Sunday, 27 July 2008

Help arrives in Burmese refugee camp after starvation deaths

Kaladan Press
26 July 2008

Teknaf, Bangladesh: Relief material from Muslim Aid of UK and Islamic Relief Organization (IRO) was distributed yesterday in the undocumented Burmese Rohingya refugee camp where five refugees died of starvation between 2nd and 19 July.

The Muslim Aid distributed 10 kilograms rice, 1 litre of edible oil, 1½ kg of pulse and 2 kgs of potato per family yesterday, said a Majee of the camp.

The IRO also distributed one kilogram of rice, 1 litre of edible oil, 1½ kg of glutin rice flakes and 250 gram of molasses per family in one block of the refugee camp on July 23, said another Majee of the camp. The camp was shifted to a new location (Lada camp) on July 6.

The camp is better than the one in Dum Dum Meah. But, the refugees faced difficulties finding jobs and to support their families as the camp was located far from the local business area. It cost around 40 Taka for a ride from the camp where as refugees earn only 60 taka as a daily labours. The camp faced shortage of food and refugees began starving. Five refugees died, said a refugee on condition of anonymity. “We are worse off than other refugees as we are living in the lower parts of the camp where we are faced with water seeping from the earth. We can’t sit in the hut (shed),” said Mamona Begum.

“My kids are not able to go out of the shed now as it is muddy outside,” she added.

“In the new camp, we faced some disturbance from the local people living near the camp, who setup shops near the camp and sell goods at high prices compared with other shops a little further from the camp. If we buy goods from other shops, the shopkeepers near our camp loot the goods from the refugees,” said Hussin, a father of four and a daily labourer.

Currently the Lada camp hosts 1,972 families, and the camp will be extended for 2,000 families. Refugees will be provided ration in the days to come, according to Union Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Md. Altaf Hossain Chowdhury of Teknaf.

Read Also
Will corruption hurt relief effort?

Weekly Business Roundup - July 26, 2008

  • Junta Accused of Diverting Millions of Dollars of Cyclone Aid
  • Singapore Accused of Failing to Tackle Burma Money Laundering
  • Olympics Disrupt China’s Jade, Timber Trade with Burma

The Irrawaddy News

Junta Accused of Diverting Millions of Dollars of Cyclone Aid

The Burmese military junta has siphoned off tens of millions of dollars from the aid money intended for Cyclone Nargis victims by forcing all UN funding to be exchanged into local currency at a low rate, says a report.

At least 20 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars for aid already channeled into Burma has been “lost,” reports Inner City Press, a New York-based rights NGO which investigates issues such as transparency, corporate accountability, community reinvestment, and predatory lending.

The loss is due to the UN “acquiescing to a government-required exchange of dollars for Foreign Exchange Certificates,” the agency alleges in a report.
The exchange loss could be as high as 25 percent.

Inner City Press said it had seen an internal UN memorandum referring to a
“serious loss of twenty percent.”

“Before the cyclone, the loss was 15 percent,” the NGO said. “The extra ten percent loss, applied to the millions of dollars exchanged by the UN system, could have helped the cyclone’s victims.”

Inner City Press has staff working as journalists at the UN headquarters in New York.

A UN report obtained by Inner City Press acknowledges that Burma has a “multiple exchange rate system” and that the UN Development Program, which processes Nargis aid, remitted donor funds into a UNDP US dollar account at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank.

“UNDP Myanmar exchanges US dollars for Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) at the Bank, and then converts these into local currency, Kyat.”
In July, the exchange rate was only 880 Kyats per FEC compared with 1,180 previously, said Inner City Press which alleges that UN officials have kept quiet about the junta’s theft in order to ensure that aid gets into the country.

Inner City Press says UN humanitarian chief John Holmes told it that although FECs are supposed to be one-to-one with the US dollar they are often lower. He would not say how low.

Holmes has been in Burma this week assessing post-cyclone recovery, and the New York NGO urged him to investigate the dollar conversion scam.

Singapore Accused of Failing to Tackle Burma Money Laundering

Singapore has been quietly rebuked by a major international financial institution for not enforcing action to curb money laundering from Burma.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization set up to combat the funding of criminal and terrorist activities, names Burma, along with Ukraine and the tiny Pacific island country of Nauru, as high-risk countries for money laundering.

In a detailed assessment report on member Singapore’s compliance with its rules and recommendations, FATF says: “In line with the FATF’s decision to impose countermeasures on Nauru, Ukraine and Myanmar, [the Monetary Authority of Singapore] MAS issued circulars to advise the financial institutions under its purview to be aware of money laundering risks in these countries and to give special attention to transactions with persons or entities from the countries. However, these circulars have no enforceability.”

The Singapore banking system is widely known to be used by both the junta leadership and Burmese businesses closely linked to the regime—many of which have been blacklisted by the US in recent times in an attempt to curb their financial dealings.

In its rebuke, the FATF reports says: “Singapore authorities should exercise enforceable powers to require financial institutions to apply additional anti-money laundering counter-measures beyond normal obligations in relation to transactions with, or financial institutions from” Burma and the other countries blackballed by FATF as high risk.

Olympics Disrupt China’s Jade, Timber Trade with Burma

Cross border trade in jade and timber between northern Burma’s Kachin State and China has reportedly slumped because of the forthcoming Olympic Games.

The slump is due to a combination of an official clampdown by China on anything illegal and Chinese jade traders refocusing their business on Beijing in anticipation of a major influx of foreign tourists.

Hundreds of Burmese jade traders usually do business in border towns such as Ruili and in the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming. But Chinese buyers have decamped to Beijing to prepare for the Olympics, says a report by the Kachin News Group (KNG).

“There are hundreds of jade traders in Kachin State facing a big problem of not having a market for jade,” KNG quotes one local businessman as saying.

Meanwhile, as part of China’s effort to present a clean face to the outside world, authorities in Yunnan are cracking down on illegal timber movements across the border out of Burma.

The crackdown is nationwide in China as the country tries to polish its image for the Olympics and also to seal off all avenues of entry for possible anti-China protesters.

This week the state news agency Xinhua disclosed that Chinese authorities have severely tightened the issuance of business visas for foreigners until after the games finish.

UN Security Council Action Needed on Burma

"China and Russia, both arch-defenders of the world's brutal regimes"
The Irrawaddy News

The UN’s top humanitarian relief official, John Holmes, ended his three day visit to Burma on Thursday after reviewing UN efforts in the country’s cyclone-affected areas. Holmes hailed the spirit of cooperation and vowed to continue cooperation with the Burmese regime on relief and an early recovery from the effects of the cyclone.

During his meeting with Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein and other ministers in Naypyidaw, Holmes told them the UN and other humanitarian agencies are ready to provide assistance and expertise to Burma in the vital areas of disaster preparedness, risk reduction and early warning systems. "We must make sure that humanitarian efforts continue to be separate from politics," he said.

But humanitarian aid, funded by donations from individuals, corporations, governments and other organizations, should not given without a monitoring system, including access to the organization’s mission statement, accounts and control systems, providing for greater transparency in operations and overall accountability.

At that point, the media could play an important role. Burma, however, has continued to restrict and censor press coverage of the cyclone and arrests the “messengers.” Moreover, there is still lack of recognition from the leaders—from regional to international—of the importance of allowing the press to function without harassment or intimidation during the next crucial phases of the multilateral relief effort in Burma.

While Holmes wants humanitarian efforts to be separate from politics, his boss, UN chief Ban Ki-moon, called for strong cooperation from the Burmese regime when UN mediator Ibrahim Gambari visits the country mid-August.

Ban also convened a meeting of the so-called "Group of Friends" on Burma which was set up last December—bringing together Australia, the UK, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the US, Vietnam, the European Community and the EU—to discuss Gambari's visit.

According to Ban, the group specifically focused on "tangible progress" expected "with regard to the resumption of dialogue between (Ms) Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, the credibility of the electoral process, and the regularization of engagement with the good offices of the Secretary General."

However, there has always been an excuse for putting off reform in Burma. Since Burma was voted onto the permanent agenda of the council in 2006, there is still a lack of mechanism and system to deal with the Burmese regime.

The UN Security Council still finds itself unable to agree to do much to protect suffering people, especially from Darfur, Zimbabwe, and Burma. China and Russia, both arch-defenders of the world's brutal regimes, have seriously consider the authorization of forceful intervention—even for humanitarian purpose—as a threat to a state’s sovereignty.

The concept of "responsibility to protect," adopted by a UN world summit in 2005, should not be dead when it comes to the issue of Burma. The world body should set an urgent agenda to broker a political and economic settlement on Burma.

If the military regime continues to refuse to implement democratic reforms and release political prisoners, including opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, why shouldn’t the UN Security Council take action on measures that will prevent the sale of arms to the Burmese military, and a ban on banking transactions targeting top Burma's ruling generals, as well as state and private entities that support the regime's weapons trade?

Give human rights body teeth

(Bangkok Post) - The Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations) charter signed at the group's summit in the past week boldly declared the pursuance of human rights in the region as a core value, but unfortunately the signs coming out of the 41st Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore are that when the Asean human rights organisation does finally comes on line it might be toothless.

An Asean human rights body is a long time coming. At the 26th AMM, also held in Singapore, all foreign ministers agreed that Asean should coordinate a common approach on human rights and actively contribute to the application, promotion and protection of such rights. It furthermore agreed that Asean should consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights. At the 41st AMM, the membership of a High Level Panel (HLP) was established to draft the terms of reference (TOR) for a human rights body was formalised. The panel is to present its work at the 14th Asean summit in December 2008 in Bangkok.

But reports from Singapore indicate that some countries within the 10-member regional grouping - Burma in particular - are already putting severe limits on the functionality of any Asean human rights organisation. According to an anonymous diplomatic source, on Tuesday the HLP met with foreign ministers in a closed-door session in which Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the panel it should uphold the Asean tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and reject a monitoring capacity for the human rights body.

If agreed to, this provision would effectively prohibit a proper investigation of human rights abuses. It has already been tacitly agreed that the human rights body will not have the power to impose sanctions on any member state or seek prosecution for alleged offenders. The lack of a monitoring capacity would make it easy for governments to deny access to alleged victims.

If Burma s wishes are honoured by the panel - and to be sure, Burma is not alone in its position - what exactly will the human rights body be able to accomplish? It seems that the most we could hope for is issuing statements, with some authority, based on reports compiled by journalists and NGOs.

To its credit, Thailand has for some time taken the high ground on the formation of a human rights body, along with Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, and lobbied for greater empowerment. However, this movement has been led by segments of governmental and civil society which are naturally predisposed to human rights advocacy.

It is uncertain how the influence of sitting politicians in these countries will shape the final draft of the TOR, but it seems likely they will be more than happy to limit the scope of the human rights body and let the blame fall on Burma.

In fairness, although it is true that Asean is the world's only major regional grouping without a formal human rights mechanism, the sacrifice of human rights to political expediency is hardly unique to this region.

The same criticism was leveled at the United Nations Human Rights Committee, whose membership and even leadership at times included states with appalling human rights records.

The remodeled UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), established in March 2006, is an improved, but still very flawed mechanism.

Yet the UNHRC does have the power to act if it chooses to, as it has on Darfur in heping to prepare a case for the International Criminal Court, over the objections of powerful member-state China. The coming Asean human rights body is in danger of having weakness written into it before it ever becomes a reality.

UN relief chief admits to "loss" of aid money in exchange duplicity

By Mungpi

New Delhi (Relief Web)- Over two months on after relief efforts, the United Nations has perforce admitted that there is a 'serious issue' involved in the conversion mechanism of the aid money provided to Burma's cyclone victims.

The UN Secretary-General's spokesperson, Michele Montas, on Thursday said John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, has acknowledged that there are problems in foreign exchange rate while converting aid money provided for relief work.

"There are losses implicit in the gap between the street rate and the official 'Foreign Exchange Certificate' rate," Montas told reporters in New York, adding "Aid agencies and donors alike are concerned about this because fewer services can be purchased."

Montas said, Holmes, who is on a three-day visit to cyclone-stricken Burma, raised the issue with the Burmese government during a meeting.

"They understood the problem and they will find a way to resolve it, though no further details have been given by the government," Montas said.

The UN Humanitarian Chief's admission of the problem in the exchange rate came after sources in the military establishment revealed to Mizzima that the Burmese generals are lining their pockets with aid money through a twisted currency exchange mechanism.

The source, who wished not to be named for fear of reprisal told Mizzima, aid money transferred to Burma has to go through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, which then pays the recipient in 'Foreign Exchange Certificate', where the junta creates notes equivalent to US dollar.

While the street rate for a US $ is 1180 kyat, FEC is worth only 880 kyat, the source said.

"For every dollar, the junta is profiting about 200 to 300 Kyats, you can imagine how much they will have pocketed since aid agencies made their way into Burma," the source told Mizzima earlier.

The source further said, in order to keep the hard foreign currency, the MFTB has made a regulation that every recipient needs to open an account with the bank before being allowed to withdraw the money in FEC.

According to Inner City Press, a UN watch-dog group, the UN looses about 20 percent of what it can buy with the hard currency dollar due to the government's official exchange rate.

Holmes, in an interview with the German Press Agency in Burma, said the exchange rate gap amounts to losses of millions of dollars and "where that gain goes I'm not sure."

As UN Admits 25% Loss in Myanmar, Demand for Return of Cash Grows, No UNDP Answers

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
FEC/Burma Shave series - 1st (June 26), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, last

UNITED NATIONS, July 25 -- As news of the currency exchange losses the UN accepted in Myanmar belatedly spreads, legislators in many donor countries which responded to the UN's appeals for Cyclone Nargis humanitarian assistance are preparing a demand that the "stolen" aid money be returned by the Than Shwe government. Meanwhile, the UN cannot or will not provide basic information about how much of the donated money it exchanged into devalued Foreign Exchange Certificates. Two weeks ago, Inner City Press requested this figure from the UN Development Program, which handles UN system finances, but beyond an admission that UNDP buys FECs through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, no dollar figure has provided.

Nor has the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance provided any figures. Rather, OCHA's acting spokesperson called Inner City Press to insist that OCHA's John Holmes admitted a loss, but not an "extraordinary" loss, as DPA reported in a story noting Inner City Press' work for the last month on the issue. Inner City Press at OCHA's request dropped "extraordinary" from the quote, despite not receiving any proof. The UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Dan Baker, who previously on camera told Inner City Press that there are few to no losses, now admits there are some -- but claims that some unquantified percentage of material is bought outside of Myanmar. Where are the numbers?

At Friday's noon briefing at the UN in New York, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas for the second straight day for numbers of how much the UN converted into FECs, and how much was lost. Video here. Ms. Montas again deferred until a July 28 appearance by OCHA's John Holmes. Since OCHA asked for $200 million and then $300 million for Myanmar, and has been asked about this issue by Inner City Press for more than two weeks, not having basic numbers now is inexplicable. Expect this, too, to be raised by legislators from donor and neighboring countries.

Even before Cyclone Nargis, much of the UN system in Myanmar was accepting a 15% loss in converting dollars to FECs. But word has reached Inner City Press, and UNDP has as noted refused to respond, that UNDP in its so-called micro-finance program accepted an even worse exchange rate. Back on June 26, Inner City Press reported that the UN through UNDP "paid dollars to Myanmar's government, and got local currency back at an artificially low official exchange rate." UNDP has still not provide information about how much money it converted through FECs, and at what rate. On July 25, Inner City Press put the question directly to UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis, who responded that "I don't answer questions in the hallway" and that he might hold a press conference at the end of summer. Far too late, most would think. Watch this site. And this --

UN Admits Losses to Myanmar Junta Through Currency Exchange, NGOs Skirt with Hawala

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 11 -- The question is not "if" but "how much" money Myanmar's military government has taken from the UN aid that has come into the country since Cyclone Nargis hit, it emerged Friday at the UN. John Holmes, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, told Inner City Press that some level of loss would be acceptable in exchanging dollars for government-issued Foreign Exchange Certificates, which are in turn converted into the local currency, Kyat. "One percent would probably be okay," he said. Video here, from Minute 37:50.

But Inner City Press is informed by multiple sources, both UN personnel and from non-governmental organizations which try to avoid siphoning or "seigniorage" by the military junta, that at least 20% of aid money is lost in converting into Foreign Exchange Certificates. Holmes acknowledged that while the FECs are supposed to be one-to-one with the U.S. dollar, they are often lower. He declined to say how much lower, but sources on the ground but it at 20% or more, with further losses in the FEC to kyat conversion process.

To work around this, some NGOs have taken to using the informal money transfer system known as hawala. While this traditional system, in which money is deposited in one country and paid out in local currency in another with no paper trail, was attacked by the U.S. government after its supposed use to fund the September 11, 2001 plane bombings of the World Trade Towers in New York, in this case it is being used to deny "seigniorage" by a military government the United States condemns.

Inner City Press first reported on June 26 that its "sources say UNDP paid dollars to Myanmar's government, and got local currency back at an artificially low official exchange rate." The spokesman for UNDP said he would look into it, but then provided no information for two weeks. Finally, after Inner City Press published its next article on the topic, UNDP acknowledged it converts dollars into FEC:

"UNDP Funds are remitted into the UNDP US dollar account at Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. UNDP Myanmar exchanges US dollars for Foreign Exchange Certificates at the Bank, and then converts these into local currency (Kyat). The exchange rate is based on the prevailing [most competitive] rate in the market, which can fluctuate."

NGOs active in Myanmar to whom Inner City Press showed this statement called it ludicrous, the implication that the exchanges are made at "competitive" rates. "The government is the one which creates and determines the value of the FECs," one said. "The UN and UNDP are gettin ripped off by the government, they've known about it but just stayed quiet."

Inner City Press is informed that the UN is now belatedly pushing for some changes to how business has been being done in Myanmar. But future, present and past practices by the UN and UNDP should all now be disclosed. John Holmes said one percent would be OK. His July 10 Revised Appeal for Myanmar states that "$313,704,035 in total has been committed for Myanmar relief operations as of 9 July." One percent of that is over three million dollars, pure profit to the Myanmar military government. A twenty percent loss would amount to over $62 million. The UN should be required now to disclose what exchange rates it has been accepting, and how much has been lost. Future, present and past currency exchange practices by the UN and UNDP should all now be disclosed, and not only in Myanmar. Watch this site. And this --

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Setting the Record Straight

Letters to the Editor_2008 page 2
The Irawaddy News
Thursday, July 10, 2008

With reference to the erroneous and factually incorrect article entitled “Regime Asks UN to Stop Press Conferences in Bangkok” [The Irrawaddy online; July 9, 2008; URL:] published yesterday in The Irrawaddy, I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

1. The UN system and humanitarian partners held a number of joint press briefings for the Bangkok-based media, kindly hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), during the first few weeks of relief efforts in response to Cyclone Nargis. This is normal practice in disaster response, to ensure that the media are kept as up to date as possible with unfolding relief operations. Considering the logistical challenges faced by many international media in accessing the cyclone-affected areas in Myanmar [Burma], these briefings were held in Bangkok on behalf of the UN and humanitarian partners in Myanmar.

2. The last press briefing held at the FCCT was held on Wednesday, June 18: No further joint briefings were planned in Bangkok, since the volume of media queries had declined six weeks after the disaster, the capacity for regular press outreach direct from Yangon [Rangoon] had increased, and media queries regarding the ongoing humanitarian operations could be better responded to by colleagues on the ground in Myanmar.

3. Situation reports and press releases continue to be made available to both Yangon- and Bangkok-based media, as they have since early May. Media queries and requests for interviews or further information have also been referred to the UN Public Information Officers in Yangon, and their contact details provided on request, including also to your correspondent, Violet Cho.

4. We have not received any request from the Myanmar authorities regarding Cyclone Nargis-related press conferences in Bangkok.

5. Ms. Cho has indeed contacted OCHA in both Bangkok and Yangon this week. In response to her telephone query to the Regional Office, regarding continued media outreach in Bangkok on Cyclone Nargis relief operations, she was provided with the information above, and recommended to kindly contact our colleagues in Yangon. None of the OCHA staff contacted “declined to comment” as stated in the article.

I would therefore appreciate it if this response could be published in The Irrawaddy and the erroneous article withdrawn without delay.

Yours sincerely,

Amanda Pitt

Regional Public Information and Advocacy Officer
OCHA Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Myanmar Restrictions on Radios and Currency Exchange Persist, as France Grandstands

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 10 -- As the UN appealed for $300 million more for post-cyclone Myanmar, questions grew about the UN's conversion of money to kyat, the local currency, through government-issued Foreign Exchange Certificates at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. Sources have told Inner City Press that the Than Shwe government is benefiting from the exchange rates.

On Thursday Inner City Press asked the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar, Dan Baker, who responded that he does not think the conversion to kyat benefits the government. But what about the first step in the process, the conversion to Foreign Exchange Certificates? That "fluctuates," Baker replied. Video here, near end. Local estimates say that the fluctuations, particular since the cyclone and the UN's appeal, have benefited the military government.

While Baker and the UN's top humanitarian, John Holmes, both effusively praised Myanmar on Thursday, their own Situation Report of July 7 states, under the heading "Emergency Tele Communications," that "Equipment is still held in customs, restriction on official imports of telecommunications equipment remains, and use of telecommunications equipment in Delta region is still prohibited." Called on with only three minutes remaining in their press conference, Inner City Press asked Baker and Holmes about each of these.

Baker confirmed that these are the restrictions, but noted that the UN has tried to raise them to the government. But why no mention of the restrictions until they arose at the end of a press conference?

Earlier on Thursday, when Holmes launched the revised appeal, various countries spoke. Thailand emphasized that humanitarian aid should not be politicized. The U.S. spoke about its C-130 cargo flights which ended on June 22. The UK chimes in that it is contributing a further $90 million. (The U.S. has given $47). And then the representative of France spoke, saying

"My country and the international community in general is gravely preoccupied by the situation in Burma... Let me remind our partners that the Security Council is dealing with the situation on the political side, independent of the mission of Mr. Gambari."

Various Ambassadors scoffed, one told Inner City Press that France was just grandstanding. Afterwards, a Permanent Five member of the Security Council told Inner City Press that France has "embarrassed John Holmes." Inner City Press asked Holmes to respond to this; he said that France

"was trying to make a political point. They want to pursue the political agenda. But... that's why Ibrahim Gambari is preparing to go back there. I didn't feel embarrassed by it. It just wasn't particularly relevant to what we were saying."

An irony is that those who pushed so loudly to get their own humanitarians into Myanmar have not pushed at all to make sure that through currency exchange aid meant for victims of the cyclone is not siphoned off to benefit the military government. One diplomat remarked to Inner City Press, France just wanted to "film its MSF and ACF workers there in Myanmar."

Inner City Press asked Dan Baker if the UN is doing anything to help the Karen people, including IDPs fleeing military action in the east of the country. "We have actually less access to that region," Baker said, mentioning a trust fund set up to help on the issue. But how is the money in the trust fund converted to local currency? Two weeks after Inner City Press asked UNDP the question, the following arrived on July 10:

"UNDP Funds are remitted into the UNDP US dollar account at Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. UNDP Myanmar exchanges US dollars for Foreign Exchange Certificates at the Bank, and then converts these into local currency (Kyat). The exchange rate is based on the prevailing [most competitive] rate in the market, which can fluctuate."

We will have more on these "fluctuations." For now we note this response to the question of whether the UN and UNICEF have been pressured by the Myanmar government to hold their press conferences about the cyclone only in Yangon.

Footnote: Ibrahim Gambari, whose mission on Myanmar was mentioned by both France and the UN's Holmes, is reported to have resigned his recent role in the Niger Delta conflict. While it has been explained that he took a leave of absence from the UN for that work, Inner City Press on Thursday asked the UN spokesperson if she could confirm or deny that Gambari resigned his role. It is in her personal capacity, she said. But would he tell the UN if he quit his Nigeria role? Of course, she said. Has he told the UN that? Not that I know of, she said. Watch this site. And this --

UNICEF praises Myanmar for recovery from cyclone

Jul 7, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar (The Star-AP) — Disaster recovery and relief efforts are progressing well in Myanmar's cyclone-hit areas, despite logistical obstacles, a United Nations agency said Monday.

"The government has allocated a lot of money to relief and recovery," UNICEF spokeswoman Zafrin Chowdhury told The Associated Press, praising individual volunteers as well for their work.

Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3 cut a swath of destruction through the Irrawaddy delta and the country's largest city of Yangon, killing 84,537 people and leaving 53,836 missing.

Chowdhury said the logistics of providing relief were daunting.

"It's a very challenging situation. Access is quite difficult and most places in the delta are reachable only by boat," she said. Helicopters chartered on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program are also being used to airlift essential supplies where trucks cannot go.

"From our own observations, assistance has reached many of the remote areas," said Chowdhury.

The casualties from the storm were on a scale experienced by other countries from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which largely spared Myanmar.

An Indonesian expert compared Myanmar's recovery effort favorably to the one made by his own country after the tsunami.

Heru Prasetyo of Tsunami Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for Aceh and Nias spoke at a meeting last week to review post-disaster response and recovery. It looked at the work and future duties of the Tripartite Core Group, comprising representatives of the government, U.N. agencies and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nation, ASEAN — of which Myanmar is a member.

"Judging the progress at the eighth week so far, the TCG efforts in managing response and preparing the recovery has placed Myanmar Nargis in much more advanced stage compared to the Aceh tsunami then," Heru said at the meeting.

But he warned that the work remaining "will be uphill and arduous."

An ASEAN-led Post-Nargis Joint Assessment Team that surveyed cyclone-hit parts of Myanmar issued preliminary findings late last month indicating that a feared wave of post-cyclone deaths and disease had not occurred.

The team's full report is supposed to be released at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on July 20-21 in Singapore.


See **Press Conferences

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

**Statement on Darfur

Good afternoon, all. We first have a statement attributable to the Secretary-General. On 8 July at approximately 14:45 local time, a UN-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) joint police and military patrol was ambushed by unidentified militia between Gusa Jamat and Wadah. The attackers used heavy weapons and engaged the UNAMID convoy in an exchange of fire for more than two hours. Seven peacekeepers were killed and twenty-two were wounded, seven of them critically.

The Secretary-General condemns in the strongest possible terms this unacceptable act of extreme violence against AU-UN peacekeepers in Darfur and calls on the Government of Sudan to do its utmost to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly identified and brought to justice. The Secretary-General expresses his deepest condolences to the families of the peacekeepers who lost their lives, and reiterates his appreciation for their service, valour and commitment to the search for peace in Darfur.

The Secretary-General calls on all parties to respect their agreements, to redouble their efforts to ensure the safety and integrity of the peacekeeping force and reach a comprehensive settlement to the crisis in Darfur as soon as possible. The Secretary-General reiterates his appeal to the international community to provide all necessary support to the peacekeeping force in Darfur.

**Secretary-General in Japan

The Secretary-General is flying back to New York now, after he participated earlier today in the Summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) leaders in Hokkaido, by attending the meeting of the Major Economies on Climate Change. Before leaving Japan, he issued a statement saying that he was grateful at the focused discussions by the Group of Eight and other world leaders at the Summit on the three interrelated global crises of climate change, food security and development. The discussion, he said, provides initial direction for global efforts that must be accelerated in the coming weeks and months.

The Secretary-General welcomed the statement of the G-8 on climate change and the environment, including the long-term goal of reducing emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050. This, against a 1990 baseline, is a clear step forward, but we must go further, he said. He added that he was happy to see the strong commitment of the G-8 to address the global food crisis in a Global Partnership for Food, facilitated and coordinated by the United Nations.

The Secretary-General appreciated particularly the endorsement received for his High-Level Task Force and its Comprehensive Framework for Action. He added that we must use the current crisis as an opportunity to significantly step up public and private investment into agricultural production and research, and into rural infrastructure at levels above $25 billion per year. The Secretary-General emphasized that, following the Summit, the challenge now is to move beyond discussions to action. We have his full statement upstairs. The Secretary-General also had a bilateral meeting with the Indonesian President before departing from Japan, ending his three-nation, 13-day trip to North Asia.

**Security Council

The Security Council this morning received a briefing in closed consultations from Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe about the Secretary-General’s recent report on the implementation of resolution 1701, concerning Lebanon. Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, the Director of the Asia and Middle East Division of the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, also briefed the Council on the work of the UN Interim Force, UNIFIL. Both of them spoke to you at the stakeout a little earlier today. In the report, the Secretary-General says that he looks forward to the speedy establishment of a national unity Government in Lebanon and to the revitalization of the country’s constitutional institutions.

Then, at 3 this afternoon, Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, will brief the Security Council in an open meeting on the UN’s work in that country. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, who visited Afghanistan recently, will also brief, and he’ll talk to reporters afterward at the Council stakeout.

** Afghanistan

Speaking of Afghanistan, the United Nations and the Government of Afghanistan today launched an appeal in Kabul, asking for $404 million to feed 4.5 million of the most vulnerable people in that country following poor harvests, drought and the rise in worldwide food prices. Bo Asplund, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, said that there is an urgent need to provide life-saving assistance to Afghanistan’s people, the needs are great and the time is limited. We have more details in a press release upstairs.

**Security Council on Tuesday

The Security Council President, Ambassador Le Luong Minh of Viet Nam, yesterday read out two press statements, on Somalia and on Pakistan, following the Council’s consultations. On Pakistan, he said, Council members condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist suicide attack that took place in Islamabad on Sunday, as well as the terrorist attacks that occurred in parts of Karachi the following day. Council members also condemned in the strongest terms the killing over the weekend of the officer in charge of the UN Development Programme office in Mogadishu and the wounding of other people, including his brother and son, in the same attack. They reaffirmed the imperative to respect in all circumstances the safety and security of UN and humanitarian relief personnel.

**WFP Somalia

On Somalia, for the fourth time this year, a World Food Programme (WFP) contracted driver has been killed in Somalia. Ahmed Saalim was travelling as part of a convoy of WFP-contracted trucks in the Lower Shabelle region on Monday. He was shot after fighting broke out between convoy escorts and militiamen at a checkpoint. WFP sends its condolences to Saalim’s family and appeals for such killings to stop. WFP also urges all parties to allow the safe passage of humanitarian staff and assistance at a time when the need for such aid is on the rise. Monday’s shooting occurred just one day after the head of the UN Development Programme in Somalia was shot and killed outside a mosque in Mogadishu. We have more information upstairs.

** Middle East

On the Middle East, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, today wrapped up a series of visits to Cairo and Amman, having previously met with President Mahmoud Abbas and senior Israeli officials. During his travels, Serry discussed all aspects of the Middle East peace process and voiced the UN’s support for Egypt’s efforts to solidify calm in Gaza and improve conditions for the civilian population. Serry further underlined the Secretary-General’s support for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations, President Abbas’ efforts on Palestinian unity, and the indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

** Greece and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the talks between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Matthew Nimetz, will be holding technical consultations in New York with both sides separately. Nimetz will meet with a delegation from Skopje on Thursday, 10 July, and with a delegation from Athens on Monday, 14 July. The purpose of these meetings is to hold working sessions focused on elements of a possible agreement. No joint meeting or statement is expected.

**Democratic Republic of Congo

In his latest report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is out as a document today, the Secretary-General says that key benchmarks for a gradual drawdown of the UN Mission (MONUC) include a resolution of the crisis in the Kivus and the development of legitimate Government institutions. On the situation in the east, the Secretary-General says that success in the Goma and Nairobi processes will depend on the sustained political engagement of all parties. He encourages the parties to make use of the Amani Programme, which was created to implement recent agreements, to build confidence among themselves and address the plight of the refugees and internally displaced persons. On the other hand, the Secretary-General is concerned that, while the ceasefire has generally held, recent clashes and the continued recruitment by armed groups threaten to destabilize the north-east again.

** Uganda

Out on the racks today also is a letter from the Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council that includes a full report on the Juba peace talks between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The report, which was written by Chief Mediator Riek Machar, the Vice-President of the Government of Southern Sudan, reviews the current situation and makes a number of recommendations on the way forward.

**Food and Agriculture Organization and Food Crisis

Turning to the global food crisis, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today vastly expanded its initiative to help small farmers and vulnerable households deal with rising prices. FAO approved $21 million worth of projects in 48 countries, bringing the total number of countries now covered by the initiative to 54. The projects will provide farmers with seeds, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs for one year. The immediate objective is to ensure the success of the next planting season. But the longer-term goal is to show that increasing the supply of key agricultural inputs allows small farmers to rapidly increase food production. There is more information upstairs.

** Iraq Displaced Persons

The Government of Iraq today launched a policy to improve the situation for displaced persons and returnees following wide-scale consultations with displaced persons around the country by Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in coordination with other partners. We have details in a press release, from UNHCR and the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, upstairs.

**DPI/NGO Conference

And for the first time, the meeting of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) hosted each year by the Department of Public Information will be held in Paris to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948 in the French capital. This sixty-first annual DPI/NGO Conference from the 3rd to the 5th of September is being held outside of UN Headquarters at UNESCO in Paris. It will bring together more than 2,000 participants from some 90 countries around the theme “Reaffirming Human Rights: The Universal Declaration at 60”.

And a new website has just been launched this week to provide useful information, in English and French, to the NGO community and other civil society members interested in participating in or contributing to the work of the sixty-first annual DPI/NGO Conference. You can visit the site at And you have more details, of course, upstairs in my office.

**Press Conferences

My guest at the briefing tomorrow will be Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, accompanied by UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar, Dan Baker. They will be here to brief you following the launch of the revised Appeal for Myanmar. Mr. Holmes will also be joining me again on Friday to highlight the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa. Also tomorrow, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Foreign Minister of Pakistan, will hold a press briefing here in Room 226 at 4:40 p.m. And this is all I have for you. Thank you.

**Questions and Answers

Question: Just to clarify, Holmes will be briefing us after this noon briefing?

Spokesperson: No, it will be tomorrow. He will be briefing this afternoon at the stakeout on Afghanistan.

Question: The Khambo of Lama during the G-8 Summit yesterday urged leaders to condemn oppression of civil liberties in Myanmar and Tibet. Does the Secretary-General agree with that proposal?

Spokesperson: Whose proposal was it?

Question: He represents the Dalai Lama. And yesterday in a private religious meeting he had urged leaders to condemn what he calls oppression in Tibet and Myanmar.

Spokesperson: This is his appeal. The Secretary-General has nothing to say on this. His position on Myanmar has been clear from the start and he has reiterated his position on China on several occasions.

Question: Is there any special reason to shift the DPI/NGO annual conference to Paris? Because this used to be the forerunner to the General Assembly session, the tradition.

Spokesperson: It is a special occasion, the special occasion being the sixtieth anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration that was signed in Paris. So it is a way to pay attention to that Declaration.

Question: What I had in mind was that NGO representatives used to have a lot of problems getting US visas. I thought it had been shifted because of the visa problem.

Spokesperson: No, I don’t think there is any relationship.

Question: I don’t know if you addressed this, and if you did, I missed it and I’m sorry. Did the Secretary-General have anything to say about the test missile, the missile testing by Iran?

Spokesperson: Not at this point.

Question: It’s not a threat to international peace and security, I guess.

Spokesperson: It hasn’t been discussed.

Question: Michèle, it’s been a long time since we heard from the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq. Does he have a latest report or statement on Iraq?

Spokesperson: No, we don’t have anything from there now.

Question: And Sudan? Special Representative Ashraf Qazi made a statement the day before yesterday but has he had a statement since then?

Spokesperson: We had a statement earlier about the incident that occurred. We don’t have anything additional now.

Question: The President of the General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim, just said the Secretary-General would be briefing the General Assembly about the selection of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He said within the next 10 days. He previously called for GA input into the decision. Is the Secretary-General going to brief the Assembly before announcing who has the post or after?

Spokesperson: From what I gather, afterwards.

Question: He’s going to brief them after he announces it. How’s that input?

Spokesperson: The input was already taken, not in a public forum, but input has been taken steadily from members of the General Assembly.

[The Spokesperson later added that the process of interviewing candidates for the post was still ongoing.]

Question: Also, there have been reports that OCHA and other UN agencies have been asked by Myanmar not to hold their press briefings in Bangkok, that previously they’d been holding weekly press briefings in Bangkok and they stopped. And the concern has been raised that all the press can’t get to Yangon to these new press briefings. Has the UN been told by Myanmar not to brief about the humanitarian crisis outside the country?

Spokesperson: Not that I know of. I will get in touch with Bangkok to find out, but as far as I know, the regular briefings were held on a daily basis at the heart of the crisis, and when humanitarian workers started going into Myanmar, the intensity of briefings in Bangkok stopped. But they still have briefings in Bangkok. I can find out for you if there was any such request.

Question: That would be helpful. Also, if the briefings are done in Yangon, does the UN take any steps to make sure that the press can actually attend them, the independent press?

Spokesperson: I have to answer the first question before I can answer the second.

Question: The announcement about the Human Rights Commissioner is going to be made when?

Spokesperson: I don’t know yet. You had an answer from the Deputy Secretary-General yesterday and I don’t have anything more to add.

Question: I wonder if the Secretary-General has any thoughts about one theory regarding the bombing outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, that it was the work of terrorists from Pakistan. And also, an unrelated question, why is all this drilling going on now if we’re going to move?

Spokesperson: Both questions were answered yesterday. Monday we had a statement on what happened outside the Indian Embassy. About the drilling, as you know, we are trying to be up to standards in terms of fire safety.

Question: Even though we’re going to move and the whole renovation thing is supposed to take place?

Spokesperson: Yes, but in the meantime, we have to comply.

Question: Seems redundant.

Spokesperson: Yes, the question was asked yesterday and I explained what the drilling was about.

Question: Yesterday at the stakeout, Russian Ambassador Churkin said the Secretary-General had overstepped his bounds in the reconfiguration in Kosovo, and he specifically took issue with this idea that the EULEX force would not be reporting either to UNMIK or to the UN in New York. Is there any response to what Churkin said and does the UN feel EULEX should report to it?

Spokesperson: The positions were clear from the start. This is the position, of course, of the Russian Ambassador and he expressed his opinion and that’s all I can say.

Question: On the incident in Darfur, is the UN going to play any role in trying to determine what forces were responsible? Some reports said Janjaweed, some reports have said others. How are we going to find out who actually did this act?

Spokesperson: At this point, all we have right now are some details on the event, exactly what took place. In terms of the investigation itself, I’ll try to find out whether there will be any UN investigation. But they did ask for an investigation by the Government on who did it and they asked that the perpetrators be brought to justice. I’ll try to find out whether the UN will play any role in identifying the perpetrators.

Question: Michèle, as you know, tensions in the Persian Gulf are rising because of this Israeli exercise which is preparation for war on Iran and Iran shooting missiles capable of going the distance. So is the Secretary-General concerned? Is he going to take this up with the Security Council members once he comes back?

Spokesperson: The increase of tension he’s certainly aware of and he’s taking note of it. At this point, he’s not taking any action directly to the Security Council. And I’m sure the Security Council Members are also aware of what is happening and if there is anything to be done, they can initiate it right in the Security Council, which doesn’t need the Secretary-General to bring this to them.

Question: Doesn’t he consult with the Security Council? What I’m saying is, when he comes back, will he discuss this because this is an issue of great importance for world peace? International peace and security are at stake. So many players are involved, between the United States and Israel and Iran and the European Union. There’s so much going on.

Spokesperson: He’s certainly concerned by it, but that’s all I can say at this point.

Question: One last question. The Society of Professional Journalists, in their July issue, said they wrote to the Secretary-General on granting access to Taiwanese journalists to the UN. Has the Secretary-General responded to that letter? Are you aware of that letter?

Spokesperson: I’m not aware of the letter. I can find out but I think it’s come up several times and we have already answered that question many times. I don’t think there’s going to be any different position on the part of the UN.

Question: Can you explain that position again?

Spokesperson: I can summarize the position by saying that there was a resolution taken by the General Assembly that there was one State that was the Chinese State, that was recognized as a Member of the Security Council, and that was mainland China. This is what led to the fact that Taiwan is no longer in the General Assembly. So there was a decision taken by Member States and that position really has led, as a consequence, to the fact that there are no Taiwanese journalists, as you say, who receive credentials, because you have to have credentials from a Member State of the United Nations. That’s all.

Question: Were Swiss journalists, before they were a Member State, were they accredited?

Spokesperson: I don’t think so.

Question: There were no Swiss journalists?

Spokesperson: I don’t think so. Thank you.

[The Spokesperson later clarified that among the criteria for United Nations Accreditation of Media is the requirement that journalists wishing to be accredited must hold a valid passport from “a State recognized by the United Nations General Assembly”. Prior to Switzerland becoming a Member State of the United Nations, it enjoyed observer status, and Swiss reporters were therefore indeed accredited in the United Nations system, she added.]

* *** *

UN's Currency Transactions with Myanmar Regime Questioned, UNDP's Two Week Stonewall, Press Closed Out

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 9 -- While the UN is now full of praise of Myanmar, it has emerged that UN agencies have been exchanging currency at artificially low rates with the Than Shwe government. Sources told Inner City Press that the UN Development Program, for one, was quietly allowing the Myanmar military regime to profit from each exchange made for local currency to distribute to Cyclone Nargis victims.

Two weeks ago, Inner City Press asked UNDP about what currency exchange rates it has been accepting in Myanmar. The agency's new spokesman committed to provide an answer. After 12 days without information, the question was reiterated, and also posed to UNICEF, which usually provides more timely answers. Inner City Press also asked the UN's Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes about what exchange rates are being accepted. "I'll find out," Holmes has answered. Video here, from Minute 4:34. While admitting he didn't know, he said there are no "dodgy deals" in currency exchange in Myanmar. Video here, from Minute 4:34.

Holmes may well be wrong. Inner City Press' sources tell it that the military government is in fact profiting from post-Cyclone aid, including through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, in which both UN and aid agencies, as well as expatriate Burmese who send remittances to their families, must have accounts. The exchange rate this government-controlled bank gives is lower that the actual, free-market rate; the government pockets the difference.

Even pending John Holmes' answer, some humanitarians have argued that it is worth it to allow the Than Shwe government to steal some percentage of aid, in order to reach needy people. But what percentage is acceptable? And if the UN never discloses it, how and by whom is the decision being made? Watch this site.

Also on Myanmar, while the UN Spokesperson was dismissive of Inner City Press' questioning of whether the Than Shwe government had ordered the UN to stop giving its Nargis relief press conference in Bangkok, and limit them to the friendly confines of Yangon, when Inner City Press put the same question to John Holmes later on Wednesday, he acknowledged that he is aware that the Myanmar government would rather the briefings be held in Yangon. Video here, from Minute 9:33.

When Inner City Press asked him what safeguards are in place that independent media can access the briefings in Yangon, Holmes quipped that he briefs in New York and "you are here." But that's not the point. Is the UN giving in to the Than Shwe government's attempts to control not only currency exchange, but also information exchange?

Update of July 10 -- UNICEF points to this letter to the editor...

Holmes gives another briefing on Thursday, at which he is expected to have answers at least on the currency questions. Watch this site. And this --

As Ban Heads to Asia, UN Labor Strife Heats Up, Safety in Shambles, UNDP Runs Wild

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, June 26, updated June 27 -- As Ban Ki-moon gave a speech to the Korean and Japan Societies on 47th Street, on the eve of setting off on a trip to both countries, his human resources staff worked overtime on the 25th floor of UN Headquarters, trying desperately to finalize a deal with a grouping of unions that represents neither UN staff in New York nor Geneva. While Ban came in promising to focus on improving the UN's own operations, things have grown more discordant under his distracted watch, close observers say.

While Ban read out his speech, back in the General Assembly lobby the talks was of security. Who will replace resigning chief David Veness? Most mused that he'd never really wanted the job, declining to come to be interviewed, then not moving his family to New York. He'd thought he be head of Scotland Yard, but then got was named "Sir" as a consolation. His role in not solving the theft of millions from the UN in Somalia is a story for another day. But his resignation now is not accountability but convenience, these sources say.

In Algiers at the time of December's deadly bombing, for safety the UN's Designated Officer was Marc de Bernis from the UN Development Program. One would have expected, then, for safety improvements to be a major topic at this month's annual meeting of UNDP's Executive Board, held in Geneva. One might be wrong however.

Likewise, when on June 3 the Nemeth Panel's report on UNDP in North Korea was released, the press was told that the report would be presented to UNDP's executive board later in the month. Other after that, it was said, could the Nemeth panel answer questions. But the report was hardly presented to the Executive Board, despite requests from a number of countries. It appeared as a lunchtime item on June 24, leaving some member states on the Board grumbling. Thereafter, some additional time was added. We anticipate receiving an audio recording of the discussion, and will have more at that time.

There is a method to UNDP's seeming madness, and that method is to try to make problems go away. In Myanmar, for example, in the wake of Nargis UNDP undertook getting cash into the hands of the needy. Inner City Press' sources say UNDP paid dollars to Myanmar's government, and got local currency back at an artificially low official exchange rate.

Inner City Press asked UNDP spokesman "could you confirm or deny that a meeting was called at UNDP HQ today about Myanmar, and separately if it had anything to do with currency, exchange rates." For now he has replied, "On Myanmar, I am following up... there are meetings about specific countries every day. On Myanmar, there have "crisis board" meetings held on regular basis since the cyclone two months ago. There is nothing peculiar about this. In fact, it's part of the regular mechanism to deal with on-going emergencies."

The new resident representative in Myanmar, these sources say, is now trying to disappear this problem as well.

Among the disappeared, we're told, is Marc de Bernis himself. He's said to be on paid home leave, with Daily Sustenance Allowance, just don't talk to the press. But if the Brahimi and DSS reports are truly, he should face accountability. We'll see -- we'll have more on this.

On another labor front, the contract with UN TV personnel which expires on June 30 has still not been extended. The UN's contractor National Mobile Television has financial problems; its subsidiary Venue Services is not itself registered as a vendor. The UN staffer ostensible riding herd over the process left the building on June 23 until September, to cover the Beijing Olympics for NBC. While not technically permissible, one Andrew Nye gave the green light. But might the lights go off, on UN TV productions? Only time -- and July -- will tell. Watch this site.

Myanmar Tweaks Its Theft of UN Aid Funds from 25% to 17%, Donor Anger Grows at "Burma Shave"

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
FEC/Burma Shave series - 1st (June 26), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, last

UNITED NATIONS, July 26 -- Under fire for taking a 25% cut of UN aid money, Myanmar's government has implemented a temporary fix or cover-up. It has announced that certain taxes and fees can be paid with the Foreign Exchange Certificates it requires that the UN convert dollars into. Last week, this temporarily raised to street value of FECs from 880 kyats, the local currency, to 980 kyats, limiting exchange losses from 25% back to 17%. But now the spread is back to 21%, with the FEC to kyat exchange rate sliding back to 950 to 1, compared to 1180 kyats per dollar.

The temporary fix or cover-up did not work. Even at its best, is a 17% loss of aid funds to the Myanmar government acceptable to donors? Why were these losses never disclosed while funds were being raised, including in UN appeals for $200 million and then, earlier this month, $300 million more?

Inner City Press raised the issue in print and to the UN Development Program on June 26, then to UN humanitarian chief John Holmes at the Security Council stakeout on July 9 and at two subsequent briefings. On July 10, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar Dan Baker denied there were losses to the government. The next day Holmes said losses were "relatively small and transitory," but when asked by Inner City Press about internal UN documents indicating otherwise, he committed to look into the issue while visiting Myanmar. On July 24 he admitted serious losses, said he'd raised them to the government, and that "they did not say exactly how but they said they would try to find ways by which we could get round the problem."

Temporarily allowing more things to be paid for in FECs, thereby slightly (and only temporarily) bringing FECs' value closer to that of the dollar, is not getting round the problem -- it is covering the problem up so that the siphoning of aid money, which Inner City Press first pegged as the "Burma Shave," can continue in the future, including as reconstruction money flows in. The UN, given that it knew of but covered up this problem, cannot be relied on to solve it, many donors are saying. Demands for repayment of losses to Than Shwe's Burma Shave are growing.

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Asia forum reviews threats to peace, prosperity

By Bill Tarrant

SINGAPORE (The Star-Reuters) - Asia-Pacific nations began annual talks on Thursday about threats to the region's security and prosperity, ranging from global financial turmoil and disaster preparedness to border spats and nuclear diplomacy.

The ASEAN Regional Forum brings together the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations with Asia-Pacific powers, including the United States, Japan, China, India, Russia and Australia.

The forum, which has ambitions ultimately of evolving beyond a "talk-shop", is expected to give a big round of applause to six of its participants, who had what was described as "a good meeting" on Wednesday on North Korea nuclear disarmament.

"What we're excited about (is) because security there means security for the East Asian region, and it means security for us as well," New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters told reporters during a break in the forum.

"That's just one less perilous risk that the world will have to take in the future," Peters said, adding that North Korea stands to "get enormous assistance internationally, including New Zealand assistance, to head down that new path."

The first meeting of foreign ministers from the six nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, showed a "political will" to move the disarmament process forward, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said after the meeting on Wednesday.

Rice -- the first U.S. foreign minister to sit down with the North Koreans since 2004 -- said she urged Pyongyang to quickly agree to the so-called verification protocol circulated earlier this month among the six parties.

"I don't think the North Koreans left with any illusions about the fact that the ball is in their court and that everybody believes they have got to respond and respond positively on verification," Rice told reporters on Thursday.


Food and energy security is also on the agenda at the forum. Spiralling food and energy prices have unsettled many countries in Asia, many of whom have been forced to take the politically unpopular route of slashing fuel subsidies.

Central banks in the region are feverishly intervening in foreign exchange markets to prop up their currencies as a defence against imported inflation at a time when their exports to the west are declining due to sluggish growth, if not outright recession, in those markets.

Rice exporters Vietnam and India have slapped export curbs on Asia's main food staple, and some have expressed fears of a new mutation of the 1997/98 "Asian Contagion" financial crisis.

In bilateral meetings so far this week, ASEAN agreed to work with China to enhance rice yields, and plans a "Green Fund" with India to promote climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Countries are also discussing ways to improve transport in the region by liberalising air routes and increasing road links, with a proposal for a India-Myanmar-Thailand highway.

Cooperation on health pandemics and natural disasters is also on the agenda. Japan said it would improve the capacity to react to pandemics by stockpiling an extra half a million doses of anti-viral medication in each ASEAN country.

Ministers were also discussing a plan to hold military-led disaster relief exercises in the Philippines next year. Officials states need to test how they might help each other in disasters such as the recent Myanmar cyclone and the China quake.

The forum is also expected to endorse ASEAN's efforts to settle a border fracas between two of its members, Thailand and Cambodia. Cambodia earlier this week submitted a letter to the U.N. Security Council asking it to convene an urgent meeting to help resolve its military standoff with Thailand on their border.

The council is expected to meet on Monday.

The forum is also expected to back ASEAN's call on Myanmar to free all political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and adopt democratic reforms.

"We're not here because it's a talk-shop," Peters said. "We're here because (ARF's) got a serious purpose and a whole range of issues, whether it's transnational crime, terrorism, maritime security ... and we've got some responsible things to do in the interest of the people's security in the individual countries in the region," the New Zealand foreign minister said.

(Additional reporting by Neil Chatterjee, Manny Mogato and Melanie Lee)

Human rights without tears


(The Star) - Malaysia may, in effect, lead Asean countries to more realistic and progressive human rights practices.

OBSERVERS at Asean’s Ministerial Meeting in Singapore over the week might have sensed the huge double challenges to the region from the very start of the gathering.

With Singapore as host, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his opening speech that Asean would soon start work on two key areas of its landmark charter – an Asean human rights body and a dispute settlement mechanism – when both objectives seem more remote than ever.

These are highly charged, predictably controversial and inevitably convoluted issues at the best of times. For Asean to dive into them now shows either courage or foolhardiness, but most of all a pained sense of necessity.

Even as delegates spoke, an implacable Myanmar insisted Aung San Suu Kyi would not be freed anytime soon, and Thailand and Cambodia were at each other’s throats. And none of these predicaments seemed likely to see early resolution, but quite the reverse.

News reports flew back and forth about 400 additional Thai troops at the border, then more than 500, a Thai estimate of 1,000 Cambodian soldiers, then a Cambodian estimate of 4,000 Thai troops. Media on both sides did not disappoint, stirring the pot to bring it to the boil.

To add spice, a nationally besieged Thai premier and his hopeful Cambodian counterpart campaigning for today’s election let the nationalist temperatures rise. The politicians did not disappoint either, at least in being political operators.

Yet all this does not even begin to consider other intractable issues, from rival maritime claims between Singapore and Malaysia to more complex rival claims over the Spratly Islands and other territory. Asean has never been accused of busying itself with philosophical questions alone, and these days there is no shortage of real-life problems.

Developing a regional human rights regime, properly codified and documented, remains another minefield. The week’s events across the Asean meeting table showed political positioning moving more than diplomatic agreement, indicating more hard labour ahead.

Not so long ago, progress in talks on human rights and democracy saw two distinct groups within Asean: Indonesia (post-Suharto) and the Philippines (long post-Marcos) heading the older set of members looking confident, and the newer CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) members oozing reluctance.

For a time, the situation was complicated by Singapore and Thailand soft-pedalling Myanmar for self-interested reasons of business investment. That changed quickly after Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled as Thai premier.

The Malaysian approach

Both countries then came closer to Malaysia’s position, where a vocal bipartisan caucus of parliamentarians and supportive NGOs had been pressing for progress in Myanmar. Physically located between Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia seemed to be easing a geographically contiguous strand of Asean closer to the positions of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Now that has changed again, if only relatively. Recent reports suggest that on the specific issue of the proposed Asean human rights body, Singapore has moved towards the CLMV “corner” while Malaysia has become identified with a more progressive “old Asean”.

Central to some countries’ reservations about the proposed body’s terms of reference are the likely scope and impact on member governments’ own behaviour. How to manage protests, control dissent or conduct “political business as usual” with deterrents against state excesses?

This situation is not limited to South-East Asia or developing regions. Even as the world’s sole superpower, the United States refuses to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) for fear its own president and soldiers abroad would get caught in it, despite the praises for Serbia’s dispatch of Radovan Karadzic to the ICC.

For its part, Malaysia is not advocating a free-for-all in the rights body’s terms of reference. Seldom is anything in international diplomacy black-and-white, least of all when building an Asian human rights institution.

Malaysia’s nuanced approach comes with what Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim calls an “Asian value system” in human rights considerations. He has raised the point before in the performing arts as Malaysia’s former Culture, Arts and Heritage minister.

In international politics, however, there can be over-zealous knee-jerk reactions to any official consideration of “Asian values” in a human rights context, with notions of authoritarian officialdom or worse. Properly interpreted, that need not be so.

The tried and tested system in Asia of settling disputes, for example, could see fair and just arbitration through peer nations, regional community councils, an impartial third party, a combination of legitimate stakeholders or some other variant of what indigenous communities in Pacific Asia have practised for centuries.

Knowledge is still lacking about East Asia’s methods, as a question at a recent Shanghai workshop about Confucius’ views showed. Even for a classical traditionalist like him the people came first, since it is said corruption and injustice would themselves justify a mass revolt.

Conceived diligently to be practicable and presented carefully to avoid misinterpretation, Malaysia can take a more enlightened approach to the proposed rights body’s terms of reference. In doing so it can help lead Asean countries to a common position that promises better rights observances across the region, in part by showing there is nothing to fear by being fair.