instance, Tin Aung Myint Oo, the current first vice president, earned his title thiha thura (brave lion) in 1989 after taking part in heavy battles with the CPB just before the mutiny. According to Aung Lynn Htut, many of his officers and soldiers, including his commander, died on the battlefield.

      Despite the deepening of Sino-Myanmar relations, China still maintains close contacts with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the main successor to the CPB. The UWSA is equipped with modern weapons, including artillery and anti-aircraft guns, obtained from what is euphemistically called the “black market” in China, but which is more a “gray market” as it is run mainly by former Chinese military officers.

      The UWSA today is much stronger and better equipped than the CPB was in the last years before the 1989 mutiny. Chinese duplicity in maintaining relations with Naypyidaw and the armed militias opposed to its rule has made many Myanmar army officers wary of China’s long-term intentions.

      Survival instincts

      According to many Western observers, recent positive developments in Myanmar reflect a power struggle between “reform-minded moderates” and “hardliners” within the government and the military that controls it. But the “moderates” have to tread carefully, one cautious step at a time, to avoid upsetting the “hardliners” waiting in the wings, the analysis goes. It may appear that way on the surface, but the political reality is far more convoluted and complicated.

      Myanmar’s new 2008 constitution and last year’s rigged elections were not implemented to change the country’s basic power structure that has been in place since the military first seized power in 1962, but rather aim to institutionalize it by creating a national parliament, regional assemblies, and a superficially civilian-led government.

      Since 1962, Myanmar’s military has viewed itself as the sole force capable of protecting the country’s independence and unity. The ruling military is not divided over how much democracy should be allowed, or the degree of respect it should show for human rights. Rather, disagreements within Myanmar’s military are more over questions of national sovereignty, internal security and, most importantly, regime survival.

      Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo is often referred to in the Western media as a “hardliner”. But that characterization is misleading as it is the state of relations with China, not degrees of democracy, that historically has caused the biggest rifts inside the Myanmar military. Apart from the Myitsone dam issue, sources familiar with the inner workings of the Myanmar military assert that hostility towards China is growing among the officer corps, especially when it comes to ongoing Chinese support for the heavily armed UWSA.

      By suspending the controversial dam project, Thein Sein took the wind out of the sails of a situation that could have caused a serious conflict inside the military and been channeled to the public at large. For now, Thein Sein has weathered the storm, but by suspending rather than canceling the project he strategically left a door open for future negotiations with China.

      Myanmar cannot turn its back to China: the two countries share a long border, while the United States and the European Union are distant powers of lesser importance to the long term survival of the regime.

      The forces behind Thein Sein have skillfully played the China card vis-a-vis the West in a new bid to lessen the country’s dependence on China and smooth over potential conflicts brewing within the armed forces.

      On September 29, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin met in Washington with newly appointed US coordinator on Myanmar Derek Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and human-rights official Michael Posner. It was not a coincidence that the next day Thein Sein’s government decided to suspend the Myitsone dam until 2015.

      Even before Thein Sein started to send reform signals, the US had started to rethink its punitive policy towards Myanmar. Ever since the 1988 massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in Yangon, Washington has been the military regime’s fiercest international critic. When Barack Obama took over the US presidency in January 2009, a new policy of “engagement” was adopted to shift that course. In April that year, US senator Jim Webb, known to be close to Obama, became the first top-level US politician to visit Myanmar in years.

      While paying lip-service to democracy and human rights during talks with then junta leader General Than Shwe, Webb revealed his real motives at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters in Washington after returning from his trip:

      We are in a situation where if we do not push some kind of constructive engagement, Myanmar is going to basically become a province of China … we all respect Aung San Suu Kyi and the sacrifices she has made. On the other hand, how does the US develop a relationship that could increase stability in the region and not allow China to have dominance in a country that has strategic importance in the region?

      That view, if widely held, represents a significant shift in Washington’s perspective. In March 1989, a senior US diplomat in Yangon told the Washington Post: “Since there are no US bases and very little strategic interest, Burma [Myanmar] is one place where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles.”

      With China’s fast rise and US concerns about Myanmar’s budding military relations with North Korea, strategic interests have now returned to the forefront of Washington’s Myanmar policy.

      Myanmar is now in the process of rebalancing its foreign relations to ensure the regime’s survival and future cohesion of the armed forces. Thein Sein and the powerful military forces that back him realize that there must be some icing on the cake for the US and the European Union to accept his nominally civilian regime and consider lifting sanctions.

      That is the “ransom” that has been paid for the release of dissidents like Zarganar and warming overtures towards Suu Kyi. While Myanmar may have embarked on a more palatable political course, it has more to do with regime survival than a desire to supplant military rule with democratic governance.

      * Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

      Myanmar’s Suu Kyi vows fight to free dissidents
      Agence France Presse: Tue 18 Oct 2011

      Yangon — Myanmar’s democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday pledged to work for the release of the country’s remaining political prisoners following an amnesty that left many key dissidents behind bars. The regime pardoned 227 imprisoned critics, according to Suu Kyi’s party, but kept most of its roughly 2,000 political inmates locked up, including key figures involved in a failed 1988 student-led uprising.

      “Many (student leaders) have still not been freed from their imprisonment. We will continue our struggle for their release,” Suu Kyi told supporters at birthday celebrations for Min Ko Naing, an 88 Generation leader serving a 65-year jail term.

      “Why do I want the release of political prisoners? I want our country to become really free,” Suu Kyi said at a ceremony at a monastery in Yangon.

      Min Ko Naing, whose prison term stems from his role in the 2007 monk-led protests known as the “Saffron Revolution”, saw in his 49th birthday in Kyaing Tong prison in Shan State, northeast Myanmar.

      Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) said it was “frustrated” by the relatively small number of political detainees included in an amnesty for more than 6,000 prisoners last week.

      Famous satirist Zarganar, who goes by one name, was among those released and has since spoken out against the regime’s decision to leave many other critics locked up.

      He now plans to organise a group of actors and comedians to visit jailed dissidents held in prisons around the country.

      “I will try to visit to my friends who are still in the prisons,” he told AFP at the Yangon ceremony.

      Zarganar, who was held at Myitkyina prison in Kachin State in northern Myanmar, had been serving a 35-year sentence following his arrest in 2008 after organising deliveries of aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which left 138,000 dead or missing.

      He said he would leave parcels for political detainees if he was not allowed to see them.

      “They will be happy if they know that I have travelled to visit them in person, even though we cannot see each other,” he said.

      The fate of political prisoners in Myanmar is a key concern of western governments that have imposed sanctions on the isolated nation.

      Some observers have said the amnesty could be one of several by a regime that appears eager to end its international isolation but is wary of potential unrest.

      Health ministry urges doctors to return home – Cherry Thein
      Myanmar Times: Tue 18 Oct 2011

      THE Minister for Health has called on trained medical professionals living abroad to return to Myanmar and contribute their services to improve the health sector. Speaking at a meeting of the Myanmar Academy of Medical Science held at the University of Nursing on October 7, Dr Pe Thet Khin said President U Thein Sein, the government and the minister would welcome the return of all Myanmar medical experts living in other countries, regardless of their reasons for leaving Myanmar.

      He said their expertise was sorely needed in community development programs but conceded that for many it would mean sacrificing higher-paid jobs abroad.

      “We are now working to promote the development of the medical sector and need human resources – their ideas and techniques. I think it is time for all to contribute for the country’s future,” he said.

      “Some of my friend inquired whether they would get the same salary and facilities they get in foreign countries. We can’t guarantee that … but if they want to work for the country with us, please come and contribute,” he said.

      “There would be many doctors and medical experts in other countries … they went abroad for their career progression,” he said.

      “But now it is a busy time to work for the country,” the minister said, adding that the new government was putting more priority on the health sector.

      Myanmar Academy of Medical Science president Dr Myo Myint said the academy would invite both retired and working medical professionals to contribute to government health projects.

      “In the past, when you were 50 or 60 you retired [from government service]. That usually meant you went and worked in the private sector or went abroad. It’s a kind of brain-drain … we welcome all retired medical experts to contribute,” he said, adding that most of the academy’s members were retired.

      The academy plans to undertake several projects in 2011-12, including an awareness raising program on medical ethics, a snake bite control pilot project and promotion of effective and affordable fluoride toothpaste.

      When a multi-ethnic nation ignores ethnic rights – Saw Yan Naing
      Irrawaddy: Tue 18 Oct 2011

      Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that Burmese government forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians since renewed fighting broke out in the northern state in June.

      The international rights group estimated that some 30,000 civilians in Kachin State have been displaced by the conflict.

      The Burmese government armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, said the HRW statement.

      “Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers,” said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tens of thousands of people have fled through the mountains and jungle at the height of the rainy season, driven away by fear of army attacks.”

      The HRW statement backs up a claim made by the US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, who on Monday stated that the Burmese government has not made comparable progress in its relations with ethnic minorities in the north and east of Burma as it has with the democratic opposition—in particular noting that Naypyidaw had held high-level talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

      Mitchell also noted what he referred to as credible reports of continued human rights abuses, including violence against minority women and children.

      “We made it very clear that we [the US] could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur,” said Mitchell.

      The criticisms come at a time when Naypyidaw has enjoyed much high acclaim following a series of moves viewed by Burmese and the international community at large as being progressive reforms, most notably the easing of censorship on the Burmese media, the suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, and the release of 200 political prisoners.

      The statements by Mitchell and by the HRW highlight growing concern that although reforms have been enacted in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, many observers see the government as being unable or unwilling to tackle issues in the ethnic areas.

      Between 35 and 40 percent of Burma’s 55-million population is non-Burman, and although many of the country’s ethnic minorities have integrated into Burmese society over the years, many millions continue to live in the mountainous jungle that forms a natural horseshoe around the Burmese plains.

      Ethnic minority groups include the Karen, the Shan, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Mon, the Chin and the Arakan, almost all of which have fought against the central government for independence or autonomy for decades.

      Over the past 20 years, many ethnic armies have signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government, but conflicts have continued, exacerbated by overland deals with Burma’s neighbors, especially China and Thailand, and a flurry of investment in natural resources within ethnic minority areas.

      Over the years, the Burmese army has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses in ethnic areas, with several reports indicating that the abuses may be systemic, and indicative of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

      In a letter to the editor of The New York Times on Oct. 6, Myra Dahgaypaw, an ethnic Karen woman wrote: “Burmese soldiers killed my parents, my brother and sister, and my uncle after they forced him to watch them rape his wife.

      “If soldiers are able to use forced labor, sexual violence, forced relocation and other abuses as mechanisms of domination, why should [US] President Obama reward President Thein Sein?”

      Her comment was written in response to an article titled, “In Myanmar, Seize the Moment,” written by a well-known Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U.

      In his article, the author urged the US president to publicly support the “reforms” that are taking place in Burma.

      He also wrote that Thein Sein has spoken forcefully of combating poverty, fighting corruption, ending the country’s multiple armed conflicts, and working for political reconciliation.

      But despite the government’s recent approval of a “peacemaking committee” in parliament to deal with the issues surrounding the ongoing ethnic conflicts, observers say no tangible progress has been made—in fact, hostilities have escalated in some areas.

      Brig-Gen Johnny, the commander of the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7, told The Irrawaddy that fighting—whether simple exchanges of gunfire or intense hostilities resulting in many casualties—break out almost every day in Karen State even though the government has declared its intention to seek a peace deal with armed ethnic groups.

      “The release of more than 200 political prisoners, the suspension of the Myitsone dam, the establishment of a peacemaking committee—these steps are all good news,” said Johnny. “But these developments will not help our people and our soldiers in their daily fight for survival while government troops move into frontier areas.”

      With the exception of two ethnic rebel armies—the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army and its ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army, which are currently observing a ceasefire—no tangible results have come from negotiations with the other ethnic groups.

      The New Mon State Party met government representatives recently in Ye Township, but the meeting concluded without an agreement.

      Last Thursday, government troops began an assault on Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions in Kachin and Shan states. The KIA leaders said they believe that the attacks are aimed at seizing KIA strongholds and military bases.

      KIA spokesman La Nan said that at least 82 armed clashes have broken out since June, when fighting took place near hydropower plants in Bhamo Township in Kachin State. Seventeen of the clashes have broken out this month alone, he said.

      Aye Thar Aung, a prominent Arakanese politician based in Rangoon, said that although he welcomed the steps taken by the new government, he was still concerned with the ethnic conflict issues.

      “We are very concerned when we hear the government authorities saying they are making peace with the Wa, but then increase their military efforts against the Kachin,” he said.

      “To build a developed country, peace is needed. The civil war needs to come to an end.

      “There can be no peace in a multi-ethnic nation that ignores the fundamental rights of its ethnic minorities,” he added.

      Myanmar’s token reforms – Editorial
      The Jakarta Post: Tue 18 Oct 2011

      The release of several hundred prisoners in Myanmar last week was another token gesture from the military junta, trying to convince the world of its intention to introduce some form of democracy in the country. As welcome as the gesture is — since any move in that direction in Myanmar at this stage is almost progress — we still have to take it with a grain of salt. Among those released in the first batch of 6,300 who received a general amnesty from the government were 80 political prisoners. Amnesty International says there are more than 2,000 prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, those imprisoned chiefly for their political beliefs, and it is uncertain how many of those were included in this round of amnesty.

      Until a clearer picture emerges about the fate of those political prisoners in coming weeks, we should refrain from applauding the Myanmar regime. The Myanmarese, as well as people around the world, have become accustomed to the junta’s empty promises. The farce election last year was a case in point and it served to undermine the credibility of its “road map to democracy”.

      Some may argue that these token measures of democracy would eventually amount to something, but so far they are not enough to even provide the Myanmarese with their fundamental rights. Other Southeast Asian nations are also moving slowly and cautiously in giving greater space for free expressions, but at least their people lead a decent life.

      When Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa visits Myanmar later this month, he should convey the message to the junta in the strongest terms that it needs to do a lot more to convince the world. Releasing all the political prisoners would go a long way.

      As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia needs to pressure the junta to show that the regional group’s constructive engagement all these years is actually paying off. No less than ASEAN’s own credibility is at stake.

      Myanmar itself is due to take over the rotating ASEAN chair in 2014, and the junta has somehow confidently expressed its intention to take it up. The ASEAN chairmanship, however, is not automatic. As the current chair, Indonesia should use this leverage to ensure speedier and bolder political reforms in Myanmar.

      It may seem like a long shot, but it is worth trying.

      Army committing abuses in Kachin State
      Human Rights Watch: Tue 18 Oct 2011

      New York – Burma’s armed forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians in renewed fighting in Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said today. Since hostilities began over five months ago against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, which has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 30,000 Kachin civilians. On September 30, 2011, Burma’s President Thein Sein suspended a controversial US$3.6 billion hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, which appears to have been one of several factors in the renewed hostilities between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Chinese-financed project was suspended after growing dissent in Burma over its current and potential environmental and social impacts.

      “Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers,” said Elaine Pears

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