The Army flexes its political muscle - The leader of Myanmar’s military lawmakers says that they want to nominate current Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, for president following the 2015 elections. They believe Sen-Gen Ming Aung Hlaing will be a leading candidate for the presidency. According to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the military, the Upper House and the Lower House will each appoint a vice-president. The Union Parliament, which comprises both houses, will then vote to determine which of these three will become president. Min Aung Hlaing is due to retire from the military in 2016 as he will then be 60 years old, he took over as commander of Myanmar’s Armed Forces after long-time leader Than Shwe retired in June 2010. As part of Myanmar’s democratic transition, planned by Than Shwe, many senior junta members retired to become civilian lawmakers with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP controls 51 percent of the parliamentary seats. In 2011, Thein Sein was appointed president of the quasi-civilian government, which is dominated by the USDP. The government will be replaced after the free and fair elections in 2015, but according to the Constitution officers will continue to control a quarter of all parliamentary seats. Shwe Mann has said he wants to lead the USDP in 2015 in a bid to become president, while President Thein Sein has not yet ruled out running for a second term. Both will have to take on the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, currently the Constitution does not allow anyone with a foreign spouse to become president, effectively banning Suu Kyi, who was married to an English man, from becoming president. A parliamentary committee comprising different parties is currently looking into possibly amending the Constitution.
More political prisoners freed - Two grandsons out of three of former Myanmar President U Ne Win, Aye Ne Win and Kyaw Ne Win, were among a number of political prisoners freed in November, according to Yangon's Insein Prison authorities. A total of 69 more remaining prisoners of conscience were released from prisons across the country under a fresh amnesty order of President U Thein Sein. Aye Ne Win and Kyaw Ne Win, along with their brother Zwe Ne Win and their father U Aye Zaw Win, were sentenced to death by hanging by the Yangon region special court in September 2002 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the then military government. U Aye Zaw Win is Ne Win's son-in-law. The four defendants were arrested on March 7, 2002 at a Yangon restaurant when they were accused of discussing a conspiracy with a military commander to seize power. Since then, Ne Win and his daughter, Sandar Win, were held under house arrest. After Ne Win died in 2002 at the age of 92, U Aye Zaw Win and Zwe Ne Win were released on January 13, 2012 under an amnesty order of President U Thein Sein.
More Myanmar/EU Cooperation - Myanmar and the European Union (EU) have signed a series of accords on cooperation at their Task Force's first plenary session in Naypyitaw. The accords include holding of policy-related discussions on small and medium enterprises, and raw materials; cooperation in long-term development of tourism industry, joint statement on EU's provision of aid for development, cooperation between European investment bank and Myanmar and cooperation in agriculture. The signing took place after Myanmar President Thein Sein addressed the opening of the plenary session, which was divided into three sessions, task force economic session, inter- parliamentary session and task force political session. The EU-Myanmar Task Force was established in March. On Thursday, three forums of the EU-Myanmar task force were held in Yangon which included a business forum, a democratic civil society forum and a development forum. The EU will increase its aid of up to US$ 120 million per year for Myanmar's rural development, education, governance and peace building. A small and medium enterprise program was also launched aimed at promoting and supporting sustainable production of Myanmar garments. In April this year the EU announced the total lifting of sanctions against Myanmar with the exception of the arms embargo. In June, the EU readmitted Myanmar to its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), allowing it to benefit from lower duties on export. According to official figures, EU's investment in Myanmar from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Cyprus amounted to about US$ 3.855 billion as of July 2013. Bilateral trade between Myanmar and EU reached US$ 226.37 million in 2012 of which Myanmar's export to EU amounted to US$ 43.54 million while its import from EU stood at US$ 182.83 million.
The Bill and Tony show - Former US President Bill Clinton spoke at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon recently and Tony Blair followed him only 22 hours later but to a slightly smaller crowd. Echoing the geographic content of Clinton’s talk, Blair’s foray mentioned the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Nigeria. Blair and Clinton met for a while earlier, and apparently marveled that they would never have thought whilst in office that in future their paths would cross in former military-ruled Myanmar. “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies,” said Blair, mimicking almost word-for-word a fragment of Clinton’s speech the day before. Like Clinton, Blair sought to allude to contemporary Myanmar by describing possible parallels elsewhere, but for the most part did not discuss Myanmar directly. Myanmar’s government has signed 14 ceasefires with the country’s ethnic militias—which the latter hope will lead to political negotiations about granting greater autonomy for Myanmar’s minority regions. Blair gave his implicit backing to the Myanmar government’s sequencing to date, saying “it is hard to make peace possible without achieving this [a ceasefire] first.” But breaking with the tightly-controlled format of the Clinton event on Thursday, Blair fielded 10 questions—albeit queries pre-screened and pre-selected by the Myanmar Peace Centre. Blair has made three previous visits to Myanmar in past year but made no mention, nor was he asked, of whether this visit is linked to his lucrative advisory and consultancy work.
In from the jungle? - The leaders of an alliance of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, some of whom have not seen Yangon for more than three decades, paid a landmark visit to the former capital. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) leadership, in town thanks to the government-linked Myanmar Peace Center (MFC) and Japan’s Nippon Foundation, said they want the Myanmar Army’s commander-in-chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to be involved in talks that the government hopes will soon lead to a nationwide ceasefire agreement. The UNFC leaders, who represent eleven ethnic armed groups, have been less enthusiastic about the government’s push to secure a ceasefire deal quickly than other rebel leaders. They were offered safe passage to visit Yangon, and Naypyidaw, and meet with people involved in the peace process. UNFC General Secretary Nai Han Thar and vice presidents David Thakapaw and Abel Twet arrived Sunday and met National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday afternoon. Nai Han Thar, who is also vice-chairman of the New Mon State Party, said the current negotiations between the government and rebels were flawed by the absence of senior military representation.
Troublesome priest? - U Wirathu, the Mandalay-based monk who heads the “969” anti-Muslim movement, is saying that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi would not be a good president for Myanmar. “I wish Thein Sein to be re-elected. If he refuses to go for the post, my vote will go to Shwe Mann,” he said. Although he described Suu Kyi as a good revolutionary and praised her for having sacrificed her life for the people, U Wirathu described the one-time political prisoner as “weak at governance.” However he went on to say that if Suu Kyi were to speak out in favor of a controversial proposed inter-marriage law—which would force non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism in order to marry Buddhist women—the opposition leader would win the electorate’s support. Suu Kyi has been criticized in recent months for her apparent reluctance to speak up on behalf of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, such as the Kachin, a mostly Christian group whose homeland of Kachin State is the site of an ongoing war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army. Suu Kyi has also taken lumps internationally for not supporting the rights of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who mostly live in western Arakan State but who are regarded by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi downunder - Speaking in Australia, where she is currently visiting, Suu Kyi called herself a politician rather than a human rights icon or activist. “Let me assure you, I’m no saint,” she said. “I look upon myself as a politician and not as an icon.” Suu Kyi again rejected the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the anti-Rohingya violence in western Myanmar. “When you use terms like ethnic cleansing—which I think is a little extreme—it just plays into the hands of extremists. There are extremists on both sides … we only have a few extremists but they can exercise great power,” she said, speaking at the Sydney Opera House. Myanmar watchers speculate that Suu Kyi’s reticence on human rights issues is a political calculation, fearful of losing the majority Myanmar and Buddhist vote in the 2015 elections. Her efforts in recent months to drum up support for a Suu Kyi presidency come as ethnic and religious tensions are being stirred up nationwide by U Wirathu, who has said that “if you favor too much human rights, your race and religion will be vanished as there are people who want to invade our country, destroy our race and religion on human rights basis.” The feeling is that if Suu Kyi speaks out against violence against the Rohingya, she will lose votes to the incumbent USDP. Suu Kyi’s long-time spokesman Nyan Win also said that “there are no Rohingya in Myanmar’s history. There are Bengalis who try to come across to Myanmar and claim citizenship.” He added that the 1982 Citizenship Law, which scholars say denies the Rohingya status as an ethnic group in Myanmar, should be amended, saying that once the measure is revised, “they can then apply to be citizens.” Asked to put a number on how many of the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar would be entitled to citizenship under such a reform, he said he did not know.
Poor working conditions - A recent survey of factory workers in Yangon reports that they suffer from a range of labour rights violations, such as long working hours, unsafe conditions and intimidation for joining unions, along with extremely low basic wages of between US$25 and $37 per month. Researchers interviewed 114 workers employed in three clusters of factories near Yangon in November, and published their findings recently. Tens of thousands of workers are employed in labor-intensive industries at 14 industrial zones around Myanmar’s commercial capital. Garment and footwear factories are the biggest industrial employers, with about 100,000 workers total. The report found that labourers worked “in unsafe, hot, overcrowded factories, typically for around 11 hours per day, 6 days per week.” Researchers said these “extremely low basic wages” forced them to work grueling schedules in order to support their families. Among workers interviewed for the report, 55 percent earned a basic wage of between $25 and $37 per month. These wage levels are the lowest in the region. As a comparison Cambodian garment workers make a basic wage of about $80 per month and Reuters reported recently that the minimum monthly wage for Bangladeshi workers is expected to rise to about $65. Employers use “a complex system of bonus pay” to entice labourers to work overtime, after which most earn about $77 to $98 per month, the researchers found. They noted that even on this income, “the economic situation of most workers is dire.” At many factories, labor activists and workers who join unions or organized collective actions, such as strikes, often face threats, intimidation or dismissal, the report said. Labour rights activity and unionization is rapidly increasing in Myanmar after President Thein Sein’s reformist government passed the Labor Organization Law and the Trades Dispute Act last year.
Encouraging economic performance - Myanmar’s economy is set to grow an estimated 6.8 percent next year, placing it among Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies, although rising inflation threatens the poor, the World Bank said recently. Expansion would be driven by energy and commodities exports, foreign investment, services and construction and growth would exceed the 6.5 percent achieved in the fiscal year that ended on March 31, it said. “It’s not just a historical trend,” Khwima Nthara, the Bank’s senior country economist, said, referring to the growth forecast, which outpaces the average annual expansion of 5.1 percent expected for the region this year and the next. “This is very much attributable to the new wave of reforms.” Despite abundant resources, a population of about 60 million and a land mass the size of Britain and France combined, Myanmar’s economy is one Asia’s smallest and least developed, hurt by fiscal mismanagement and Western sanctions, most of which have now been entirely lifted or suspended. That has allowed a reformist, civilian-led government that took office in March 2011 to focus on attracting foreign investment, creating jobs and boosting infrastructure. Those aspects of the economy had been neglected during five decades of rule by the Military who turned one of Southeast Asia’s most promising economies into a disaster. Foreign direct investment in Myanmar has risen to US$2.7 billion in 2012-13 from US$1.9 billion in 2011-12. Most of that investment went into the country’s energy, garment, IT and food and beverages sectors. Myanmar does not compile data for calendar years and few independent economists trusted official data provided by the former regime, which was sometimes cited in double digits. Myanmar’s investment commission says US$54 million of foreign investment came in during September, mostly destined for the manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and hotels and tourism sectors that are expected to drive future growth.
Higher electricity prices - Businesses and households are concerned about the government’s plan to raise electricity prices with rates rising significantly, in some cases up to 100 percent. Yangon City Electricity Supply Board (YESB) has announced that households that consume more than 101 units of electricity per month will have to pay 50 kyat (US $0.05) per unit, a price increase of about 40 percent. Businesses that consume between 1 to 5,000 units of electricity per month will experience a 35-percent increase and pay 100 kyat per unit starting November. Companies using more than 5,000 units will see their electricity bills double as rates jump from 75 kyat to 150 kyat per unit. YESB said in its announcement that it was implementing the price hikes “In order to cover costs of producing and purchasing electricity.” Several factory owners said the price increases would impact the cost of their business operations and some warned this could result in higher prices for consumers. Businesses who operate freezers, such as ice production, fish and meat production, are saying that they won’t have any profits left if their electricity bill doubles, as most of their input costs come from power. The rise in electricity prices further complicates Yangon’s inadequate power supply situation, which is already marred by frequent power cuts. Daw Toe Nandar Tin, treasurer of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation Products Processors and Exporters Association, said the association’s factories—which use 24-hour cooling equipment to keep products fresh—would experience a sharp rise in cost due to the planned prices hikes, something many factories could not afford. Many industries could stop running their business, she said. She also warned that the electricity price increase would translate into higher consumer prices for fresh products that need to be cooled, such as meat and fish. Meanwhile Tun Kyaw, Managing Director of Step Clothes, said the garment factories would be less affected by the rise in power costs. Electricity is only 5 percent to 10 percent of production cost in the clothing industry, since the salaries of staff are the main cost, he said.
Mizzima is back - Mizzima, a formerly exiled news outlet once based in India has moved its operations back to Myanmar with plans to expand its news coverage. Mizzima Media Group (MMG) will be led by original founder, Soe Myint and two other shareholders, Myanmar business tycoon, Serge Pun and Sonny Swe, co-founder of English-language weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times. Sonny Swe will be chief executive officer and Soe Myint editor-in-chief. The three will hold equal shares. Serge Pun is founder of the multinational Serge Pun & Associates (SPA) Myanmar Limited, which he established in 1991. SPA Myanmar has since become a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 business enterprises with interests in financial services, manufacturing, technology, construction, real estate, the automotive industry and health care. Sonny Swe is the son of former Military Intelligence officer Brig-Gen Thein Swe and held a majority share in The Myanmar Times until he was arrested during a purge by then Snr-Gen Than Shwe in 2004. Tin Tun Oo, a media magnate with close connections to the Military, took over Sonny Swe’s Myanmar Times shares. “I was imprisoned but still dreaming about media works,” said Sonny Swe. “I have tried to reintegrate with The Myanmar Times since my release but have not been successful for various reasons. Then, I was given an opportunity to join Mizzima, so I thought I couldn’t pass it up for any reason.”
Prepaid Credit Cards - Domestic private banks hope to issue “easy travel” Visa debit cards to locals by the end of year in an effort to ease outbound travel for Burmese citizens. Though foreign holders of prepaid cards issued by Visa, MasterCard and China Union Pay have been able to make some payments with cards locally since the end of last year, Myanmar people have only recently been offered a similar convenience when travelling outside the country. That service began on Oct. 1, when Co-Operative (CB) Bank became the first domestic lender to issue internationally accepted prepaid MasterCard to local account holders. Now, rival Visa is getting in on the action in Myanmar. Private banks are negotiating with Visa to issue such prepaid cards, with CB Bank expected to make them available before Myanmar hosts the Southeast Asian Games this December. Kanbawza Bank (KBZ) is also preparing to launch international travel cards through Visa and MasterCard by the end of the year. Myanmar Visa cardholders will be able to load up to three currencies—the euro, and US and Singaporean dollars—onto the card to make overseas transactions anywhere Visa is accepted.
Official Reserves - The Central Bank of Myanmar announced that the country had US$8.19 billion foreign exchange reserves and 7.1539 tons of gold as of the end of October 2013. Daw Khin Saw Oo, vice governor of the bank, told parliament that the 7.1539 tons of pure gold were kept at the central bank, while the foreign exchange was kept variously with the central bank, at local banks or deposited with foreign banks that have links with their Myanmar. It is the first time in many years that the bank of the Finance Ministry disclosed such figures to the public in a transparent manner.
Mongolia and Myanmar strengthen ties - Myanmar has invited Mongolia to make investment in various sectors of the country following the enactment of new Foreign Investment Law. The invitation was extended by Myanmar Minister of National Planning and Economic Development, Kan Zaw and President of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) U Win Aung at a Myanmar-Mongolia business forum and business networking. Addressing the forum, visiting Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj disclosed that plans are underway to order chartered flight between the two countries as tourism industry is the main business for Mongolia. The participants also discussed the current policy, financial situation and investment environment in Mongolia. The Mongolian president was on a state visit and had talks with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on promoting bilateral relations, cooperation in regional and international issues, exchange of high-level official visits, the broadening of people-to-people access and ASEAN- Mongolia relations. The talks also touched on cooperation in the sectors of tourism and mining. During his visit, Elbegdorj also met opposition leader and parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital and gave a speech at the Yangon University on experiences of reform in Mongolia. Elbegdorj is the first Mongolian leader to have visited Myanmar since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1956.
Telecoms slow progress – Telenor, one of the two companies awarded telecommunications licenses earlier this year has indicated it could be next August before it can provide mobile phone services. The company expects to be issued with an operating license by the end of the year. “The Telecom Ministry promised us that we would be granted a telecom operator license within 60 days after the Telecom Law being enacted and promulgated,” the company said. The law was set out on October 8 and a draft has been posted on the website of the Ministry of Communications and Technology for public comment to be submitted by a December 2 deadline. Telenor and Ooredoo won tenders for the licenses in June after a fiercely contested bidding round. Telenor says it will provide mobile phone services within 8 months from being issued with a license while Ooredoo says it will begin selling mobile SIM cards within six months of being issued a license. The deputy director of the Ministry’s Telecom Department,Than Tun Aung said it was hoped the licenses could be granted as soon as possible.
Philips lighting up Yangon - Dutch electronics giant Philips has teamed up with local partners to bring more of its products to Myanmar, as the company looks to take advantage of the Southeast Asian nation’s growing demand for lighting. At a ceremony Philips signed up with three companies who will distribute its lighting products. Pahatma Group will supply the consumer market, while the service and commercial sectors will be served by JJ-Pun and Power Light. Mieke De Schepper, general manager of Philips Lighting Singapore and Export, said that the growing population in Yangon meant demand for lighting would grow in the city. However, she warned, the already strained electricity infrastructure would be put under more pressure. City officials expect Yangon’s population to double to 10 million people by 2040. De Schepper said the growing commercial capital already consumes 45 percent of the power used in Myanmar, meaning it was imperative to find energy efficient solutions. According to Yangon Electricity Supply Board, Myanmar as a whole uses 1,500 megawatts of power, of which Yangon consumes 720MW. The company is in talks with the government about more projects around Myanmar, she added. Philips has also formed a partnership with the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) and the conservation group the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) to improve the lighting of the city’s historic buildings. The Dutch company is contributing $75,000 toward blue plaques to mark key heritage sites in the city, and has already provided lighting around downtown Yangon’s Maha Bandoola Gardens, the heart of the former colonial district.
Tourism and Culture
New train? - A new “exclusive” train running on Yangon’s loop line went into service recently. Tickets for the six-carriage train, which can carry up to 648 passengers, will be 300 kyat. It will depart from Insein to Yangon at 5 am, back to Insein from downtown Yangon, then from Insein to Hlawka. It will circle round the city four times according to Htun Aung Thin, the general manager of the Myanmar Railway Enterprise. The train will stop at all 39 stations along the 45.9 km route. Currently, trains circle the city 22 times a day. Regular fare is 100 or 200 kyat, depending on seat class, while a ticket for an air-conditioned car costs 400 kyat.
Drug Hub - Drug traffickers are increasingly using Myanmar’s three international airports to smuggle narcotics abroad, according to sources. Police Brig-Gen Nay Win, the chief of the Aviation Police Department said that a large shipment was intercepted on Oct. 7 in the departure lounge of Yangon International Airport. The drugs, valued at around US $283,000, were hidden inside 18 boxes supposedly containing traditional Burmese puddings, along with a passport, a ticket to Dakar routed through Bangkok, and $400 in cash. Myanmar is a major world producer of illegal drugs, most of which are smuggled overland to neighboring countries.
Award for “Burmese Days” - Nearly eight decades after George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” first hit bookshelves, the book has won the highest literary award in the country where it is set: Myanmar. The Burmese Ministry of Information announced on Sunday that the unabridged Burmese translation of the British writer’s first novel was the winner of the 2012 National Literary Award’s informative literature (translation) category. The annual official award is given to books in 16 different categories. A translation of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” won this year’s award for creative literature. The translator, Maung Myint Kywe, considers “Burmese Days”—set in a small British colonial outpost in Upper Myanmar—a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of both the British and Burmese. His intention in translating the book, which was first published in 1934, was partially for young people to learn about how the Burmese were discriminated against under British rule, he said. “But Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese, too,” said the translator. George Orwell spent five years in Myanmar from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police. Orwell is not unknown among Burmese readers. His 1949 masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has long been famous in Myanmar thanks to its descriptions on official deception, secret surveillance and the manipulations of an authoritarian state, which are considered accurate reflections of Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
New Law undergraduate intake - A small but significant step towards rule of law in Myanmar could come on Dec. 2, when the University of Yangon will accept 50 new students as the country’s first undergraduate law intake since 1996. “It is a significant development for the legal profession in Myanmar,” said the university’s rector, Dr. Tin Tun. “It will be a very good opportunity for our students to study law as Myanmar opens up.” Since Myanmar’s abortive student-led uprising against military rule in 1988, which was led by students, many of them based at the University of Yangon, the country’s education system has been reduced to tatters. The university was shuttered from 1988 to 1993, and after more protests in 1996, undergraduate courses were put on ice by the government. But now there’s a renewed desire for learning at the institution where many of Myanmar’s independence fighters studied prior to WWII. Prominent on the University of Yangon website is a banner proclaiming a “mission to renovate and upgrade”—a much-needed undertaking after decades of military-imposed inaction.