Friday, June 18, 2010

Conflict and Displacement in Burma

Bertil Lintner
[former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of ten books on ethnicity and politics in Burma and other countries in the region. He is currently with the Asia Pacific Media Services]

Decades of civil war, insurgencies and counterinsurgency campaigns as well as gross economic mismanagement by successive military-controlled regimes have driven millions of people from their homes in Burma, either as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or as refugees or stateless migrant workers to neighbouring countries. The total number of IDPs is impossible to ascertain, but refugee organisations which are engaged in cross border relief operations on the Thai-Burma frontier believe they number in the hundreds of thousands. On the Thai side of the border, at least 500,000 people are living in refugee camps and less formal, makeshift settlements which resemble squatter villages. Many of them are ethnic Karen, who have fled fighting between ethnic Karen guerrillas and the government’s forces, or ethnic Shan who have escaped to Thailand because of the civil war in their part of the country. Fighting between various separatist rebel movements and the central government broke out shortly after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, and is still continuing.

In addition, migrant workers from Burma rank the highest in numbers of human-trafficking victims in Thailand. On June 4 this year, the New Delhi and Kolkata-based Burmese news group Mizzima quoted Sompong Sakaew, director of the Thai NGO the Labour Rights Promotion Network, as saying that 700,000 foreign workers have registered officially with Thai authorities. A recent estimate, however, put the actual number at more than three million, and they are mainly from Burma. Many are employed in Thailand’s fishing industry, on construction sites or as lowly-paid factory workers. Others are street vendors, and many young women are kept in slave-like conditions in Thailand’s many urban and rural brothels. Transnational networks use Burmese children as beggars in the streets of Bangkok — and most of the money they are able to collect ends up in the hands of the criminals, not the children.

There is also an unknown number of mostly ethnic Chin refugees in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram. In January 2009, Human Rights Watch released a 104-page report titled “We Are Like Forgotten People: The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India,” which states that “the Chin Population in Mizoram is estimated to be as high as 100,000, about 20 per cent of the total Chin population in [Burma’s] Chin State.” The Chin call themselves Zomi, or Mizo the other way round, and the two peoples are closely related, which often makes it difficult to tell a Burmese Chin from a Mizo from India. But once settled in India, the Chins, or Zomis, nevertheless remain stateless. According to Human Rights Watch, “the Chin face discrimination and threats of forces return by Mizo voluntary associations in collusion with the Mizoram authorities.” Only about 1,800 Chins have made it to New Delhi, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has an office, which makes it possible for them to have their refugee claims decided and be considered for resettlement in third countries.

Human Rights Watch also states that as many as 30,000 Chins have fled to Malaysia hoping to obtain UNHCR recognition — in addition to the tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas who already are there as cheap labour. Even more of Rohingyas, natives of Burma’s Arakan or Rakhine State, are living in south-eastern Bangladesh, in camps or small villages near the border. Both the predominantly Christian Chins and the Muslim Rohingyas complain about religious discrimination in their homeland. They claim they are often driven from their land, and used as forced labour by the Burmese army.

The Rohingyas especially are vulnerable in a predominantly Buddhist country, where they have been made scapegoats for the government’s failed economic policies. Even many pro-democracy activists in Burma refuse to recognise the Rohingyas as an “indigenous people”, claiming they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. While the Rohingyas speak the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali, they have been living on what now is the Burmese side of the border for centuries. In Chin State, Christian pastors have been forced to worship in Buddhist temples, and the refugees allege that the authorities are destroying churches, crosses and other religious symbols as well as restricting the printing and importing of Christian bibles and literature.

The number of refugees and migrants from Burma in China is unknown, but there are substantial communities of Burmese of various nationalities living in the south-western province of Yunnan, mainly in border towns such as Ruili, Tengchong, Mangshih and Jinghong. Most of the refugees and migrant workers there are Kachin or Shan, and can quite easily mingle with their ethnic cousins in China, called Jingpo and Dai respectively.

There is no easy solution to Burma’s multitude of refugee problems. Repatriation is not an option as long as the civil war continues in several parts of the country — and, some would argue, as long as the country remains under repressive military rule. A general election, scheduled for this year, is unlikely to change Burma’s military-dominated power structure; rather, the election is designed to legitimise the military’s hold on power, perhaps with a few token civilians in the new national assembly.

Further, Thailand does not recognise people from Burma as refugees but refers to them as “displaced persons”, which makes their situation extremely precarious. India, although reluctantly tolerating the presence of refugees from Burma, has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, which means that Burmese refugees in India lack basic protection of their rights under international agreements.

In recent years, some Western countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Finland have accepted substantial numbers or people from the camps in Thailand — and some from India as well — for resettlement in their respective countries. But a lasting solution to the problem cannot be found until and unless there is a meaningful political settlement inside Burma, between the military government and the pro-democracy opposition, and between whatever government is in power and the country’s many ethnic minorities. On the other hand, it is not realistic to expect a solution to any of these problems within the foreseeable future. Burma’s refugee problem is here to stay for many years to come, perhaps even decades.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blood donation marks YMA raising day in CCpur

Churachandpur, June 16 : As part of their 75th years of raising Day ie Platinum Raising Day celebration, the Lamka Branch of the Young Mizo ssociation,YMA, volunteers organised a blood donation camp at Churachandpur district hospital.

The Blood Bank at the district hospital here run out of stock since the past many years and it remain only as a nameshack. The blood donation camp organised by the YMA, CC Pur branch has revived the blood bank.

The YMA has been the first organisations of its kind among the NGO who have donated blood beyond the banks capacity at the hospital which is stated to have been 30 litres capacity sources from the district hospital has said adding altogather 26 males and another 4 females from volunteers of the YMA have donated in todays philnthropic act.

The secretary of the YMA Lamka Branch said to this correspondent the non availabilty of blood at the banks since the past many years has been a cause of concern for them . Which is why we took this decision in favour of donating blood to atleast lessen the difficulty facing the publics and the sick people he said.

The Central Young Mizo Association , CYMA, has celebrated the Platinum over the entire length and breath of Mizoram besides all other parts of the country including Manipur in which the Manipur Group YMA leads in the organisation.

As regards to Lamka it was used as an occassion of constructive interaction through the conduct of Games and sport with other literary items

L Lakhera IAS Commissioner IPR/ YAS has attended todays function as chief guest at the YMA hall and gave away prizes .The day has bee observed as YMA Days by the ZO desscendants.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Junta woos people in Chin state with development work

June 14 : With the general elections in Burma round the corner, the Burmese military junta is going all out to woo the electorate. It is now increasingly getting involved in development work, which it has been ignoring for years. The regime is now constructing bridges, building drains and other public utility services in Hakha town, Chin state western Burma.

“The municipal body has constructed a bridge 20 feet long and 6 feet wide in Nazareth block in Hakha town in early June. The government spent Kyat 20 lakhs for the construction,” said an elder in the town.

Besides, the civic body is building roads and sewerage facilities and carrying out repairs on public utility facilities in the blocks of Kesik, Chin O Si, Pyitawta and Kyawpouh.

Though the public is happy with the work undertaken by the government, they believe that they are being wooed for votes for the forthcoming 2010 general elections.

“We cannot guarantee voting for the political parties backed by the regime though it is good the junta is into developmental works. However, we are afraid it can hinder our freedom later,” a local told Khonumthung News.

A person on condition of anonymity in Chin O Si block also said, “Though it is good for our block but we do not trust the junta. It will exploit us after such work.”

In connection with the development work some people believe that the Chin Tactical Commander Mr. Hung Ngai, who is a Buddhist and had contributed money to three churches in Chin state, is likely wooing people for votes.

The junta has already transformed the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) into a political party to contest the general election in Burma. – Khonumthung News.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

PM’s party appoints Chinese businessman

PM’s party appoints Chinese businessman thumbnail
Burmese PM Thein Sein [right] sits with Wen Jiaboa (Reuters)
Published: 10 June 2010
The party headed by Burma’s current prime minister, Thein Sein, has appointed a Chinese businessman with close ties to the ruling junta as an election candidate in the country’s northern Kachin state.
The man, known only as Yawmo, is from China’s southern Yunnan province and, according to a local in Kachin state’s Bhamo, is “business partners” with the Burmese government. He will run for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Momauk town, about 30 kilometres from the China border.
“He is Miao [ethnic Chinese minority group] from Yunnan province,” said the local. “He came and settled in Momauk in 1990 and later moved to Hpakant [a jade mining town] where his brothers-in-law already live.”
Election laws announced in February ban foreigners, and spouses of foreigners, from participating. This factor played a key role in forcing the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to UK-born Michael Aris, to boycott the polls.
But numbers of influential Chinese businessmen close to the government are known to buy Burmese passports and ID cards. Burma has become heavily reliant on China as one of the junta’s principal economic allies; a visit to Naypyidaw by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao last week saw the two countries sign some 15 trade deals.
Burma’s economy has also undergone a significant revamp in recent months, with the government selling off swathes of previously state-owned industry to private businesses, many of whom have close ties to the Burmese junta. It is unclear to what extent Chinese businesses have benefitted from this, but analysts believe that Chinese investment in Burma, at both an entrepreneurial and state level, will continue to rise as Burma’s markets open up.
Many of Burma’s wealthy Chinese elites, including Yawmo, made their fortunes in the country’s lucrative jade mining industry, which is predominantly focused in the north, before moving to Mandalay in central Burma. Now Burma’s second city has an estimated Chinese population of up to 40 percent.
Another USDP candidate in Kachin state has been named as Htun Htun, a Burmese-born entrepreneur who also became rich through jade mining. The choice of candidates by the USDP, which is widely tipped to win what critics deride as a sham election, appears to validate suggestions that businessmen with close ties to the ruling junta will play key roles in the post-election government.
Moreover, the USDP has begun unofficially campaigning in several states and divisions around Burma while the 35 or so other registered parties must wait for official approval from the government before they can begin canvassing.
Ward officials in towns around Kachin and Chin state have reportedly been told by the USDP, which is believed to be an offshoot of the government-proxy organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), to recruit at least 10 percent of voters as party members.
“They are persuading people that they will get privileges for businesses and travelling – they will be prioritised when buying train, buses and air tickets,” said the Kachin local. “They said that even if a party member breaks the law and gets into trouble, senior authorities can speak in his or her favour and soften [the punishment].”

Arakanese allege bias at UN Malaysia refugee office

New Delhi (Mizzima) – More than 50 Arakanese held a protest outside the UN refugee organisation’s office in the Malaysian capital on Monday, alleging its discrimination against the Burmese ethnic group. 

The demonstrators at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kuala Lumpur called for the office to recognise the more than 10,000 Arakanese in Malaysia as legitimate refugees and supply aid to those in immigration detention camps. They also sought an Arakanese translator at the office.

A day after the protest, the UNHCR reported on its website’s news section that it had recently flown 38 ethnic Kachin Burmese refugees from Malaysia to Romania.

Meanwhile,  the New Straits Times reported on Monday that Saturday night’s three-hour riot at an immigration detention camp in Ajil, in the eastern peninsula state of Terengganu was sparked by a fight between two groups of Vietnamese and Burmese detainees, immigration officials told the newspaper on Sunday. 

But state police chief Shukri Dahlan reportedly said that almost 200 men from Vietnam and Burma “turned aggressive after what they claimed was mistreatment at the camp”, the paper reported, without details of the abuses.  

The 1951 Refugee Convention is “the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states”, according to the UN. 

Article 1 of the convention says a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Min Min Htun, one of the leaders of the protest outside the UNHCR offices,  told Mizzima: “The UNHCR office in Malaysia has recognised other ethnic people from Burma as refugees but the Arakanese people are being discriminated against … that’s why we are … [here today].

“Moreover, the Arakanese people who have been in detention camps have been ignored by the UNHCR,” he said. “And no Arakanese translator was appointed in the UNHCR office, so we [also] have language barriers to deal with.”

The protesters submitted a letter to the office and UN staff promised to consider their demands “as soon as possible”. 

Between 2004 and 2008, Arakanese people had been recognised as refugees but since that period their right to apply for refugee status had been denied, according to the demonstrators.

Just 1,700 of the 15,000 Arakanese in Malaysia have been registered as asylum-seekers (UN definition: a person who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application) by the UNHCR Malaysia office, and 250 have been resettled in safe third countries, the Arakan Refugee Relief Committee, based in Kuala Lumpur, said. Around 300 Arakanese are in detention camps around Malaysia.

Tun Win Nyunt, a Burmese human rights activist in Malaysia, also accused the UN of bias in dealing with the ethnic group. 

“We don’t have even the right to apply for refugee status, so we asked the office [why],” he said. “Their answer is … because we have Burmese passports and we can go back to Burma … Their answer is very general [vague].”

A Chin Refugee Committee (Malaysia) spokesman said: “We [too] have noticed that Burmese and Arakanese people are not being recognised as refugees, but I don’t know the reason.”

Mizzima phoned UNHCR Malaysia but its spokeswoman Yante Ismail was unable to provide answers, citing a lack of detailed knowledge of the situation. 

However, the UNHCR yesterday reported in its website’s news section that on May 31 and June 1 a group of 38 Burmese refugees, all ethnic Kachin, had been flown to Bucharest, Romania from Malaysia in a resettlement organised with the Romanian immigration department and Red Cross.

Romania had become one of the few countries in the world to accept refugees for resettlement, it said. 

“The refugees, including eight children, flew to Bucharest from Malaysia on May 31 and June 1 under legislation adopted by Romania in December 2008,” the report said. “This provides for Romania to accept up to 40 refugees for resettlement each year.”

In the report, UNHCR officer in Romania Machiel Salomons said it had been forced to enhance its resettlement efforts, adding that “Romania’s contribution in this regard is both timely and very much appreciated.”

The Kachin group were staying at the Regional Centre for Accommodation and Asylum Procedures in Galati, a city in eastern Romania, run by the Romanian Immigration Office, the UN said.

“Romania also hosts a landmark Emergency Transit Centre, which was opened in the city of Timisoara in late 2008 to provide a temporary haven for refugees in urgent need of evacuation from their first asylum countries due to life-threatening conditions,” the report said. “More than 600 refugees have transited the centre.” 

Of the 87,700 refugees or asylum-seekers registered with the UN in Malaysia, 81,200 are from Burma, comprising some 39,100 Chins, 18,800 Rohingya, 5,900 Burmese Muslims, 3,800 Mon, 3,600 Kachin, and the remaining are other ethnic minorities from Burma, according to the website of the UNHCR Malaysia.

Other refugees were from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 70 per cent of refugees or asylum-seekers were men, while 30 per cent were women, the website said. There were some 19,000 children aged less than 18. 

Malaysia refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. That refusal and the lack of legislation ratifying the convention of the kind adopted by Romania in 2008 means that the country arrests and jails refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people. Illegal migrant workers have also been detained.  

The junta’s confiscation of lands, recruitment of child soldiers, rape carried out by its army, forced labour, forced relocation, brutal repression of dissent and ethnic minority rights, unjust laws, inadequate infrastructure and abysmal health care are just some of the many reasons that thousands of Burmese people have fled to neighbouring or regional countries for asylum or just a livelihood.