RANGOON—A human rights group says it has obtained leaked government documents that outline discriminatory policies and abusive methods to control the Rohingya population in Burma.
Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights on Tuesday published translations of eight alleged government documents—including three regional orders dated between 1993 and 2008, and five addenda dating from 2007 or earlier—as part of a 79-page reportthat accuses state and central officials of perpetuating crimes against humanity in Arakan State.
The documents outline restrictions on marriage and family size for Muslims in Maungdaw Township, a predominately Rohingya area in northern Arakan State. They also outline restrictions on movement that have prevented access to vital services including health care.
The existence of these restrictions has been reported in the past by UN agencies, activist groups and news media, which have noted the effects, including the mass migration of Rohingyas to neighboring countries in the region. However, Fortify Rights says the government orders themselves have never before been seen by the public.
Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, could not be reached to comment on the authenticity of the documents or to verify that the policies described remain in effect today. However, in an interview with The Myanmar Times newspaper on Tuesday he referred to Fortify Rights as a “Bengali lobby group” and declined to comment on “baseless accusations.”
The Burma government officially refers to Rohingyas as “Bengali,” reflecting local beliefs that the ethnic Muslim minority is largely made up of illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. A majority of Rohingyas are denied citizenship in Burma, although many trace their family roots in the country back for generations.
The Fortify Rights report includes a translation of a purported regional government order from 2005 which it says appears to have laid the foundation for a two-child policy in Maungdaw that was first made public last year.
The 2005 order—by the Township Peace and Development Council in Maungdaw—said a growing population was leading to concerns of food insecurity. “The population is dense and the birth rate is extremely high, beyond international standards of population increase …Therefore, someday there is likely to be starvation,” the order said.
It outlined a policy that Muslim couples would not be allowed to marry without proving their legal residency and receiving permission from the Township Peace and Development Council. “Starting the date of this regional order, those who have permission to marry must limit the number of children, in order to control the birth rate so there is enough food and shelter,” it said.
The order was distributed to administrative councils in all village tracts in the township, according to Fortify Rights, and copies were sent to township and district officials, immigration authorities, a chief military strategist in the state, the township judge and a legal officer.
Over a decade earlier, in 1993, a temporary order from the Border Region Immigration Control Headquarters in Maungdaw also required Muslims to register their marriages with immigration officials and other local authorities, the rights group said. This temporary order, also translated and published in the Fortify Rights report, placed marriage restrictions more broadly. “People from other religions will be allowed to marry only after being registered at the office of the chief of the region and the office of the chief of the station, and only after that will a household registration be issued,” the order said, according to the translation.
The Fortify Rights report also included five addenda to regional orders, with guidelines for enforcing population control measures. One undated addendum instructed officials to ensure “the number of people in families is correct” by visiting households and comparing the residents to family photos. To ensure maternity, it added that women could be ordered to breastfeed their infants in front of the authorities.
“If there is suspicion someone is being substituted, children in the house will be compared in age and appearance,” the addendum said. “If the child is an infant, the mother will be made to breastfeed the child. Young children will be questioned separately.”
In addition, Fortify Rights said it analyzed four government documents dated to 2013, but did not publish translations in the report for security reasons.
The rights group said policies limiting family sizes had encouraged Rohingya women to undergo unsafe illegal abortions. More broadly, it said restrictions on marriage, family size and movement had led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children from Burma, seeking refuge elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The report said policies targeting Rohingya on the basis of ethnicity and religion had led to “widespread displacement, endemic maternal mortality, and statelessness, among other serious consequences.”
“Protracted human rights violations against Rohingya result from official state policies and could amount to crimes against humanity of prosecution,” it said, adding that the policies appeared to remain in effect today.
However, citing NGOs and aid agencies in Arakan State, it said marriage restrictions appeared to have been eased slightly recent months, with applicants asked to meet fewer administrative requirements. “This is a positive development, but even if the restrictions are eased, they remain in place,” the rights group said.
Fortify Rights is an NGO based in Southeast Asia and registered in the United States and Switzerland. The group provides technical support to human rights defenders, and its international advisory board include the UN special rapporteur on human rights to Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, as well as Phil Robertson, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
RANGOON — The Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security has published an announcement in state newspapers advising Burmese workers seeking employment abroad to verify the credibility of overseas employment agencies with the ministry before committing to job offers beyond Burma’s borders.
The notice says laborers can cross-check the existence of the agencies and authenticity of letters of employment through the ministry’s website or by making a phone call to the Migrant Workers Division of the Employment Department. However, attempts by The Irrawaddy to call the two phone numbers listed in the notice went unanswered, and the website could not be accessed on Thursday.
“It’s good that [the ministry] has started this system,” said Tun Tun Lwin, an education coordinator from the Thailand-based Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).
“We can know who has recruited [the laborers], from which agency and whether they are an existing agency or an agency that has already been dissolved. If something happens [to a laborer], we can discuss directly with the agency,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Migrant laborers from developing countries are often subject to abuse by employers and scams by unscrupulous employment agencies who take advantage of what the workers see as an opportunity to better their livelihoods by moving abroad.
The ministry urged prospective migrant workers to draft a contract with their employer, and gather information on the place they plan to be sent, along with workplace conditions, ahead of committing to any job abroad. The announcement on Thursday added that Burmese migrant laborers would have to apply for and obtain a work permit from the government of the respective country in which they are seeking employment.
Tun Tun Lwin, whose MWRN also has an office in Rangoon, said Thailand is off-limits to new migrant worker arrivals at the moment. Licensed employment agencies are not taking new applicants because of political turmoil that has plagued Burma’s neighbor to the east since November.
“Recently [last week], about 30-40 people who illegally crossed the border to work have run into problems. The existing laborers aren’t even able to get visa extensions. It is not possible for new arrivals to obtain work permits,” he said.
An estimated 3 million Burmese migrant workers are currently employed in Thailand. About 2 million of the total population are officially registered, and many of these workers arrived in Thailand on a four-year visa program that began in 2009.
“The [Burmese] officials told us that discussions to extend visas for workers can start only when the political situation in Thailand stabilizes,” Tun Tun Lwin said.
According to the Labor Ministry, there are 184 overseas employment agencies in Burma that are officially licensed to recruit workers for jobs abroad. Burma currently has labor attachés assigned to three countries—Thailand, the Republic of Korea and Malaysia—to protect and facilitate opportunities for Burmese migrant workers.
Burmese laborers in Thailand, many of whom are holding expired visas or will otherwise see their visas lapse in the coming weeks and months, are not yet facing the kind of mass arrest operations frequently conducted in Malaysia to crackdown on overstayers. Nonetheless, they are being fined or are subject to extortion by police when they are found to have overstayed, Tun Tun Lwin said.
“There have been no official arrests, but when Thai police find out that a visa has expired, they [migrant workers] are asked whether they will go back home [to Burma] and if not, they are fined anywhere from 500 baht [US$15] to 1,500 baht,” he said.
“The Thai government is doing this. Since high-ranking officials from the two countries have already discussed it, they could tell the Ministry of Home Affairs to instruct police not to arrest the laborers.”
President Thein Sein has ordered his government to prepare for the possibility of mass protests and violence this year caused by disagreements over constitutional reform. Burma’s military-drafted Constitution is considered undemocratic, and in recent months calls for amending the charter have grown stronger.
In a secret four-point directive issued late last month and obtained by The Irrawaddy, Thein Sein urged his ministers and their deputies to ensure stable conditions ahead of a nationwide census in March and hundreds of planned meetings over the course of the year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), after Burma assumed chairmanship of the regional bloc this year.
In the Jan. 27 directive entitled “Stability and tranquility of the country” and classified “Top Secret”, the president said he also worried that divisions within Parliament over proposed constitutional amendments could lead to unrest outside the legislature, with the possibility of mass demonstrations and violent political unrest.
“Some discussions can lead to disagreements, if the disagreements cannot be solved in Parliament it will spread to outside of the Parliament [and] there can be demands, riots and violence by groups of people,” the president wrote. “When these cases happen, we will face pressure from local and foreign media on our government.”
He said activists are mobilizing support for their political demands around the country and warned these actions could lead to unrest. “As everyone knows, now there are people who have ideas are opposite to those of the government and they are campaigning in their respective areas and bringing on demands and riots,” the letter said.
In the directive, the president cautioned against following in the footsteps of neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh, which he said had both recently seen violent mobs push for political demands. He urged ministers to learn from these cases and to ensure that similar situations do not unfold in Burma, partly by communicating with the general public about the government’s work.
“[In] Thailand and Bangladesh, groups of people have made lawless demands, violence and coercion. Similar cases can happen in our country,” he wrote. “[W]e need a plan and implement it to ensure the country’s stability, tranquility and rule of law. We need to make it a number one [priority] to make our government a united, strong government that the public relies on and supports”
The president’s directive coincided with an escalating campaign by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to drum up support for constitutional reform. The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader saw tens of thousands people turned out in Chin State and Karen State last month when she traveled to give speeches in support of amendments.
The 2008 Constitution was drafted by Burma’s then military government and is widely considered to be undemocratic, as it gives great political powers to the Burma Army and blocks Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons hold foreign citizenship. The charter reserves a 25 percent quota for military representatives in Parliament. It also grants immunity to members of the former military regime who committed crimes under the junta.
A committee in Parliament has been taken recommendations from members of the public, experts, NGOs, political parties, the military and government departments regarding constitutional reform. Last week, it released a report with the results, showing that most of more than 28,000 responses supported amendments. However, footnotes in the report cited a single petition—signed by more than 100,000 people—rejecting constitutional change.
Suu Kyi said the results should be taken as an endorsement of her calls for changes to the Constitution. On Sunday, more than 500 people gathered at Bo Sein Hman Stadium in Rangoon to call for amendments to the article of the Constitution which makes Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political incarnation of former junta, has, however, far dragged its feet in constitutional reforms and looks unwilling to take on Suu Kyi’s suggestions.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in a reaction that he was unaware of the top secret order issued by President Thein Sein, but he stressed the need for special security measures this year in light of Burma’s Asean chairmanship.
“I don’t know about the secret directive you mention,” he said, before adding, “Every government is responsible for maintaining stability and the rule of law. As a chair of Asean, our Myanmar government will take more care of security and rule of law, because the leaders of the international community will come here quite often. And this is not unusual; any country that hosts international meetings would take such measures.”
In Thailand, ongoing protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began in November last year, triggered by a proposed amnesty bill that would have facilitated the return of her elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives but turned down by the Senate. At least 10 people have died and more than 570 others have been injured during demonstrations. Still, Thailand held a national election on Sunday without the participation of the main opposition party.
Bangladesh, Burma’s western neighbor, has also seen political tumult recently. The country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted parliamentary polls on Jan. 5 in protest of an election run by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party. A year of political unrest in this poor and restive South Asian country of 150 million people has left 500 people dead and more than 20,000 injured.
RANGOON — Independent local media have alleged that state-owned newspapers The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror are altering advertisements in an attempt to remove references to sensitive issues such as human rights and government corruption.
The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror held a monopoly on daily news publication for decades, serving as mouthpieces of previous repressive military governments—which banned or severely censored independent media—and the current quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein.
This special status allowed the papers to build up a large, nationwide circulation network that distributes about 300,000 copies of each paper daily, making the state publications an attractive place to advertise, especially for businesses that want to reach Burma’s rural areas.
Burmese independent media that advertised with the government papers complained, however, that in recent months the papers frequently meddled with language in the ads, removing references to politically sensitive issues.
Nyunt Win, editor of the monthly Human Rights and Democracy journal, said he advertised the journal’s upcoming issue in mid-January with ads that announced cover stories on corruption in politics and government.
“But when we see our ads in both [government] newspapers, [references] to corruption and bribery cases were removed,” he said. “We complained to them, but they said this is because of their advertising policy.”
“It’s terrible, they didn’t have any permission to change our ads because we paid money,” he said. “I can say that this is not freedom of media, actually they should inform us first.”
Ma Thida, a leading Burmese writer and activist who is an editor atPae Tin Than, said the weekly news journal had also seen their ads in government papers changed without permission last month.
“We advertised in both state-run newspapers for our weekly journal, but the newspaper’s advertising department edited our ads, which included comedian Zaganar’s serious comments criticizing the current government and some politicians and parliamentarians,” she said. “They removed such wording in the newspapers, we found after publication.”
Zeyar Hlaing, editor of the monthly magazine Mawkun, said his ads in the government papers had undergone a similar treatment in November.
“We just focused on the country’s [unmarried couples] living together situation, we had special reports about this, but when I was speaking with The Mirror’s ads department manager he said that they want me to change some wording that is not suitable with Burmese culture. He said it is not allowed, so I decided not to advertise there,” Zeyar Hlaing said.
President Thein Sein’ government has implemented sweeping political reforms since taking office in 2011 and the media has been allowed greater freedom. Censorship was lifted in 2012 and last year independent private dailies were allowed for the first time in decades.
The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror remain under direct control of the Ministry of Information, which has announced that state broadcaster MRTV and both government papers will soon be transformed from propaganda-spewing outlets to public media after the adoption of a Public Media Bill. Independent publications have objected to continuing government support for the papers, saying it creates an unfair market advantage, adding that no democratic government in the world owns a newspaper.
The members of the independent media said the examples of the papers’ restrictive advertising policy showed that the government mouthpieces, despite their public pledges of reform, remain focused on limiting public access to information and protecting government interests.
“It means, their ads department still don’t know what their newspaper’s policy is and where are they going to. There is no accountability whatsoever,” said Ma Thida, of Pae Tin Than journal. “The Ministry of Information’s policy has not changed, except for dissolving the censorship for media,” she added.
Zeyar Hlaing of Mawkun said, “For a long time they have been doing this, we will have to ask them whether they are cheating the public or not.”
Tin Maung Than, an editor at The New Light of Myanmar, confirmed the paper alters private ads but said this is coordinated with the advertisers, adding that the policy is implement for add concerning “religious and national issues.”
“The editorial team and advertising department have a different policy, but what I can say is that we’re negotiating with advertisers if their ads concern religious or national issues in order not to harm any people or organizations,” he said.“If some ads are leading to misunderstanding … we negotiate with them to change some wordings.”
Not for the first time in recent years, a Burmese minister finds himself in the hot seat after comments made last month while meeting with local villagers in central Burma.
The offending remarks by Ohn Myint, minister of livestock, fisheries and rural development, were made to residents of a village in Magwe Division, with the Union cabinet member saying he would not hesitate to “slap” those who oppose government policies.
“I can go around and slap everyone’s face … if anyone insults or opposes the government, [I will] hit and lock [people] up … This is what the world has been exercising,” the minister claimed.
The statement—and accompanying comments about the military’s enduring, benevolent legacy—no doubt angered those within earshot, and the minister’s rant later careened about cyberspace as villagers quick on the draw managed to record audio and video of the remarks. Soon social media was abuzz, and an ill-conceived scolding to local residents of a remote Magwe village made its way into the national spotlight—and onto President Thein Sein’s desk.
The incident has also been raised in Parliament amid calls for action to be taken against the minister.
On Monday, a small protest took place in downtown Rangoon, with demonstrators urging the government to dismiss the minister. Clearly in damage-control mode, Thein Sein met with Ohn Myint shortly after news of his comments began to spread. It is now believed that the minister, a former general who is also close to former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has been asked to go back to village and apologize to the villagers.
The image of a contrite Ohn Myint asking the people for forgiveness would certainly seem in keeping with the practice of an increasingly image-conscious Thein Sein administration.
Unfortunately for the president, this latest outburst adds to a growing case file of former army generals whose foul-mouthed antics—perhaps permissible back in the barracks—have landed them in trouble as ministers in Burma’s now nominally civilian government.
Former Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who abruptly resigned in mid-2012, is also an ex-general who was notoriously fond of foul language. As anyone who has ever seen the American film “Patton” or any of dozens of other war movies knows, this seems to be a popular style of interaction between senior military officers and their rank-and-file subordinates.
But the public’s tolerance of this abusive and belittling “standard practice” is running thin. Since Burma’s opening up, social media and some local publications have played an active role in exposing the true color of the generals who once ran the country with an iron fist, and through their despotic rule remained accountable to no one.
In 2012, Myint Hlaing, the agriculture and irrigation minister, also found himself in hot water when he told impoverished villagers that they should make do with just one meal a day. The formerly influential general’s comment angered many villagers and, as in this latest incident, quickly spread via social media and local news outlets. That same year, the minister had to issue an apology to the country’s parliamentarians after coming under fire for calling them uneducated and thoughtless.
In May 2012, with Burma facing a severe electricity shortage, presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing blamed the problem on the people’s inability to properly conserve energy. At a press conference, Ko Ko Hlaing suggested that if people lit candles at home to conserve electricity, “everything will be alright.” Again, a recording of the remarks quickly made the rounds via social media and he too came under fire, with the former colonel and protégé of Thein Sein soon after disappearing from the public eye for a time.
Thein Sein’s government has been framed by skeptics as a mere offshoot of the previous, repressive regime, and Ohn Myint’s high-handed diatribe fuels a rising public sentiment that many of the former generals are, at heart, the same men who had kept the nation under the military boot for decades.
Knowing that their popular standing these days is on shaky ground at best, and with a national election set to take place next year, the government is showing occasional flashes of sensitivity to public criticism. But for the brash former generals that now populate the cabinet, old habits, it seems, die hard.
RANGOON — Despite President Thein Sein’s pledge to free all political prisoners in Burma by the end of 2013, at least 55 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, advocacy groups have told The Irrawaddy.
The Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said that 33 inmates are still on a list of the Political Prisoners Assessment Committee. This government-appointed committee, comprising cabinet members and human rights activists, has been tasked with identifying prisoners eligible for a presidential pardon.
“We are still working for the release of the people on this list,” said AAPP member Talky.
He said ethnic armed groups are seeking the release of another 22 political prisoners who had belonged to their groups, adding that the release of these prisoners would be handled through negotiations between ethnic groups, the Myanmar Peace Center and the Presidents’ Office.
Since coming to office in 2011, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has released several thousand political prisoners, who were detained by the previous military government.
Last year, during six rounds of presidential amnesties, 330 political prisoners were released, while in early January this year four political prisoners were set free along with about 13,000 ordinary prisoners, who saw their sentences cut short, according to Ye Aung, a FPPS representative and member of the Political Prisoners Assessment Committee.
“All political prisoners who were jailed under political charges were abolished under a Dec. 31 presidential amnesty order,” said Talky, adding that many of the released had been charged with the Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 18, the Penal Code’s 505 (b) and Emergency Provisions Act 5(j)—provisions that openly suppress political activity.
Talky said the remaining prisoners of conscience had not been released because they were also convicted of other criminal charges, such as murder and bombings, in relation to their political activities. “Those who are not still released are facing other remaining charges,” he said. “The situation of the remaining political prisoners is complicated.”
Talky said, however, that their release was critical to Burma’s political reforms, adding, “The fact that political prisoners remain in Myanmar’s prisons is interfering with the national reconciliation process.”
Ye Aung, of the FPP, said there were some members of civil society organizations, as well five former members of the Burma Army on the list of 33 political prisoners, adding that the soldiers had been jailed for making political statements while serving in the military.
Although Thein Sein’s government has received much praise for the release of thousands of political prisoners and the political reforms it introduced, civil society and human rights organizations remain concerned about further arrest of political activist.
Burma’s civil society has begun a campaign calling for the abolition of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which bans protests without government permission.
The arrest of activists under this charge increased last year and have continued in 2014, according to Aung Myo Kyaw, a staff member at AAPP. “During the last month, 10 people were charged under Article 18,” he said.
Expatriate refugees from the poverty-stricken nation of Burma have begun filtering back, partly as their country of origin has democratized and more ominously because they are feeling the heat from host countries like Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia to leave.
But so far, the Chin, an impoverished Christian minority that has been likened to the persecuted Rohingya, who have been set upon by majority Buddhists unmercifully, have yet to join the exodus. About 100,000 thousand of them are just across the border in India’s Mizoram State, where they fled in the wake of 1998 riots. Chin State, on the country’s southwestern flank, is one of Burma’s poorest. Nearly 75 percent of its 500,000 population live mired in poverty, deprived of support from the successive Burmese regimes in Rangoon or the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw.
Initially the refugees were either political activists or student leaders who were targeted by the then military rulers. But even with a quasi-democratic regime in Naypyidaw, the influx to India continues, with people entering India not to escape dictators or authority, but for a better life.
In some cases the Burmese Army may have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their properties. Finding difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese refugees are now seeking resettlement to a third country.
The majority of the Chin complain about discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated federal government. The 1988 movement against the then military rulers of Burma was crushed, leaving thousands dead across the country.
“Like other ethnic communities in Myanmar, the Chin people bore the brunt of severe poverty and military rule, prompting many to flee across the 1,463-km border into India’s Mizoram State,” according to a 2011 report by Physicians for Human Rights.
The refugees feel somewhat comfortable in Mizoram as it is one of the India’s few Christian-dominated states. The Chin and Mizo people, share ancestry, physical appearance, food habits and language accents. In some occasions, the highly influential churches also play an important role in propagating the sense of brotherhood between the two communities. Nonetheless, asylum seekers often face the problem of finding livelihoods. Mostly they work as cheap daily wage earners in construction sites, agriculture fields, market areas and also in local Mizo households.
“Our people frequently face rights violations here [Mizoram] even though they are reluctant to go back to their native places in Burma. We are actually afraid the situation in Chin State is yet to be favorable us,” said Pu Win, a Chin activist based in the frontier town of Saiha in Mizoram. The activist added that the Chin are worried about medical care and education for their children. So ignoring the troubles in Mizoram, most of the Chin refugees prefer to stay in India until their country develops a little more, he added.
Unlike those in Mizoram, Burmese asylum seekers in Delhi face more trouble as they are physically different, as is their culture, religion and language. As they are not comfortable in Hindi, the primary language, the refugees find it extremely difficult to communicate with their short-time employers and authorities.
India’s national capital gives shelter to over 8,000 registered Burmese refugees, but New Delhi is also home to another 10,000 asylum seekers, half of them women and children who have to travel over 2,200 kms from Mizoram to Delhi to enroll with the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
India, which supports a few hundred thousand refugees from Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka etc., has yet to adopt a specific refugee protection policy, resulting in persistent confusion about the refugees and their legitimate rights. Moreover, India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention or a 1967 refugee status protocol.
“As there is no procedural mechanism for protecting the refugees in India, the Burmese refugee women have to struggle for their basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter in New Delhi,” said M Kim, a Burmese exile based in New Delhi. “In addition to this, they battle with the constant fear of sexual assault and physical abuse.”
Quoting a report titled Doke Kha Bon with the accounts of 20 Chin women refugees in New Delhi, which was sponsored by the Burma Center Delhi and released recently, Kim asserted that the capital city remains universally unsafe for asylum seekers.
According to the UNHCR office in New Delhi, persecution due to minority ethnic race, religion and political opinion are cited as the main reasons for their seeking asylum in neighboring countries. “The most frequent complaints reported to UNHCR include difficulty in communicating with local health and education service providers,” said the BCD-sponsored report.
Prepared by the Pann Nu Foundation, the report includes case studies relating to Chin refugee women now living in west Delhi.
“Those women, many of them widows and single mothers, have bared their hearts during the interaction. In fact, every woman has a pathetic story to tell. Originally hailing from some remote areas of Chin, the refugee families were once dependent on Jhum [shifting] cultivation. But due to land confiscation practices adopted by the Burmese Army, the Chin villagers gradually lost their livelihood and left for India,” said Alana Golmei, founder and president of the Pann Nu Foundation.
Often the women and girls were compelled to serve the Burmese military as porters and laborers, made to serve food, and camp in the jungle with no proper shelter, without even knowing when they could return home.
“Needless to say, they all lack proper education. The interviewees can only read and write in their local Chin dialect. All these women, who are Christians, had no respite from the Buddhist dominated military personnel, who even barge into their houses and demand food time to time,” Golmei said. “They said the continued sexual assault by the Burmese soldiers is their worst nightmare there.”
But their lives in New Delhi are turning into another nightmare.
“They allege that they become victims of physical abuse, molestation, sexual assault and discrimination everywhere they go, be it at their rented apartments, workplaces, public spaces or even the roads for that matter,” Golmei said, adding that they keep mum about sexual assaults due to the fear of social stigmatization and shame.
Now voices have been raised for reviewing the existing foreign policy of the Indian government, taking into consideration the Burmese refugee women and children in the country. Understanding that the refugee women are more vulnerable and are easy targets, the activists appealed to New Delhi to continue supporting the asylum seekers.
“The new difficulty for the Burmese refugees has started with the news of democratization of Burma. Now most conscious people of India argue that the refugees should leave the country, as India has enough problems to deal with,” said Dr. Tint Swe, a physician and an exile in India for decades.
Tint Swe however admitted that Indian people in general remain merciful. Of course they are lately starting to believe that if Burma becomes comfortable and safer, they should leave.
“But the question arises here if the changes in Burma have prepared the ground for returning the refugees. In reality it has not. So we have urged the Indian government to review its existing foreign policy with an aim to continue safeguarding the refugees here for some more years,” he added.
Following the call from Burma President Thein Sein’s government to exiles taking shelter in different countries to return, many refugee families have already responded and have left India. Others, however, remain apprehensive about their future. In some cases it is understood that the Burmese Army might have already confiscated their lands and destroyed their properties. Finding difficulties in surviving inside India as well, the Burmese refugees are now seeking resettlement in a third country for a dignified life.
Asian Wings has become the first airline in six years to operate direct flights between Thailand’s second-biggest city, Chiang Mai, and Burma’s second-biggest city, Mandalay.
The airline’s new flight to Chiang Mai touched down on Wednesday, marking the first time that the small Burmese carrier operates an international flight, after it began domestic flights in 2011.
The new route will fly twice per week, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, according to Yin Yin Nyo Myint, commercial director of Asian Wings, who added that Saturday flights will begin on Feb 15, 2014.
She said the new route was launched because more tourists are visiting as a consequence of “Myanmar’s economic development along with the political changes.”
Air Mandalay used to have direct flights between Mandalay and Chiang Mai, but the route was suspended in August 2008 because the route had become unviable.
Yin Yin Nyo Myint said she expected Asian Wings’ flight to Chiang Mai to attract enough passengers despite growing competition in the Burmese aviation industry, adding that the company was working hard to promote the new flight in both countries.
“Unlike in the past, we now have more competitors, but we expect our seats to be full on our route,” she said. “More visitors are coming in despite [the fact that] our market is being shared.”
The number of domestic and international flights in Burma is expected to expand in coming years due to economic reforms and the opening up of the long-isolated country, which is now experiencing a rapid growth in tourist and business visitors.
International investors are eyeing the Burmese airline industry and Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced last year that it would buy a 49-percent stake in Asian Wings.
Asian Wings has a small fleet of four planes and operates flights to 16 domestic destinations. Last year, it also offered charter flights to Bodh Gaya, India, a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Recently, the airline announced it planned to set up flights between Rangoon and southern Thailand’s Phuket, as well as flights to Cambodia’s Siem Reap and Vietnam.
Since 2010, Air Bagan, owned by tycoon Tay Za, operates the only direct flights between Chiang Mai and Rangoon. Other airliners, such as Air Asia, also fly directly between the Thai capital Bangkok and Mandalay.
Mandalay’s old Royal Palace and former royal capitals in the surrounding countryside make it a major tourist attraction in Upper Burma, while it also located several hundred miles from to the famed temples of Bagan.
Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most important international tourist attractions. The city in northern Thailand has also long been home to a large Burmese community, many of who moved there in recent decades in search of economic opportunities and to escape political repression in their home country.
Wisoot Buachoom, Director of Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chiang Mai office, and Asian Wing’s CEO Kyi Win welcomed the new flight on Wednesday.
“We are very pleased to welcome the first flight of the Asia Wings Airways, flying from Mandalay to Chiang Mai, which will boost the Chiang Mai and Mandalay tourism,” Wisoot Buachoom told The Irrawaddy.
“We like to have more flights, such as Air Asia and Bangkok Air, from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. If the marketing is going well with Asian Wings, there will be more flights from Asian Wings Airways as well as other Thai flights.”
He said he hoped that tourists from both countries would use the new flight. “Actually Chiang Mai people know about Mandalay, I think many people of Chiang Mai will fly to Mandalay for their vacation,” said Wisoot Buachoom. “On other hand, I’d like to invite Myanmar people, especially from Mandalay, to visit us in Chiang Mai.”
RANGOON — Travelers will soon be able to make a single-ticket overland journey between Bangkok and Burmese cities.
A Bangkok-based travel agency will launch its first trips on Saturday from the Thai capital to Rangoon as well as Mandalay, Bagan, Pa-an in Karen State, Dawei in Tenasserim Division, and Moulmein and the Golden Rock in Mon State. The agency, Vega Travel, also plans to begin trips departing from Rangoon, Pa-an and Moulmein to Bangkok later in February, with an option to travel onward to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap.
It will be the first travel agency to offer single-ticket overland trips from Burma all the way to Bangkok. Currently, buses from various cities stop in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, and travelers must book separate tickets from there to Bangkok.
“The trips are planned to start in February, and we are already accepting reservations,” says Thant Zin, ticketing manager at Vega Travel Myanmar.
Passengers will need to book tickets two days in advance. Vega Travel can assist with Thai visa applications for a 5,000 kyats fee (US$5), in addition to the visa cost of $40. Passengers to Cambodia can apply for a visa on arrival.
A ticket to Rangoon from Bangkok will cost 1,500 baht ($45). From Burma, tickets to Bangkok will cost 55,000 kyats from Rangoon, 45,000 kyats from Pa-an, and 40,000 kyats from Moulmein. The trip from Rangoon to Siem Reap will cost 60,000 kyats.
The journey from Rangoon to Bangkok will take about 24 hours. Travelers will depart Rangoon at 6 am and arrive at the Burmese border town of Myawaddy at about 4 pm or 5 pm. After checking in with immigration across the border in Mae Sot, a double-decker bus will depart about three hours later, at 7 pm or 8 pm, and arrive in Bangkok the next morning. From there, travelers can continue on for another eight or nine hours to Siem Reap.
Vega Travel says it will schedule trips on days when buses are allowed to pass the Dawna mountain range to Myawaddy.
In August, Burma’s Ministry of Immigration and Population announced that foreign visitors with Burmese visas would be allowed to enter and leave Burma overland through four gates along its eastern border with Thailand. In the past, travelers could only go between the countries by plane.
For decades earlier, international road travel was restricted by the former military regime, which was wary of foreign visitors and wanted to limit access to the conflict-ridden ethnic areas along the border.
President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has signed ceasefires with most major ethnic armed groups since 2011, and peace talks are ongoing.
Officials and ethnic representatives said last year that the decision to open the border for overland travel would boost tourism and facilitate foreign investment in ethnic areas and the rest of Burma.
(Reuters) - Security forces in western Myanmar massacred at least 40 Rohingya Muslims last week, including women and children, a human rights group said on Thursday, quoting witness accounts, despite official denials of the killings.
Bangkok-based Fortify Rights said it spoke to witnesses and other credible sources who confirmed the massacre, which would be the deadliest incident in western Rakhine state since October 2012, when ethnic Rakhine Buddhists fought minority Rohingya Muslims.
"The actual number of deaths may be higher but information is circumscribed by government-imposed restrictions on access to the area," the group said in a statement.
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myaing told Reuters on Thursday that he visited the area and found no evidence of mass killings. Government-run media on Thursday also carried denials of a massacre.
Reports of the attack began circulating after a Jan 13 clash between police and Rohingya villagers in Maungdaw township, a remote area that is off limits to journalists, while access by humanitarian groups is strictly controlled.
In the next few days, state and national government spokesmen said police had been attacked. But they denied reprisal killings amid calls by the United Nations and the U.S. and British embassies for an investigation.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Thursday said Rakhine state officials found no evidence that women and children were killed, and quoted Rakhine state chief minister Hla Maung Tin accusing foreign media of reporting “false news”.
The newspaper said the blood-stained uniform of a police sergeant was recovered near the spot where about 100 Rohingya armed with knives and sticks attacked a police patrol.
The differing accounts illustrate the difficulty in obtaining first-hand information in parts of Myanmar that remain off limits despite a wave of democratic reforms since military rule ended in March 2011.
Rakhine state is home to about one million mostly stateless Rohingya, who the United Nations says are subject to many forms of “persecution, discrimination and exploitation.”
These include forced labor, land confiscations, travel curbs and limited access to jobs, education and healthcare.
A Rohingya source told Reuters that a group of eight Rohingya clashed with police on the night of Jan 13. One police officer was killed along with two or three Rohingya, while the rest fled to a nearby village, he said.
Security forces then surrounded the village and went on a rampage along with some Buddhist Rakhine civilians, killing as many as 70 Rohingya, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The village was now deserted, he added.
"Many people were arrested and disappeared," he said. "Some scattered in different places, in fear."
Sixteen suspects are being interrogated about the attack on police, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
Fortify Rights said the government was carrying out “mass arrests” of Rohingya.
"These arbitrary detentions broaden the scope of the human rights violations in the area and should be immediately brought to an end," said Matthew Smith, the group’s executive director.
If confirmed, the massacre would take to at least 277 the toll of people killed in religious conflict across Myanmar since June 2012. More than 140,000 people have been displaced.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the 2012 unrest, creating problems for neighboring countries which must deal with a flood of illegal immigration.
Myanmar’s government said on Jan 16 it would not discuss the status of Rohingya at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional bloc it will chair through 2014, even if other countries raise the issue.
Fortify Rights said last week’s violence began on Jan 9 when a group of Rohingya passing through Maungdaw were confronted by Buddhist Rakhine residents. On Jan 14, police and civilian Rakhines clashed with Rohingyas who allegedly killed a police officer, the rights group said.
Security forces and civilian Rakhines returned in the early morning of Jan 14 and attacked villagers, mostly women and children who had not yet fled, Fortify Rights said.
(Additional reporting by Minzayar Oo in Yangon; Editing by Jason Szep and Clarence Fernandez)