Sunday, 15 June 2008

Obstacles to EU-Asean FTA

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation
June 13, 2008

A free-trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union is unlikely to take shape soon because of the big discrepancies between Asean members and political problems in Burma, said visiting Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht.

The blocs announced their vision for a free-trade agreement in 2005 but negotiations could not be concluded easily, he said. The Asean ministerial meeting in Singapore next month, which the EU will join as a dialogue partner, would not reach any common ground, he added.

De Gucht said there were big discrepancies between the economies of the 10 Asean members. Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam lag behind more advanced economies such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. "Therefore you cannot argue that there is a homogenous bloc of Asean countries, which means you need many rules and provisions adapted to meet various national conditions," he told a gathering of the business community in Bangkok on Wednesday.

Another major obstacle for the pact is political problems in military-ruled Burma, he added.

A political stalemate arose two decades ago in Burma due to suppression of democratic movements and human rights. The most recent suppression occurred last September when the junta launched a military crackdown on street protests led by Buddhist monks that left at least 31 dead.

The EU is foremost in imposing economic sanctions against the junta.

"There are many EU member states that doubt they can come to an agreement with Asean unless there are some signs of evolution in Burma and political change there," De Gucht said.

A report on Asean-EU economic relations by Britain's Glyn Ford, submitted to the European Parliament last month, suggested that the EU human rights in the partnership and cooperation agreement prior to the conclusion of a free-trade agreement. To that extent, Burma could not be included in any deal.

OPINION: There’s a Little Bit of the Burmese General in All of Us

Lita Davidson; May 23, 2008

While the western world looks with disgust at Burma’s military, who pride themselves more on their self imposed isolation than on saving the lives of their people, the response of citizens and governments in Asia to the crisis unfolding in their region has been modest. There is very little in the way of a sense of urgency in the Asian media or in regional political bodies responding to the cyclone, nor of comment on Burma’s intransigence. Compared to reactions in the west, by Asian standards, the cyclone is a small matter indeed.

On the surface, Asia’s citizens do not appear to exhibit the same intensity of compassion on what approach to take in their media as we do in the west. In the west there is an outpouring of discourse on Burma; in Asia, this subject is fleeting. With the exception of the Burmese in exile, Thai English language news and anomalies, such as an unidentified Singaporean millionaire who on a whim donated 50,000 then quickly donated another 50,000 to the cyclone relief effort, comments from the Asian international community and general interest about the situation in Burma is meek. Stories which are printed about the situation tend to be only descriptive and come across as an everyday occurrence.

In Asia, any Asian nation that undergoes conflict, human tragedy, poverty, war or humanitarian crisis, such as the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka and the murderous political transition in Nepal and East Timor among others, does not garner much attention or bring on much collective spirit as would be expected from among the most powerful players, including the more advanced countries of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, who potentially could change the dire situation given their massive economic clout.

With the exception of the Thai English language newspapers that generate lively debate among mostly ‘farang’ or western foreigners in Thailand, protests or critical analysis on situations or even knowledge about what is going on in other countries are mostly submissive and inward looking, rarely directed outward at the international level toward other countries. With the exception of individual scholars, such as, among others, Korea’s Kim Dae Jung and Basil Fernando from the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, people within Asia, don’t really care or even know about what is going on.

Upon closer scrutiny however, individual people in Asia do feel deep compassion when they see starving and dead children just as we do in the west, but tend to keep their thoughts private and are rarely given the chance to take action or voice their opinions in a robust way on international affairs. This writer has witnessed intense debate on how to tackle poverty and conflict, but like us, feel powerless to do anything about it. Generally, people in Asia come under close scrutiny by their governments and society; group and worker meetings take place every week in most Asian societies, their behavior is monitored by coworkers and their superiors and they are exhausted after working long hours. On average, most people in Asia work longer hours than people in the west. Freedom to do as you please is not encouraged in Asia; they are socialized to succeed at all costs.

One is also humbled on learning how Asia’s political scene for many decades was shaped by western influence in which leaders were advised to do away with agitators wanting equal rights and higher wages during the Cold War, a situation repeating itself with respect to China who wants to keep their doors open to western and Asian companies and who are reluctant to reform their exploitative wage labour system so as to suit the business interests of foreign investment.

In truth, the mild response in Asian media is due to the propensity of Asian leaders to refrain from judging each other too closely, fearing that each will be held accountable for their own weaknesses, which is inconceivable, if not an uncomfortable situation for most Asian leaders. Democratic will is further weakened by the educational system in which children are brought up to not question their instructor or an authority figure, they are taught to obey, listen and produce, and applying critical thinking or a different point of view on a subject is not part of their culture, not yet anyway.

A student expressing his or her opinion may be punished severely, although this situation may be changing as governments realize that critical and imaginative analysis are the basics of innovation needed to further develop their economies. While opening up and building relationships based on cooperation with neigbhours, as demonstrated recently when China visited Japan last week, is a step in the right direction to working collectively as a group, rather than against each other.

Burma and other similar countries might as well be on another planet or in a different part of the world. People in Asia may comment they have undergone much worse catastrophes. Why should we help them? We pulled ourselves out of poverty, why should we go to their aid? Even though many have achieved a modern standard of living, there is still a great fear that one day they will fall back on hard times and staying ahead of the game is foremost on their minds.

Most are concerned about their own country’s economy and compete with each other fiercely to maintain an edge over the other, being second place to another Asian country is unthinkable, like losing a soccer match. In South Korea the outbreak of Avian bird flu has been on the front page for over 3 weeks amid rising inflation and fuel prices, and the slowing down of the economy is more of a concern. Scant mention is made of Burma and the damage inflicted by the cyclone is not as vigorously pursued in the press as it is in the west.
The Association of Southeast Nations does not appear to take as seriously the massive operation that is needed to deal with the catastrophe and shows little sign of collective will on the implication of thousands of Burmese facing starvation and disease due to the Burmese generals’ paranoia to let in foreign workers. The cyclone is mentioned briefly in small paragraphs on their website, whereas in the west, it is seen on all government and regional websites with explicit detail and moral analysis; in most Asian newspapers, very little detail about the situation is reported.

The western press and many western citizens learn about Burma including its people, the environment, and the ongoing aid effort through their local newspapers that generates a lot of public opinion among the editorial boards. It’s a shame that Asian governments do not promote more moral discourse on what goes on in other Asian countries and compete more on democratic and humanitarian principles, not just economic ones; perhaps it is their history and their leaders, but their educational system can also explain some of their silence.

As commented by a Korean in the Korean Times, “Why should we criticize Burma when we fail to even criticize atrocities committed in North Korea?” Asian media is vigorously censored and does not encourage moral discourse; however, people can wholeheartedly think and are very opinionated about their governments and what happens in other parts of the world, surprisingly even more so than us in the west, but the term ‘constructive criticism’ is a concept not quite accepted by Asian governments who do not encourage it in any positive way.

Are Asian people morally inferior? Disasters and large scale humanitarian crises have occurred in recent living memory over local and international wars in Asia in which people were powerless against dictators and roving bands of invading armies bent on rape, pillage and murder. Each Asian country has endured untold miseries while the slaughter of millions across Asia such as in South Korea, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam; for much of the 20th century these countries faced enormous upheaval which occurred right under our noses for many years while we in turn remained silent and culpable in their destruction.

In comparing the west and the east as most Asian and Western diplomats tend to do nowadays when it comes to the rapid pace of economic modernization in Asia, in particular, Singaporean and Malaysia diplomats, one can cite western atrocities committed in the name of religion, progress and nation. There are several horrific examples, many of which are untold; much of the 20th century was a nightmare for people in Asia, crimes and wars committed by western nations, no one is innocent.

In a recent BBC interview, Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani commented that the west can learn a lot from the east in competing, as being a model for growth. Yes, that’s true, but the east can learn from the west in promoting discourse on moral values in ensuring protection of people who can also contribute. Governments in Asia, especially from the more developed countries, need to exercise more leadership and to work collectively to address serious problems that affect the economic performance of Asian countries. Have not these diplomats realized the potential of Burma’s people who can contribute to Asia?

Kaowao News

Deep South Referendum Bombing Suspects Resurface

Asohn Vi / Kaowao; June 9, 2008

Two men suspected of setting and exploding a bomb previously believed to have been tortured to death, have resurfaced in a southern town in Mon state. According to their relatives, they now remain detained at the town’s police station.

Nai Cheem Mon (Show Tun), a former New Mon State Party (NMSP) medic and Nai Kyaw Tun were arrested after being forced to admit to the bombing during the May 10th referendum in Yin Dein (Yan Dein) village, southern Ye and were allegedly tortured with electric shock by the Army troops of Infantry Battalion (IB) No.31 based in Khaw Zar subtown. Most villagers believed they had died as a result of torture as nothing had been seen or heard from them since that time. Death as a result of torture is not uncommon in Mon state.

When the Burmese regime heard that most people in Yin Dein village planned to register a vote against the constitutional referendum, they positioned themselves in the area on May 10th; on the same day a bomb exploded near the school where the vote took place. After the explosion the military called all people suspected of planting the bomb to plead their case and eventually arrested two villagers after finding they possessed a VCD about the Saffron Revolution.

According to his wife, Mi San Aye, although Nai Cheem Mon insisted he wasn’t involved in the bombing, authorities ignored all pleas and instead detained him and subjected him to torture. Rather than hope for exemption, Mi San Aye had also assumed her husband had died as a result of torture, and so was surprised when she was recently able to meet with him. After seeing her husband for the first time in almost one month she stated that although there were no bruises evident, his speech was slurred and at times incoherent, possibly as a result of repeated electric shocks.

In a similar case the head villager of Yin Ye village, a neighboring village of Yin Dein, together with his three partners were arrested on May 28th and 30th and tortured until close to death by the town authority Infantry Battalion (IB) No.30. Their alleged crime was supporting Mon rebel groups in fundraising. All four men were given an internment on June 3rd after prominent people in their village acted as guarantors for them. The condition of their release is similar to parole; “They have to report and sign into the IB No.31 every week, confirming that they are at the village and registering their activities over the past week,” said a Yin Ye villager.

These cases are widely known throughout the Mon community around the world and have led to a strong call for both the Mon ceasefire groups and Mon rebel groups to work on a resolution.

Banya Htaw Weang, an overseas Mon community leader from America, urged and encouraged overseas Mon using the e-communication tool of Monnet, commenting, “I would like to urge the NMSP and the Hongsawatoi Restoration Party to find a solution on how to get along with each other and protect our people instead of going in different directions and allowing personal problems to become the priority. This is the time to work together.”

Many Mon believe a combined approach is required, as cases of unexplained detention and significant use of torture on Mon people increases.

Burmese force collects paddy seeds for cyclone victims

(Kaladan Press) 14 June 2008 - Maungdaw, Arakan State:

Burma's border security force, Nasaka, collected paddy seeds for seedlings for the cyclone victims, from Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships last week, according to villagers.

The Nasaka has collected 3 kgs of paddy seeds per acre from the farmers of Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships, in Arakan State.

They have also collected Kyat 5,000 to Kyat 10,000 per family from Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships according to the economic standing of the family.

The Nasaka has also collected 6 to 10 cattle from one village across Maungdaw Buthidaung Townships for the cyclone victims, a village elder said on condition of anonymity.

For farmers of the Irrawaddy Delta, it is necessary to sow seeds by the end of June or else, the country's rice production would decline. Farmers have to replant their seedlings and care for them with fertilizers before the end of August, according to sources.

The cyclone could probably turn Burma-- a rice exporting nation into an importer of rice. Stocks of food have been destroyed; seeds have been damaged, while all other assets have been swept away.

Planting the next rice crop on time is very important. Farmers do not have the capital to replace the seeds, livestock and tools needed to start replanting rice in the next few months.

The Irrawaddy Delta produces almost two-thirds of Burma's rice output.

Earlier, on May 25, the Nasaka collected one kg of rice per acre, two cattle per village and 5,500 Tan (one Tan= 40.91 litre) of paddy per village for cyclone Nargis victims from villagers of Maungdaw Township.

Rohingya hides to evade arrest for dead cow

(Kaladan Press) - 14 June 2008, Buthidaung, Arakan State

A Rohingya had to go into hiding to evade arrest for he was to be fined for his dead cow, said a relative of the victim on condition of anonymity.

The victim was identified as Zar Mulluk (30), son of Amir Hussain, from Maungyi Daung (Maggbill) village-tract of Buthidaung Township, Arakan State, Burma.

On June 3 morning some cattle of the victim went to the nearby mountain to graze. The cows were returning home after grazing in the evening when a cow slipped in the heavy rain and hurtled to its death in the mountain.

On receiving information, the police of Buthidaung town summoned the owner of the cows, Zar Mulluk to the police camp, but he went into hiding for fear of arrest and being fined.

According to villagers, a cattle owner would be fined by the authorities if any cow goes missing from the lists they maintain. Earlier, Nasaka Burma's border security force made lists of cattle (domestic animals---cows, buffaloes, and goats) belonging to villagers. If any villager wanted to sell cattle Naska had to be informed and paid. If a cow died that needs to be informed too and again they have to pay money for deletion from the list.

Nevertheless, after three days, on June 7, the victim's wife settled the problem paying Kyat 70,000 to the police officer of Buthidaung town through the Village Peace and Development council (VPDC) Chairman.

The victim, Zar Mulluk, however, returned home after eight days from hiding.

UN Report Finds Corruption Hits Poor Hardest

By Chad Bouchard
Jakarta (VOA)
12 June 2008

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U.N. officials say small-scale corruption hits poor people hardest and strangles economic growth across Asia. Chad Bouchard reports from Jakarta.

Poor people in countries around the Asia-Pacific region are bombarded with illegal charges and bribes in their daily lives.

A new report released by the U.N. Development Program indicates that petty corruption perpetuates poverty and increases child mortality rates.

UNDP Assistant Secretary-General Olav Kjørven says high-profile cases of corruption at the top levels of government should not take attention away from small-scale graft.

"Poor people are the ones who can least afford to pay bribes, but they find themselves that they have no other choice in order to protect what little they have or to get access to at least some minimum social service, whether it's education or health," he said. "And so in addition to the resource transfer away from productive services for the public good at the macro-level, at the micro-level, it hurts individuals and families directly."

Kjørven says at police check points, government offices, and even schools and hospitals the poverty stricken pay extra for the services they need to sustain everyday life.

"Those are the areas where regular people need the government the most in their day-to-day lives," he said. "If the majority of the people see the government as just one big corrupt beast that is just there as a problem not as a catalyst or a facilitator for development, for progress, then the sustainability of the state itself becomes questionable."

The report recommends rooting out corruption in the justice system as a top priority, and supports public access to financial information to keep governments honest.

As much as 40 percent of the funds for infrastructure projects across the region are lost due to bid rigging and other corruption, the UNDP said.

The report was released in Indonesia, where the country's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says his country could be destroyed if corruption continues to grow. He has called for "shock therapy" to help root it out.

Junta shuts down pro-opposition monastery

Mizzima News, 14 June 2008 - The Burmese military junta authorities sealed a pro-opposition Buddhist monastery in Rangoon yesterday.

The township chairman and security forces arrived at the Sasana Theikpan monastery compound of Chauk Htut Gyi pagoda, Bahan Township on Friday morning and told monks they would close the monastery until an official announcement by the new head of monastery was made.

Security forces told the monks that they had come with an order from the Rangoon military commander Brigadier General Hla Htay Win.

"They locked the door of the monastery with a lock they brought with them at 5 p.m. yesterday," a monk from Sasana Theikpan told Mizzima.

The monk believed that it was a ruse and he did not expect the monastery to be reopened. Three monks of Sansana Theikpan are taking temporary shelter in two nearby monasteries.

The former head of the Sasana Theikpan monastery died recently and dozens of pro-democracy opposition activists attended the funeral service on June 7 even as the authorities monitored the funeral service.

About a hundred pro-government civil militia of the Swan Arr Shin and members of Union Solidarity Development Association were standing by to crackdown, activists told Mizzima.

Buddhist monasteries were raided and some were sealed during and after monks led a mass uprising against the government in September 2007.

Sasana Theikpan and Sasana Gonye were among the monasteries raided by security forces in Bahan Township. The latter has been shut down since the raid.