Unrest continues in Rakhine amidst international condemnation
Malaysia voices strong criticism over Rohingya issue
Inle Lake Zone to start charging entry fee in US$
Ministry of Commerce plans to restrict import of luxury goods
Govt to promote tourism to Myeik Archipelago
No Peace Anytime Soon - The struggling Shan State peace process has been thrown into a state of upheaval as the Shan State parliament voted to label three ethnic armed groups as “terrorist organizations,” according to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). “The peace process and the political situation have been turned backwards here,” they said. “This vote does not highlight a positive way to peace. It emphasizes the negatives, and they shouldn’t do this. The Shan State parliament made their own decision, and they did not listen to voices from the people,” they added. The three ethnic armed groups—the KIA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—have carried out a military offensive against the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State since Nov. 20. A fourth ethnic armed group, the Arakan Army (AA), has also fought in the conflict, but the Myanmar Army refuses to recognize the AA, arguing that the group does not represent the Arakanese people. “It is very clear who has influence in this parliament, which is supposed to represent the Shan ethnic people.” said a TNLA spokesman. The Burmese Army currently controls 34 seats in the Shan State parliament, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) controls 33. Together, the two groups have majority control over the parliament. “This only proves how the Myanmar Army does not have genuine intentions for the peace process. It proves they don’t want to have peace in this country. They only want us to follow their own agenda. Now more fighting will come soon” he added.
Those Dam Projects - The Burma Rivers Network (BRN) has called for a halt to hydropower dam projects, special economic zones and natural resource extraction in ethnic areas where conflicts are raging, until the country has reached a federal peace agreement. BRN released a documentary video, “Voices of the Dammed,” recently, compiling the devastating impacts of dam projects along Myanmar’s biggest rivers: the Salween, Irrawaddy, Chindwin, Shweli and the Paung Laung. Findings from BRN’s two-year investigation indicate that both completed and planned dam projects have diminished local people’s livelihoods and security as well as destroyed thousands of homes, historic cultural sites and ecosystems. BRN Representatives will share their concerns with the relevant authorities in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, said Mi Ah Chai, the coordinator of BRN. In northern Shan State, the local Ta’ang, also known as Palaung, communities near Shweli River’s No.1 dam have reported facing grave human rights violations related to the presence of the Chinese-owned dam, which has a 600-megawatt capacity and was completed in 2008. This included allegations of forced labor by the Burmese military, forced marriages of local women to soldiers, and confiscation of farmland. Locals also claim that the Burmese Army’s Infantry Division 144 continues to launch daily artillery attacks against the ethnic armed groups in the area. “If the French-funded Shweli No. 3 dam goes ahead, this will cause more conflict, human rights abuses and displacement and will threaten the peace process,” said a spokesman. The proposed dam would be even bigger, with a 1,050-megawatt capacity. In Sagaing Division, locals from the area surrounding the 1,200-megawatt Tamanthi dam project on the Chindwin River reportedly received just 5,000 kyats—US$3.77—as compensation after they were forced to relocate in 2007. The India-funded Tamanthi dam project was cancelled under the previous government administration headed by ex-President Thein Sein, but activists fear that the project may be revived after State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to India, where bilateral agreements related to power infrastructure and production were signed on Oct. 19. According to BRN, if the suspended Tamanthi project were to be revived, it would contribute to further relocations, as villages housing over 45,000 people would likely be flooded by the reservoir. The BRN urged the government to do a proper review of a number of projects, including the suspended Tamanthi dam on the Chindwin River and the Irrawaddy Myitsone dams on the confluence of May Kha and Malika tributaries. They also recommended a review of six mega dams slated for construction on the Salween River in Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states, and those planned on the Shweli and Paung Laung rivers. The organization is also pushing for a review of completed dam projects and a demand that the electricity generated be shared with the local residents.
Wall Them Out - A Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) proposal to build a solid wall along Myanmar’s western border was put forward in the Arakan State regional legislature recently. Zaw Zaw Myint, a USDP lawmaker, submitted the proposal and a debate on the issue was held. He recommended that a brick wall 30-40 feet high and five to 10 feet thick be built to separate Myanmar from Bangladesh. Border walls are being suggested as security measures in Western democracies, Zaw Zaw Myint pointed out, as a way to prevent migrants from entering countries illegally. Three Arakan State legislators came out in support of the proposal. On behalf of the Arakan State cabinet, security and border affairs minister Col. Htein Lin suggested that the House Speaker record the proposal and explain how they are protecting the Arakan State border in Maungdaw Township; the area was the site of militant attacks on border police outposts in October, and subsequent Burmese Army clearance operations. Instead of specifying in the proposal that brick be used to construct the wall, Col. Htein Lin recommended that the wording be changed to express a general desire for a better security system. He pointed out that the Arakan State government is currently installing a barbed wire fence in Maungdaw, an initiative introduced under the country’s previous USDP-led government. Wire fencing has been completed on a stretch of around 127 miles. Col. Htein Lin added that border patrol routes would be linked with the main road for 200 miles, and 52 checkpoints are already set up. “I am not objecting to the proposal because our work is in progress. So I would like to keep it as a record,” said Col. Htein Lin.
Construction Industry Blues - Yangon’s construction market faced its hardest year in 2016, as a result of changing government policies during a market cooldown. During 2005 to 2014, high-end condominiums and low-cost apartments sprung up around Yangon and as the market neared its peak in 2013, real estate prices skyrocketed in six downtown commercial areas. In the downtown area, the maximum land price reached US$1,500-2,000 per square foot. Outside downtown Yangon, land prices also shot up but the construction market began to cool off in late 2014, as people’s spending power declined. In the election year, investors took a wait-and-see attitude toward real estate as they awaited the general election results. Consequently, apartment sales across Yangon declined 15 to 20 percent in 2015. In 2016, that trend has worsened, as prices have dropped 25 to 30 percent on the year and new apartment sales have nearly halted. Condominium prices have fallen from 200,000 kyats to 150,000 kyats per square foot in the major areas. Once the new government assumed power, the real estate market hit another speed bump. In May, the Yangon divisional government implemented new policies for reviewing construction sites, and the government suspended more than 200 high-rise construction projects because they did not meet urban planning standards. Over the next two months, government inspections brought the construction market to a standstill. Once inspections were completed in July, the 200-plus projects were permitted to continue. But the divisional government ordered that the intended heights of 12 buildings be reduced, that parking facilities be upgraded, and that safety standards be improved.
Indian Fibre Optic - Indian’s largest mobile phone operator Bharti Airtel will invest in an international fibre optic cable link between India and Myanmar in order to tap into Myanmar’s rising demand for high-speed data services for the business and consumer markets. The company is investing an undisclosed sum in a 6,500-km route terrestrial fibre-optic cable link to boost internet speeds in Myanmar. The link will be connected to Airtel’s landing stations in Chennai and Mumbai.
Culture and Tourism
Market Stalls Relocated - During its current term, the Yangon divisional government has pledged to upgrade all the markets in the commercial capital and establish centres for hawkers currently working along roadsides. “We’ll upgrade 176 markets within our term because many markets are in Yangon’s downtown area. We need car parking spaces as well as hawker centres for convenience,” said Yangon Division chief minister Phyo Min Thein. In Yangon’s, markets are operated under the supervision of the city’s municipal authority, YCDC (Yangon City Development Committee). The committee recently relocated more than 1,600 street vendors to a newly designated Strand Road night market in the third week of November. The relocation of street vendors was carried out to regulate traffic woes on 11 major downtown streets: Anawrahta, Bogyoke, Mahabandoola, Pansodan, Merchant, Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Latha, Lanmadaw, Phone Gyi and Strand roads.
Personal Contributions - Individual donors and private organizations can directly contribute to the renovation of more than 200 ancient Bagan temples that suffered minor damage in an August earthquake. With the help of UNESCO, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture will continue to take responsibility for restoring the 36 hardest-hit temples in the ancient city. Re-construction will commence in 2017. After the 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit central Myanmar, 389 temples in Bagan required repairs. In total, 790 temples were damaged throughout the country, including in the townships of Kyaukpadaung, Chauk, Yaynanchaung and Magwe Division in central Myanmar, and in Mrauk-U in Arakan State, said Aung Ko, the minister of Religious Affairs and Culture at the Lower House parliamentary session on Monday. Aung Ko said that the government has been paying close attention to the renovation of the ancient temples. “We will renovate the most-hit temples with the help of UNESCO starting in January 2017, but the individual donors and the private organizations will be given a chance to restore some of the temples which suffered minor damage” he told the lawmakers. The task could take at least five years to complete. Bagan has been one of Myanmar’s primary tourist attractions for years, but it is not yet protected under UNESCO’s World Heritage site list, due to unsatisfactory renovation schemes carried out under the country’s previous military regime. The religious affairs and culture ministry has so far received funds totalling more than 4.6 billion kyats to restore damaged temples. China also pledged US$1 million to the cause.
Where’s Blair’s House? - In the 1990s, Nyo Ko Naing noticed that the handful of foreign tourists who made it to his remote hometown were carrying their own maps and looked like they were searching for something. Someone, it turns out, by the name of George Orwell. Katha was Eric Blair’s last posting in the Imperial Police before he sailed back to England in 1927, adopted the nom de plume Orwell and launched a writing career that would produce powerful novels and commentary. Seven years after leaving the sleepy town on the Irrawaddy River, he immortalized it as the setting of his first novel, the vehemently anti-colonial “Burmese Days,” though he called it not Katha but “Kyauktada.” The British Club, where much of the novel’s scheming, fighting, drinking and sweating takes place, still stands, as do other sites mentioned including a tennis court, a pagoda and a prison. A house believed to have been Orwell’s home in Katha remains in use. Nyo Ko Naing didn’t know much about “Burmese Days” at first, but soon grasped how important it was to the future of the town. He has since become the town’s preservationist, in-house historian, amateur Orwell scholar and literary tour guide, keen to market Katha as a tourist destination. He’s helping to renovate the 19th-century house of the former British commissioner for use as a museum that is expected to open next year.
A 12-hour train ride from Mandalay, Katha is a small, idyllic town in the Sagaing region. The atmosphere is as tranquil as the flowing Irrawaddy. As the sun sets, visitors and families stroll along the promenade as mountains darken in the distance. In the past five years, Myanmar has been modernizing, and Katha is no exception. There are shiny new bank branches and new hotels. Mobile phone shops abound. Many colonial buildings have been left alone, giving the place a timeless feel, though many structures are dilapidated. Both the tennis court and the prison are still in use. The British Club is now a local business cooperative. The Hotel Katha, which opened last year, has seized on the Orwell connection. Built to resemble a red-brick colonial home, it offers brochures at the front desk with maps guiding visitors to key sites from the novel. Guests can read copies of “Burmese Days” and Orwell’s essays in the lobby or dine at the Kyauktada Cafe & Restaurant. Meeting rooms are named “Flory,” ‘‘Elizabeth,” and “Macgregor,” after three of the book’s characters.
Nyo Ko Naing’s most impressive Orwellian work may be tracking down the author’s house, which he had previously confused with the commissioner’s. He used a colonial-era map to pinpoint the residence as a two-story teak home on the main road, not far from the Katha Hotel. In a twist that might amuse Orwell, it is still occupied by a police officer.
Waterfront Park - In an attempt to promote tourism, the Yangon Division government will open a public downtown waterfront area next year, creating another tourist destination in Myanmar’s business hub. Situated on the bank of Hlaing River, also known as the Yangon River, the former capital of Burma boasts a long riverfront, but public access to the area has been very limited due to the presence of walled warehouses, jetties and ports scattered along the banks. During a recent forum organized by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in Yangon, the city’s Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister Naw Pan Thinzar Myo revealed that walled waterfront areas along Strand Road from the downtown streets of Pansodan to Sule Pagoda will be open for public use as a pilot project. The area is within close range of the downtown heritage zone where century-old British colonial buildings line the streets. “The wall along the Strand Road will be demolished to allow people to enjoy the beauty of the waterfront,” said the minister. She added that around seven large old warehouses in the area will be renovated and converted into art spaces for public recreation. Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), an NGO advocating for the protection and restoration of public and historic spaces in Yangon, has been lobbying for the re-development of the waterfront for public use. In their 150-page Yangon Heritage Strategy report published this year, YHT provides a detailed plan for the Yangon riverfront, stressing that all new development along the water be low-rise and that old warehouses be adapted into retail and cultural centres. Moe Moe Lwin of the YHT said she welcomes the government’s plan to redevelop the waterfront as it has been the one of the focuses of the trust’s advocacy.