Rumours persist that SAB Miller is interested in Myanmar Brewery
As many as 60 companies have applied for licences to operate with and support the upcoming Stock Exchange
Referendum on the Constitution? - Myanmar’s President has given the green light to hold a referendum this year on amendments to the country’s military-drafted Constitution. President Thein Sein gave his approval, which could take place as early as May. Myanmar is due to hold a general election toward the end of this year. “Now that the law has been enacted, the Election Commission is soon expected to name a suitable date for the referendum in May,” a Lower House lawmaker said. Upper House representative Aye Maung also confirmed the approval of the referendum on the Constitution, which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been campaigning to amend, primarily because of the extensive powers it grants the military.
Demand for Education Law Reform - Government has agreed, in principle, to the demands of students and education advocates protesting the controversial National Education Law during a meeting in Yangon. Agreement was reached on all 11 of the students’ demands, according to a joint-statement released by educational and political stakeholders following the meeting. However proposed amendments would still have to be approved by the parliament. The apparent breakthrough comes after months of protests against the National Education Law that gained traction after the legislation was passed by the parliament last September. Critics of the law contend that it centralizes authority, restricts the formation of student and teacher unions and curbs curricular freedoms. Among the students’ demands are that the government reintegrate students who left school for political reasons, increase educational spending to 20% of the national budget, and amend the law to decentralize curricular control and allow the formation of student and teachers unions. The students also called for multilingual education that respects students’ mother tongues in ethnic states and inclusive education for disabled children.
But The Sangha Objects - Myanmar’s highest religious authority has publicly rejected key parts of student demands for education reform, as the Upper House announced that its Draft Law Committee would conduct hearings on the amendment of the National Education Law next month. The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), a government-appointed group of high-ranking monks that regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, sent a letter to the parliament and education reform proponents on Feb. 22, demanding that religious schools be exempted from any provisions which allow the independent formation of teacher and student unions. “Buddhist universities and schools that are controlled by unions will confuse religious and political issues. This can lead to a situation where the roots of Theravada Buddhism disappear,” the statement read. The International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University, state and regional Buddhist universities, abbot training schools and monastic education schools are all nominally under the control of the SSMNC. Education reform advocates said that the SSMNC’s concerns were overdone, saying that the draft amendment contains a clause which exempts religious schools from the law’s provisions. In its statement, the SSMNC warned that restrictions on the ability of students to influence the education curriculum under the amended law, saying that the reform proposals gave students too much power over their teachers, which it argued was contrary to Burmese custom. At present, the education law centralizes the establishment and revision of a national curriculum in a yet to be established National Education Commission, and reformers have pressed the government to allow for curriculum decisions to be made on a local level. “Education is the medium to connect with the world,” said Arkar Moe Thu. “It should not only be a reflection of Myanmar’s traditions. If we measure education only by our customs, we will all be left behind.” The SSMNC also raised questions about plans to amend the National Education Law to allow instruction in ethnic minority languages. While the current law allows ethnic language instruction alongside Burmese at a basic education level “if there is a need”, at present most children in Myanmar’s frontier areas currently receive native language education from monastic schools. The Draft Law Committee’s hearings on amendments to the National Education Law, to be conducted from Mar. 5-15, will be open to a cross-section of reform proponents, including 20 members each from peak student union body the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), political parties, the NNER, civil society organizations and members of the public who sent letters to lawmakers calling for the law to be rewritten.
Ethnic Unrest Continues - Several thousand residents of Kokang region in northern Shan State have fled into China’s Yunnan Province to escape heavy fighting between the Burmese Army and Kokang ethnic rebels, according to a rebel spokesman, who said that the army had launched numerous airstrikes recently. Htun Myat Lin, general-secretary of the Kokang rebel group known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said residents had fled the area around the town of Laukkai in northern Myanmar. “Local residents fled their homes because the Myanmar Army used planes to bomb and fired artillery at night. They used jet fighter and helicopters. Residents became more nervous,” he said. A Chinese academic in the Yunnan capital Kunming said authorities were preparing shelter, food, running water and health care for the refugees. He added that Chinese authorities had sent troops to the Myanmar-China border to strengthen security. Northern Myanmar has seen increased clashes in recent months between government forces and the KIA, the TNLA and MNDAA, all of which lack a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw. In December, clashes first erupted in the Kokang region and fighting has spread. It is unclear how many casualties both sides have sustained in the recent fighting. State-run media ran an article that said that renegade groups of Kokang have ambushed the troops of the Tatmadaw. Attempts at reaching a nationwide ceasefire accord between the government, army and an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups, including the KIA and TNLA, have been deadlocked in recent months. The Kokang are an ethnic Chinese minority living in a mountainous area between the Salween River and China border, which is part of a self-administered zone granted to the Kokang in the 2008 Constitution. A 2009 Myanmar Amy offensive crushed the MNDAA and its influence in the region, and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing into China. At the time, the army raided the Laukkai home of Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng. In late December, the octogenarian leader told Chinese state media in an interview that the MNDAA was trying to regain some territories it lost in 2009. The Kokang leaders supported the Communist Party of Myanmar until it disintegrated in 1989 and fell apart into a number of armed ethnic groups, including the well-armed, 20,000-man strong United Wa State Army, who are believed to be supporting the Kokang and other armed groups in northern Myanmar with arms and ammunitions.
Look Out! - Betel Nut Under Attack - Myanmar’s Lower House of Parliament is considering a proposal on how to reduce the consumption of betel nut, a mild street-side stimulant known for its blood-red stain on the lips of users and on the pavements and roads they travel. Parliamentarian Phone Myint Aung said the habit should be curbed because of health risks and cosmetic damage to streets and vehicles. In rural areas, he said, it is still common for villagers to start chewing betel nut at a very young age and it is traditionally offered as a greeting to house guests. The lawmaker suggests a public awareness campaign should be carried out by the Ministry of Health, which would consist of distributing signs and pamphlets about the negative effects of betel nut, locally referred to as quid. “Quid is a problem in Myanmar but it cannot be solved right now. It will take a generation,” Phone Myint Aung said. “I’m not trying to stop people from chewing it, but we need to give out information about health impacts at shops where betel nut is sold.” Phone Myint Aung said that beyond negative health impacts—the World Health Organization has found that the drug is linked to several types of cancer, whether or not it is combined with tobacco—the habit is both unsanitary and unbecoming. Betel nut is served chopped up and wrapped in a leaf, often with slaked lime and spiked with tobacco for taste. Users chew the packet and spit out deep red saliva, often seen on Myanmar’s pavements, taxi cabs and even in pagodas. Phone Myint Aung said that he won’t even pull up next to a city bus, worried that he might be doused by passengers spitting out the windows. “Do Not Throw Waste Undisciplined,” and “Do Not Spit Saliva Undisciplined,” are among the phrases being printed out on signboards and handed out to vendors in Mandalay, according to Deputy Health Minister Win Myint. He said the ministry has committed to carry out similar efforts in Naypyidaw and elsewhere. “Educating people on the disadvantages is good,” said one user who has been an ardent betel chewer since the age of 15. “But like smoking and drinking, it’s addictive, and it can’t be stopped immediately.”
Shell Signs - Royal Dutch Shell and its Japanese partner Mitsui Oil Exploration Co., Ltd. (MOECO) have signed an exploration and production sharing contract with state-owned firm Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) in Naypyidaw for three offshore deep-water blocks. The contract allows Shell to assess the potential of deep-water blocks AD-9 and AD-11 off Arakan State and MD-5 off Tenasserim Division, according to the firm. Shell is the main operator, with a 90 percent stake in each of the three blocks, while MOECO will assume a 10 percent participating interest. While global oil prices have fallen sharply since mid-2014, Shell said it was delighted to pursue the opportunity to “unlock and develop” Myanmar’s energy resources. “The three blocks offer an exciting frontier exploration opportunity to apply the advanced deep-water technical capabilities we have built up around the world over the past three decades,” Graeme Smith, VP Exploration Asia and Australia said.
Myanmar Times Goes Daily…Finally! - Weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times has announced it will launch a daily print edition on March 9. This will make it the only private English-language daily in Myanmar. The daily will “feature 24 pages of local and international news, commentary and features and be available at newsstands Monday to Friday.” The plan would require the organization to step up its news-gathering operations as well as being a test of the profitability of Myanmar’s nascent media market. Thomas Kean, editor of the Times’ English edition, said, “The Myanmar language daily and weekly market is saturated, but there is significantly less competition in English.” He said the daily will go on sale for 500 kyats, while the Friday edition, which includes a weekend special with features, arts and culture, will cost 1,000 kyats.
Cheap Labour vs Reputational Risk - Myanmar has been named one of the top five countries in the world for cheap labour, making it more attractive for manufacturing investment than neighbours China and Thailand. “Businesses with supply chains and operations in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia are benefiting from the world’s lowest labour costs”. The Labour Costs Index measure a combination of wages, employment regulations, social security contributions and labour productivity to assess the cost-competitiveness of workforces in 172 countries. However, the attractiveness for investors in setting up factories in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia is tempered by the business reputational risk factors of “poor working conditions and high levels of child labour and trafficking”. While Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia offer low labour costs, each is rated as ‘extreme risk’ for health and safety, working conditions, child labour and human trafficking. Countries with low levels of socioeconomic development and inadequate environmental protections present a host of additional risks and indirect costs to business, including brand damage, investor alienation, and potential lawsuits.
Dawei Doubts - A leading economist specializing on Myanmar is “very sceptical” about the benefits to the country of a port and petrochemicals complex at Dawei proposed by Thailand. A new agreement on a special economic zone at Dawei will be signed in March after a meeting of Thai and Myanmar government officials. Thailand has been attempting to revive the Dawei project for two years, after construction firm Italian-Thai Development (ITD) failed to find financial partners to back a contract it obtained under Myanmar’s former government. “I confess to remaining very sceptical about Dawei. Pressure for it seems to come more or less exclusively from Thailand, even though the Myanmar government seems happy to play along, as an indicator perhaps of progress and investor interest,” Sean Turnell said. “One gets the feeling that Japan continues to be dragged to it and to only make enough encouraging noises to keep dreams alive.” ITD will partner with Rojana Industrial Park Company in a first phase Dawei development agreement to be signed in March. Rojana is a Thai-Japanese joint venture firm based in Bangkok comprising Vinichbutr Group and Nippon Steel & Sumikin Bussan Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate involved in infrastructure developments, textiles and foods.
Culture and Tourism
Mrauk-U for World Heritage Site? - Myanmar’s government and Arakan State authorities have begun work to preserve the remains of the old Arakanese capital of Mrauk-U ready for nomination for the UNESCO World Heritage List. Mrauk-U, located on the Kaladan River in northern Arakan State, some 60 kilometers inland from the state capital Sittwe, was the seat of Arakanese kings from the 15th century to the late 1800s. At the height of their power they controlled an area covering large parts of eastern Bengal, modern-day Arakan State and the western part of Lower Burma. Much of the city’s remains are reasonably well-preserved and some 380 historic temples and pagodas are scattered between the lush hills of northern Arakan. An official said it was important for the UNESCO nomination process to incorporate how local communities have been living alongside the monuments in Mrauk-U. He said that the Arakan State government had committed about US$670,000 to the nomination process this year and $500,000 more next year, adding that the central government would offer little in funding. If successful, Mrauk-U would become the third World Heritage site in Myanmar. The listing would attract international funding and support for protection, management and research. It would also boost the country’s expanding tourism industry, a sector that the government has identified as a key driver of future economic growth.
Johns Hopkins Leaves - Education is contentious and politically fraught in Myanmar, a fact that has been learned the hard way after a ground-breaking program with Yangon University collapsed in its third year. The international relations and comparative politics program, run entirely by Johns Hopkins University, was housed under the International Center of Excellence (ICOE) at Yangon University. An initiative of Johns Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, the ICOE accepted its first program applicants in 2013. Despite uncertainty surrounding its accreditation and what type of diploma graduates would receive, the program ran smoothly for its first two years, with ICOE graduating a total of 60 students in 2013 and 2014. Problems arose when the program began accepting its third year of students, admitting 32 students out of 67 applicants in June 2014. Johns Hopkins was told that the program’s memorandum of understanding was no longer valid. “Before, the program had a guarantee of academic freedom; self-autonomy; subject cooperation in teaching; a chance for teachers from other universities to join even though the program is held at Yangon University,” said a director of Mingalar Myanmar, a local non-profit organization that has been assisting the ICOE program. “When we tried to sign an MOU again for the third year, the Education Ministry didn’t want to grant some of those provisions. They asked us to remove self-autonomy because the education law is still being discussed. The Ministry of Education said the MOU could not be signed with them and they asked us to do it with Yangon University. Yangon University asked why they should guarantee academic freedom when even they don’t have it”. The 2014-15 academic program was due to begin in November 2014, but classes have not commenced. The university rector has been notified by ICOE’s main funder, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), that the program would no longer receive money.