Back to the old order

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An election is being prepared, but it will not change much

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Video presentation

The three co-authors of the book ‘Burma/Myanmar – where now?’ (published by NIAS Press, Copenhagen) talk about the purpose and content of the book.

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Over 10,000 inmates doing hard labour as punishment

Thanoe Wai, Democratic Voice of Burma, October 13, 2014

Over one thousand inmates died in Burma’s prison labour camps between May 2004 and August 2014, according to Burma’s minister of home affairs. Speaking to a Lower House session of parliament, the minister, Brig-Gen Kyaw Kyaw Tun, listed the major causes of the 1,100 deaths as results of the weather, diet, lifestyle and accidents.

The notorious camps, known as Yebet, were first introduced to Burma in 1978. Kyaw Kyaw Tun figured the number of Yebet deaths between 1978 and 2004 at 4,187, telling parliament that the four-fold decrease in deaths in custody was thanks to a string of penal reforms enacted in 2004.

In 2004, the then ruling State Peace and Development Council dissolved 36 labour camps and renamed remaining facilities “Agriculture and Livestock Breeding Career Training Centres” or  “Manufacturing Centres”.

“Between 1978 and 2004 when the Yebet camps were abolished, there were 4,187 inmate deaths – that’s an average of 161 deaths every year,” said Brig-Gen Kyaw Kyaw Tun.

“Between 12 May 2004 and 31 March 2011, there were 999 inmate deaths in the Agriculture and Livestock Breeding Career Training Centres and Manufacturing Centres; averaging 142 deaths per year.  Between 1 April 2011 and 31 August 2014, 120 died in 46 centres,” he said.

According to government figures there are currently over 10,000 inmates serving in 46 centres across the country, where convicted criminals serve the “hard labour” elements of their sentences.

Five journalists from the now-defunct news journal Unity Weekly are among those to be recently sentenced to hard labour for their crimes. They were found guilty of exposing state secrets in July, after a January edition of Unity Weekly alleged the existence of a “secret chemical weapons factory” in Magwe division.

The five remain in Pakokku prison, having had their ten-year sentences reduced to seven after a successful appeal on 2 October.

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Minister Vows to Turn Govt Mouthpieces Into ‘Public Service Newspapers’

By Yen Snaing, The Irrawaddy, September 19, 2014

Minister of Information Ye Htut told a media conference on Thursday that he intends to push ahead with a plan that would turn state-owned newspapers into “public service print media,” making Burma one of the few countries in the world where the government continues to fund daily newspapers.

Independent media representatives in recent months have raised their concerns over the plan to keep the military regime-era, propaganda outlets afloat, despite government pledges that the papers would become more independent and serve the public interest.

“We will create public service [print] media because most of our public gets information from print media—our digital penetration rate is low,” Ye Htut told the 3rd Conference on Media Development in Myanmar, held in Rangoon on Thursday and Friday.

“It’s not true that public service newspapers do not exist [in other countries], they are just not successful,” he said. “We will make it successful.”

Since 2012, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has lifted draconian media restrictions, such as ending pre-publication censorship and a ban on private daily newspapers. It announced plans to revamp the government newspapers and Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) by turning them into independent public service media.

The ministry’s Public Service Media bill proposes that the newspapers receive 70 percent government funding, derive 30 percent of income from commercial advertising, and become exempt from taxes. The bill was sent to Parliament several months ago and is due for discussion in the legislature soon.

Many countries have public service broadcasters, such as the UK’s British Broadcasting Service (BBC), but few governments fund newspapers and the practice is mostly associated with totalitarian and communist regimes.

Norway-funded news broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and the BBC have been working with Burma’s Information Ministry to help MRTV during its transition to a public service broadcaster. Japan’s Kyodo news agency provided training to modernize state-run newspapers.

Ye Htut claimed that The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror (Kyemon)— government mouthpieces produced in English and Burmese by the Information Ministry—could play a role that independent, private media could not.

He said the revamped state newspapers would, for example, be able to give ample space to public health warnings and offer news in ethnic minority languages.

During past decades, the Burman-dominated government suppressed ethnic minorities’ rights and political aspirations, and banned minority languages from the education system. Ethnic minorities remain deeply suspicious of the government and are currently setting up independent, local-language media.

The Interim Press Council of Myanmar has repeatedly criticized the ministry’s plans to create “public service newspapers,” saying that the papers should be privatized. The council has said that continuing the publication of state newspapers would create an uneven playing field that put Burma’s fledgling, independent private media at a disadvantage.

Thiha Saw, a member of Interim Press Council, said on Thursday, “State newspapers are the only papers that existed during socialist and authoritarian rule [in Burma].”

“Actually, most countries do not have public service newspapers. They are not successful,” he said, adding that Burma’s state-run newspapers were nationalized in the 1960s and should be returned to their original owners.

“The ministry should support the development private newspapers sector, even though they are making some mistakes right now,” Thiha Saw said, “Public service newspapers will be a burden in the long term as they rely mostly on state fund.”

DVB director and chief editor Aye Chan Naing said on Thursday that he understood the need for turning MRTV into a public service broadcaster, but added, “I don’t really agree that newspapers should be part of the public service media.”


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Kerry Presses Burma Leaders on Human Rights, Reforms

NAYPYIDAW, August 9, 2014 — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday pressed Burma’s political leaders on Washington’s human rights concerns and urged its President Thein Sein to step up constitutional reforms to ensure elections next year are fully credible, writes Reuters. 


Kerry, in Burma’s capital for the ASEAN Regional Forum, met Thein Sein and discussed plans for elections in 2015, concerns over the treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingya, as well as the jailing of journalists, a senior State Department official said.

He also discussed these issues with Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

While officials acknowledged there had been significant change in Burma during its political transition since 2011 from military rule, they also said there had been “some resistance and some slowdown” in tackling more difficult issues such as press freedom and constitutional reforms.

Kerry will meet with Burma opposition leader and international icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon on Sunday.

She has campaigned for a change to the constitution that bars her from the presidency and gives substantial political power to unelected military members of parliament.

The United States has promised to ease sanctions further if there are more reforms, including the withdrawal of the military from politics.

But U.S. officials said the lifting of remaining sanctions was unlikely until the process of reform and respect for human rights advances.

“Right now the focus is entirely on bearing down on these more fundamental challenges that they are now coming face to face with,” the senior official said.

Rohingya in the Spotlight

Kerry got into “quite a few details” about the situation in Rakhine state and the minority Muslim Rohingya community, the official said.

In particular, he addressed the designation of the term “Bengali” which the Rohingya see as underscoring an assertion they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in western Burma for generations.

“The name issue should be set aside,” the official said.

“To force any community to accept a name they consider to be offensive is to invite conflict, and if the goal is to prevent conflict, then it’s better to set that aside.”

Kerry also raised specific cases involving the arrest of journalists, the official added.

The senior State Department official said there was no resistance from Thein to discussing the issues.

Ye Htut, Burma’s minister of information, said on Friday the government had moved in the right direction since elections in 2011 but also recognized it needed to do more.

“We don’t deny there are some challenges that we are facing,” he said, “But we are moving toward the right direction and we’re trying our best to overcome these challenges.”

“People in Congress should have more understanding of our situation, and instead of blaming us, they try to find a way to help the Burma people to solve all these things,” he said.

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Reporters get Ten Years in Jail

Four Burmese journalists and the CEO of the Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour on July 10, 2014 for violating a colonial era secrecy law in Myanmar.

Unity Journal’s CEO Tin Hsan, 52, and journalists Lu Maw Naing, 28, Sithu Soe, 22, The Yazar Oo, 28, and Aung Thura, 25 were found guilty of violating the State Secrets Act after they published a story revealing a hidden chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar last January.

The case of the Unity journalists has received national and even global attention. Protest actions were organized by journalists in major cities. Various press associations and interim press councils are planning to send an appeal letter to the president for the release of the Unity journalists. The opposition National League for Democracy has also released a statement condemning the government’s suppression of the media. Burma News International warned that media freedom is still under threat.

The government is claiming that the chemical weapons factory reported by Unity Journal is actually a defense weapon factory.

Many prominent writers and journalists in Myanmar have expressed concern about the harsh punishment given to the journalists. The poet Saw Wai thinks that it is not fair especially since the country is moving towards the path of democracy. U Than Htay from the Myanmar Journalists Network believes that the conviction is an example of media intimidation by the government which is preparing for the coming 2015 elections.

The government has been aggressive in the past year in prosecuting journalists. Last December, a local reporter from Eleven Media was sentenced to three months in jail for trespassing, criminal defamation and using obscene language. Last April, a correspondent from the alternative site Democratic Voice of Burma was handed out a one year prison term for trespassing and disturbing a civil servant. Later that month, a reporter for Mizzima magazine was arrested for organising a rally in the town of Pyay to call for the release of six journalists currently imprisoned in Myanmar.

Source: Thant Sin, Global Voices


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