Posts tagged ‘Myanmar’

April 11, 2014

Special Report: Flaws found in Thailand’s human-trafficking crackdown

Reuters - US Edition


Special Report: Flaws found in Thailand’s human-trafficking crackdown

SATUN, Thailand Thu Apr 10, 2014 6:02pm EDT

(Reuters) – After a two-hour trek through swamp and jungle, Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot halts in a trash-strewn clearing near Thailand’s remote border with Malaysia.

“This is it,” he says, surveying the remains of a deserted camp on a hillside pressed flat by the weight of human bodies.

Just weeks before, says Thatchai, hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar were held captive here by one of the shadowy gangs who have turned southern Thailand into a human-trafficking superhighway.

With Thatchai’s help, Thailand is scrambling to show it is combating the problem. It aims to avoid a downgrade in an influential U.S. State Department annual report that ranks countries on their anti-trafficking efforts.

But a Reuters examination of that effort exposes flaws in how Thailand defines human trafficking, exemplified by its failure to report the lucrative trafficking of thousands of Rohingya confirmed in Reuters investigations published in July and December.

In March, Thailand submitted a 78-page report on its trafficking record for 2013 to the State Department. Thai officials provided a copy to Reuters. In the report, Thailand includes no Rohingya in its tally of trafficked persons.

“We have not found that the Rohingya are victims of human trafficking,” the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “In essence, the Rohingya question is an issue of human smuggling.”

The distinction between smuggling and trafficking is critical to Thailand’s assertion. Smuggling, done with the consent of those involved, differs from trafficking, the business of trapping people by force or deception into labor or prostitution.

A two-part Reuters investigation in three countries, based on interviews with people smugglers, human traffickers and Rohingya who survived boat voyages from Myanmar, last year showed how the treatment of Rohingya often constituted trafficking. Reporters found that hundreds were held against their will in brutal trafficking camps in the Thai wilderness.

A record 40,000 Rohingya passed through the camps in 2013, according to Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, a humanitarian group.

The Rohingya’s accelerating exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ethnic and religious tensions simmered during 49 years of military rule. But under the reformist government that took power in March 2011, Myanmar has endured its worst communal bloodshed in generations.

After arriving by boat to Thailand, criminal networks transport Rohingya mainly into neighboring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country viewed by Rohingya as a haven from persecution. Many are held by guards with guns and beaten until they produce money for passage across the Thai border, usually about $2,000 each – a huge sum for one of the world’s most impoverished peoples.

Thailand faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the lowest rank in the U.S. government’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, unless it makes “significant efforts” to improve its record, according to the State Department. The agency is expected to release its findings in June.


A Tier 3 designation would put the Southeast Asian country alongside North Korea and the Central African Republic as the world’s worst centers of human trafficking, and would expose Thailand to U.S. sanctions.

If Thailand is downgraded, the United States, in practice, is unlikely to sanction the country, one of its oldest treaty allies in Asia. But to be downgraded would be a major embarrassment to Thailand, which is now lobbying hard for a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council.

Reuters asked New York-based Human Rights Watch to review the report that Thailand recently submitted to the State Department. The watchdog group, which monitors trafficking and other abuses globally, said it was concerned that two-thirds of the trafficking victims cited in the report were Thai nationals.

“Any examination of trafficking in Thailand shows that migrants from neighboring countries are the ones most trafficked,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director. “Yet Thailand’s identification statistics show far more Thais than migrants are found as victims.”

He added that the numbers were also flawed due to the absence of Rohingya among the list of trafficking victims. Thailand failed to recognize “the grievous rights abuses the Rohingya suffer in these jungle camps, and the fundamental failures of the Thai government to do much about it.”

The State Department said it is examining Thailand’s submission. “We have received the information from the Thai government, and it is currently under review,” Ambassador at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said in a statement to Reuters.


The next TIP Report will appraise Thailand’s anti-trafficking efforts in 2013.

That year ended with the State Department and the United Nations calling for investigations into the findings of a December 5 report by Reuters. That article uncovered a secret Thai policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand’s immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.

Thailand made “significant progress” in combating human trafficking in 2013, said its foreign ministry, citing data included in the recent 78-page report Bangkok submitted to the State Department.

According to the Thai report, Thailand convicted 225 people for human trafficking in 2013, compared to 49 people in 2012. (According to the State Department, Thailand convicted only 10 people in 2012.)

The report said Thailand identified 1,020 trafficking victims in 2013, compared to 592 in 2012, and almost doubled the government’s anti-trafficking budget to 235 million baht ($7.3 million).

It identified victims by nationality, counting 141 people from Myanmar among the victims. But none were Rohingya, who are mostly stateless. The Myanmar government calls the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” migrants from Bangladesh. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State are denied citizenship.

In January 2013, said the Thai report, more than 400 Rohingya illegal migrants were found in rubber plantations near the Thai-Malay border in Thailand’s Songkhla province. Seven Thai suspects were arrested and charged with smuggling and harboring of illegal migrants, and were later convicted.

The Thai report describes this group of Rohingya as being smuggled, not trafficked.

However, the Reuters article in December documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove those Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.

The official Thai report said the government “has taken every effort to suppress the smuggling of Rohingyas over the years and to reduce the risk of Rohingyas being exploited by transnational trafficking syndicates.”

“The plight of the Rohingyas who left their homeland is essentially one of people smuggling, not one that is typical of human trafficking,” said the report.

Pongthep Thepkanjana, the caretaker deputy prime minister, said he would not speculate on whether Thailand’s efforts were enough for an upgrade on the U.S. trafficking rankings.

“We don’t do this just to satisfy the United States,” Pongthep, who chairs Thailand’s national committee to implement anti-trafficking policy, told Reuters. “We do this because trafficking in persons is a bad thing.”


The anti-trafficking efforts of Police Major General Thatchai are part of that undertaking.

At the abandoned camp he recently examined, Thatchai said scores of Rohingya were beaten until relatives agreed to pay for their release and onward passage to Malaysia. Other Rohingya have died of abuse or disease in nearby trafficking camps whose locations were revealed by the December 5 Reuters report.

Thatchai took charge of the region’s anti-trafficking efforts in October. He has vowed to shut the trafficking camps, break up the gangs and jail their leaders.

“They torture, they extort, they kill,” said Thatchai, 46, who speaks in an American accent picked up while earning a doctorate in criminal justice in Texas. “It’s too much, isn’t it?”

His campaign has freed nearly 900 people from camps and other trafficking sites and unearthed new detail about criminal syndicates in southern Thailand.

Well-oiled Rohingya-smuggling networks are now being used to transport other nationalities in large numbers, said Thatchai. He said he has identified at least six smuggling syndicates in southern Thailand, all run by Thai Muslims.

This year, along with hundreds of Rohingya, he has also detained about 200 illegal migrants from Bangladesh, as well as nearly 300 people claiming to be Turks but believed to be Uighur Muslims from China’s restive province of Xinjiang.

Like officials in Bangkok, Thatchai generally characterized the transporting of Rohingya through Thailand as human smuggling, not human trafficking.

At the same time, he said his aim was to disrupt the camps through raids and use testimony from victims to unravel the networks. He hopes to gather enough evidence to convict southern Thailand’s two main people-smuggling kingpins on human trafficking charges.

One target lived in Ranong, a Thai port city overlooking Thailand’s maritime border with Myanmar. This suspect, Thatchai said, sells Rohingya to the other syndicates. They then resell the Rohingya at marked-up prices to Thai fishing boats, where bonded or slave labor is common, or take them to camps to beat more money from them – usually a sum equivalent to about $2,000.

The Ranong kingpin made about 10 million baht ($310,000) a month this way, alleged Thatchai, and owned dozens of pick-up trucks to move his human cargo.


The second suspect was a leader of a syndicate in the province of Satun. That gang is believed to operate a string of camps along the province’s border with Malaysia – including the abandoned camp Reuters visited with Thatchai on March 27.

At least 400 Rohingya, including many women and children, were held at that camp for up to a month, said Thatchai. The Rohingya were guarded by armed men and fed two meals of instant noodles a day.

“Today we have proved that what the victim said is true,” Thatchai said after the site visit. “There was a camp. There was torture and kidnapping.”

But Thatchai also said he thinks no amount of raids and arrests in Thailand will staunch the flow of Rohingya out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Deadly clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2012, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, most of them Rohingya.

Since then, about 80,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by boat, according to the Arakan Project.

More look set to follow, after attacks by ethnic Rakhine mobs in late March forced foreign aid workers to evacuate the state capital of Sittwe. This has jeopardized the delivery of food and water to tens of thousands of Rohingya.

(Amy Sawitta Lefevre reported from Bangkok. Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Washington. Editing by Jason Szep, Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams.)



April 2, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Party: Suu Kyi wins Myanmar election

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April 01, 2012|By the CNN Wire Staff

Opposition leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament Sunday, her party said, a momentous victory following a decades-long fight for democracy.

Staff from Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, said she won and that several hundred people were waiting at NLD headquarters to celebrate the news, party spokesman Nyan Win said.

The chairman of the Yangon region of the election commission, Ko Ko, said official results may be known by Monday morning.

The formerly banned National League for Democracy was vying for 45 seats in the election. While the balance of power in the parliament will not change even if the opposition were to win all 45, the vote itself marks a symbolic victory for many in the country who have lived under military rule for 50 years.

Suu Kyi, 66, won by a landslide the last time Myanmar held multiparty elections, in 1990, but the junta ignored the results and placed her under house arrest.

Released in November 2010, Suu Kyi was allowed to crisscross the country to rally support for the NLD for Sunday’s race.

The NLD fielded a candidate for every seat, with Suu Kyi representing Kawhmu, south of the former capital city of Yangon. She ran against a former military doctor.

The government promised the vote would be free and fair and allowed international observers to monitor the polling.

Analysts said the sheer number and spread of polling booths across the country would make it impossible for international monitors to ensure an honest count.

Ahead of the election, Suu Kyi alleged there had been voting irregularities, illegal activities and intimidation either committed or encouraged by official entities.

Sunday, Win, the NLD spokesman, said the party had received more than 50 reports of voting irregularities.

In one area, ballot sheets had wax placed over the check box for the NLD, making it easier to erase the mark later and annul the vote, he said. In another area, ballots were found that had already been filled out, he said.

Election Comission Chairman Tin Aye said he hoped the elections were fair but couldn’t speak to the allegations of irregularities.

“It’s too soon to say,” he said.

Still, Suu Kyi hoped her party would win as many parliamentary seats as possible.

Myanmar’s legislature has 664 seats, more than 80% of which are still held by lawmakers aligned with the military-backed ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The 45 seats under contention are vacancies created by the promotion of parliamentarians to the Cabinet and other posts last year.

Still, the election is an opportunity for voters to weigh in during a time of enormous change in Myanmar, a country also known as Burma.

Analysts said it would be the first real test of the government’s commitment to transition from military rule.

Two years ago, it staged a general election that was widely derided as a sham.

Several former military leaders formed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) at the time to contest the election. Suu Kyi’s party boycotted it.

After attracting international condemnation for manipulating the voting process in the 2010 race, Myanmar’s leaders know that a fair election will be proof to the world that it can conduct a legitimate vote, experts said.

“It’s hugely important and it will provide a new semi-democratic political system with an opportunity to show that it has ambition to become more transparent, more inclusive and thus more democratic,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University, about Sunday’s race.

In the past 12 months, the country pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, secured a cease-fire with Karen rebels and agreed to negotiate with other ethnic rebel groups. Freer press rules have encouraged the proliferation of journals and magazines.

Myanmar’s efforts to thaw its frosty relations with the rest of the world have been warmly welcomed and rewarded. In recent months, a steady procession of foreign ministers has visited the country and, in February, the European Union lifted a travel ban on Myanmar officials.

There have been hints, too, that a free and fair vote on Sunday will lead to the relatively swift unraveling of sanctions that have long choked the country’s economy.

Thousands of Burmese living in exile around the world were watching the election for a clear sign that it is safe to return home.

Young voters in Myanmar appeared to be particularly excited about the polling.

Just the sight of Suu Kyi brazenly pitching her policies to huge crowds of people emboldened many to dare to believe that democracy might be possible.

“I am so happy and proud of voting freely,” said Ung Sann, 30, on Sunday. “I believe the government will change toward democracy.”

Analysts said Suu Kyi is all but guaranteed to win her seat.

“It would be a major shock if she did not win her own seat. But I think we have to prepare people for the expectations that the NLD will not win all seats in the by-election,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, a project director at International Crisis Group.

Others said the number of seats won by the NLD is less critical than what the vote says about Myanmar’s future.

“I don’t think it matters how many seats the NLD wins. I think the only thing that really matters (is) whether it’s free or fair. I don’t think the people of Burma care about how many seats the NLD wins either. What they want to know is whether the next set of elections, the national elections (expected in 2015), are also going to be free and fair,” said Monique Skidmore, of the University of Canberra.

The daughter of Gen. Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence, Suu Kyi herself became an inspiration with her long struggle for democracy in the country.

As a member of parliament, Suu Kyi would be expected to be free to travel outside Myanmar — and more importantly to return — something that wasn’t possible during her long years of repression and confinement.

She told hundreds of journalists gathered outside her residence Friday that she didn’t plan to become a minister in the military-backed civilian government, if a position was offered to her. Under Myanmar’s constitution, lawmakers can’t hold ministerial office.

Asked where she would place Myanmar’s democracy on a scale of one to 10, Suu Kyi said, “We’re trying to get to one.”

March 27, 2012

Burma Analysis: West waits on Myanmar vote to start sanctions scale-back

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Myanmar's army chief General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during a ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw March 27, 2012. The event commemorates the Burmese army's rising up against Japanese occupiers in 1945. REUTERS-Soe Zeya Tun

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK | Tue Mar 27, 2012 3:28am EDT

(Reuters) – Western countries desperately want Myanmar’s by-elections on Sunday to go smoothly – and give opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in parliament – so they can start to lift sanctions and let their companies invest in the once-isolated state.

Myanmar’s civilian rulers have astonished with a reform drive since taking office a year ago, freeing hundreds of political prisoners jailed by the former junta, holding peace talks with ethnic militias and opening up the economy.

Western companies are lining up to get into the country, sandwiched between China and India and offering huge potential in energy, financial services, telecoms and tourism.

Diplomats say some U.S. restrictions such as visa bans and asset freezes could be lifted quickly if the election is credible, and the European Union may end sanctions that ban investment in timber and the mining of gemstones and metals.

But the ballot needs the thumbs-up from the 66-year-old Suu Kyi, who is contesting one of 45 parliamentary seats after two decades in the political wilderness, much of it under house arrest.

“If Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition basically give their blessing that the April 1 elections are ‘good enough’, there will be some sort of positive, reciprocal action on the part of the U.S. government,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The EU, Canada and Australia have hinted they will do the same. In a visit to Cambodia on Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said its embargoes would be scaled back in stages, but he emphasized that “each removal of sanctions will be after consultation with the opposition”.

But Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has a dilemma of her own. If she disputes the election result, even for valid reasons, and sanctions remain in force, some analysts say it could dent her image among millions of Burmese longing for change.

“(Suu Kyi) views sanctions as leverage to get what she wants from the government. That is a very dangerous policy,” said David Steinberg, a veteran Myanmar analyst at Washington’s Georgetown University and a critic of the sanctions.

“Why? Because it puts her in the position of being perceived to be in favor of poverty. Not that she is, but … that could hurt her.”

There are bound to be complaints come election day. After 49 years of isolation and army rule, Myanmar has limited experience of holding ballots. And a 2010 general election was widely seen as rigged to favor the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), now by far the biggest in parliament.

Most diplomats believe Myanmar’s rulers are sincere: they want Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on board to add legitimacy to parliament.

But the NLD has already laid the grounds for a possible dispute of the result, with allegations of vote-buying and the inclusion of dead people on voters’ lists, plus claims the president, who is supposed to be impartial, has tried to influence the vote.

The government has not done itself any favors by not allowing a proper monitoring mission. Last week it belatedly invited a team of five Southeast Asian observers and asked the United States, the EU and others to send in two people each.


Regardless of the outcome, it is unclear how quickly sanctions could be lifted. It is impossible to scrap them all at once, frustrating Western investors who face a race against time as Asian firms snap up deals and business delegations pour into the country to scope out opportunities.

The EU is well placed to relax its curbs on investment sooner than Washington as most of its “restrictive measures”, which also include asset freezes, are up for review on April 23.

According to several diplomats from EU member states, those sanctions might be removed with a simple vote by the EU Foreign Affairs Council, as long as the election is deemed credible and Suu Kyi gives her blessing.

What will remain is its arms embargo and its trade measures, which exclude Myanmar from the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences for poorer countries, including tariff-free imports under the “Everything But Arms” initiative. Reversing that is complex and could take at least a year, some diplomats say.

Canada might also start to scale back sanctions if the poll is fair, a government official told Reuters. It bans trade and investment in the country by Canadian firms and denies Myanmar access to low tariffs, development aid and financial services.


That could leave Washington playing catch-up. Its complex, overlapping web of sanctions would be extremely difficult to undo quickly, even though lawmakers say there is bipartisan support in Congress to move ahead on that.

U.S. sanctions are governed by five federal laws and four presidential executive orders issued between 1990 and 2008, each with different, or unspecified, expiry dates and conditions for lifting.

Myanmar may have already met some of the conditions, such as engaging with the opposition and progress on media freedom.

But some laws require the release of all political prisoners, when no one really knows how many are still detained, or stipulate the U.S. president has to be satisfied Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium grower, is no longer “a country of interest for narcotics trafficking”.

All this, economists say, does not bode well for the United States, which wants to offset China’s influence on Myanmar and has companies chomping at the bit to invest.

“Keeping ourselves completely out of the trade and investment arena while everyone else is jumping in wouldn’t necessarily be positioning the U.S. where we want to be,” said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official and expert on Myanmar’s economy.

“Now what they’ve got is a very complicated, multi-layered structure of legal things, and peeling that onion — even if there’s a shift in policy — just the mechanics of undoing it all mean it is going to take time.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)

February 4, 2012

Who’s to blame for Burma’s economic misery

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Posted By Min Zin Tuesday, January 31, 2012 – 10:44 AM

Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement saying that Burma has a chance to become “the next economic frontier in Asia.” But the IMF went on to note that the country can realize its potential only “if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world” to its advantage.

In a word, it’s up to the government.

Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it’s not western sanctions that are causing Burma’s economic woes. It’s government policy. The Burmese government’s Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he responded to a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: “We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them.”

In 2004, the well-known U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that sanctions against Burma had “systematically weakened the economy by limiting trade, investment and foreign aid.” It’s an argument that many critics of sanctions have made.

The media love to use terms like “pariah,” “isolated,” and “closed” whenever they describe Burma and the effects of sanctions on the country.

If the term “pariah” denotes a country that utterly disregards international norms and behavior, and correspondingly meets with unrelenting censure from the international community, then that’s a pretty good fit for Burma. But when the word is used in a way that’s supposed to characterize the country’s overall economic position (invariably in combination with words like “closed” and “isolated”), then it doesn’t describe the situation at all.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma’s exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That’s higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma’s exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don’t cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.

As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That’s more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia’s latest investment darling, Vietnam.

These facts suggest that Burma’s exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries. In this light it becomes extremely hard to argue that sanctions have deprived Burma of FDI and trade, much less that Burma is “isolated” or “closed.” (This also offers an eloquent commentary on how ineffective the sanctions regime has actually been.)

Of course, sanctions do have negative effects on the economy (for instance, job losses in garment industry after the 2003 sanctions imposed by the U.S.), and there are many spillovers to other sectors, ranging from education to the growth of civil society. But the government cannot use sanctions as an excuse for its mismanagement and kleptocratic corruption.

Given this extent of economic involvement with the outside world, Burma should boast a good growth rate and corresponding improvements in the lives of its citizens. But the socioeconomic indicators tell a different story. For instance, since 1988 Burma’s GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Index ranked Burma 132 out of 169 countries. The country is the lowest in Southeast Asia (Laos and Cambodia ranked 122 and 124 respectively). What’s wrong with this picture?

The problems are twofold. First, the regime has tailored trade liberalization policy to benefit the natural resource extraction sector. The FDI that has come into the country has also focused on natural resource extraction and hydropower. Agriculture and manufacturing received a mere one percent of FDI because of the many problems that plague these sectors, including poor infrastructure, unfavorable exchange rates, electricity shortages, the lack of skilled workers, and so on and so forth. Since the natural resource extraction sector is capital intensive, most of the benefits go to those who own the capital. And that means the military conglomerates, which control almost all the capital in a society that is starved of private capital. As result, the distribution of income is highly uneven. The military takes the biggest share and most of the population never sees any benefit.

Second, the regime does not re-invest that revenue in education, health care, or necessary infrastructure. Instead, for example, it has plowed money into building the wasteful new capital Naypyidaw at a cost of about 1 to 2 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. By the government’s own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 percent ($2 billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, while the country spends a mere 1.3 percent on health ($110 million) and 4.13 percent ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 percent of the overall budget. No wonder the country is mired in poverty.

The IMF’s statement calls on the Burmese government to use revenues from natural resources “to build human capital and infrastructure.” The Fund describes these as the “key priorities to alleviate poverty and reduce bottlenecks to industrialization.”

Burma’s third session of Parliament, which opened last Thursday in Naypyidaw, is now set to discuss the budget for the 2012/2013 fiscal year. This will be a litmus test for the new pseudo-civilian government. We will soon see whether it is willing to “redefine national spending priorities and bring fiscal transparency,” as the IMF suggests, or whether, instead, everything stays the way it’s been until now.

November 30, 2011

U.S. Motives in Myanmar Are on China’s Radar

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Published: November 29, 2011

BEIJING — When Myanmar’s military leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, arrived here on Monday in a crisp tan uniform and a matching cap, he got a welcome from the very highest levels of the Chinese government.

Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s top leader in 2012, met with him, as did Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army. General Chen told General Min Aung Hlaing, in the words of the state news agency Xinhua, that “bilateral relations have developed well through the joint efforts of both sides.”

In any given week, such meetings would have been quickly noted and just as quickly forgotten. But the visit by Myanmar’s top general has become a subject of conversation among scholars and journalists because it came just two days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit Myanmar, the first appearance there by an American diplomat of that rank in 56 years.

One Chinese scholar, Xu Liping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an interview on Tuesday that although the general’s trip “does come at a sensitive time, the meetings are not closely linked to Hillary’s visit.” But another scholar, Mu Gengyuan of the Chinese Institute of International Studies, said the general’s arrival was “clearly an opportunity to reassure Beijing and communicate with Chinese leaders before Hillary’s arrival in Myanmar tomorrow.”

The attention paid to General Min Aung Hlaing’s visit reveals the importance that Chinese officials and scholars attach to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and its potential effect on Myanmar’s relations with China. This nation is Myanmar’s biggest economic partner, and its influence in Myanmar has in recent years overshadowed India’s.

China’s interests in Myanmar include oil and natural gas pipelines that are under construction; access to the Indian Ocean; and the stability of border regions, where ethnic clashes have broken out between the Burmese military and guerrilla groups. Trade between China and Myanmar reached $5.3 billion last year, and China is the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, with $15.8 billion in investments there.

Now, the Chinese are warily watching as the United States makes overtures toward Myanmar’s leaders.

“There is no doubt that many inside the Chinese establishment interpret it as part of a larger U.S. strategy on China,” said Mr. Xu, an expert on Southeast Asia. “It is another step taken by the U.S. to strengthen its presence in the region.”

Conservative voices in Chinese military and foreign policy circles now talk regularly about American attempts to hem in China, despite denials from American officials. On a trip through the region two weeks ago, President Obama announced he was sending 2,500 military personnel members to Australia. He also joined Asian leaders at a summit meeting in confronting Prime Minister Wen Jiabao over China’s expansive territorial claims to the South China Sea.

Thomas E. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in an opinion article published on Sunday in The Financial Times that the United States intended to “maintain and enhance a strong network of allies and partners” in the Asia-Pacific region. Some Asian countries, Vietnam especially, have expressed concern over China’s growing clout. Myanmar has been more circumspect, even under the new government of President Thein Sein, who American officials say has signaled a tolerance for experimentation with political and economic reforms. But one action this year — the suspension by the Burmese government on Sept. 30 of a Chinese-financed, $3.6 billion dam project that had ignited popular protests — caught the attention of Chinese leaders.

Some Chinese officials and scholars contend that the Obama administration played a role in persuading Mr. Thein Sein to block the dam or even in stoking the protests. The administration has not acknowledged any involvement.

“The incident sends a clear signal to China,” said Ms. Mu, the scholar at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, which is linked to the Foreign Ministry. “With the U.S. strategy of refocusing on the region, it is already making inroads in Myanmar. It also acts as a reminder that the public diplomacy of China still leaves much to be desired.”

Ms. Mu said that China and Myanmar remained committed to strong ties, but that their relations had changed since the United States became more involved in the region.

“The Myanmar government exhibited a strong desire to amend its relationship with the U.S. and Europe probably out of fear of becoming over-reliant on China and turning into a vassal state of an increasingly powerful neighbor,” she said.

On Wednesday, as Mrs. Clinton traveled to Myanmar, the English-language edition of Global Times ran an editorial on U.S.-Myanmar relations that highlighted the Myitsone Dam fiasco and concluded with this: “China welcomes the opening-up of Myanmar, but firmly opposes it stepping on China’s interests.”

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, an analyst in Beijing for the International Crisis Group, said there was a range of opinions in China on the American involvement in Myanmar. While many people examining the strategic aspects see efforts by the United States to encircle China, others view Myanmar’s desire to diversify its foreign relations and escape sanctions as a natural development. “On the economic side, there are businesspeople who think they will gain from Myanmar opening up to the rest of the world in terms of a better business environment,” she said.

Relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the Myanmar government, long run by a military dictatorship, have waxed and waned. In the 1960s, when China was trying to foment Cultural Revolution-style upheaval in Burma, people were suspicious of China, wrote Thant Myint-U, a scholar with a new book on modern Myanmar, “Where China Meets India.” Anti-Chinese riots broke out in June 1967. But in the 1990s, when much of the world tried to isolate Myanmar, China kept up relations.

“There is no special dislike of China or Chinese culture; dislike suggests a familiarity that is not there,” Mr. Thant Myint-U wrote. “Rather, there is a sense of the dangers of being next to an increasingly powerful and populous nation, whose internal wars and politics have time and again spilled over to wreak havoc on the much smaller country to the southwest.”

Li Bibo and Edy Yin contributed research.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Suspicious of U.S. Outreach, China Is Stressing Ties With Myanmar.


As you prepare to travel to Burma, I am writing on behalf of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to urge you to raise concerns about freedom of religion publically during your trip.

Secretary Clinton traveled to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon, Burma, from November 30 – December 2. This historic trip marks the first visit to Burma by a US Secretary of State in over a half a century. Secretary Clinton underscores the US commitment to a

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