Saturday, July 24, 2010

Timber seizure establishes Myanmar link

City view from the Gandhimandap, Guwahati. Loo...Image via Wikipedia
The Assam Tribune Online
StStaff reporter

 GUWAHATI, July 24 – Customs officials today formally completed the seizure process of the 42 railway wagonloads of illegal timber at the Bamunimaidam BG yard. The value of the timber, mostly teak and pinewood, is valued at around Rs 80 crore.

A customs official said that the unloading of the timber continued well into the night as it was a huge consignment. “We are completing the official formalities and the timber would be handed over to the Railways. The seizure has been done under Section 110 of the Customs Act-1962,” he added.

The official said that the seizure established the Myanmar connection of smuggled wood in which the North-east was often used as a conduit. “It had often been doubted for long that the illegal timber comes from Myanmar, but today it has been established. There is no hammer marking of the Forest Department which is mandatory for transit pass,” he said.

It was on Friday that in one of the biggest seizure of illegal trade in timber, customs officials had seized the huge consignment staked in 42 railway wagons in Guwahati.

The timber was meant for sale to 25-odd buyers in New Delhi’s Nangloi region for the timber industry there. The customs officials had come to learn about the illegal consignment on July 10.
aff reporter

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Refugees in Dilemma

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ...Image via Wikipedia
Dr Ko Ko Gyi’s Blog

By drkokogyi

This in the second part of two-series interview with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia Alan Vernon on issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers.

Vernon said the UNHCR has always taken efforts to ensure that the refugees stay away from trouble and respect the local laws.

“A refugee is not above the law. If they break the law they can be charged under the law like the rest.

“The UNHCR identification document offers no immunity. They have to follow the law, they have to recognise that their presence here are not something that they can take for granted.

“They are guests in a foreign country and they need to behave as a guest. They should not make the Malaysian people feel threatened or unhappy on their presence,” said Vernon.

Being in a foreign land and with an uncertain future, the refugees in Malaysia have to work their way to survive.

“They are very hard working, doing odd jobs or taking up whatever work opportunity available. This is one thing that makes them good for resettlement,” said Alan Vernon the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

“It would be a great idea to allow them to work formally. It would save money because they are already here.

“The refugees want to contribute to the country and support the society because they have a place to stay here.

“However, they do not get the opportunity to do so legally as they cannot obtain a work permit,” he said commenting on some suggestions to allow refugees in Malaysia to work.

Economic Opportunities

There is a stiff competition for employment opportunities as the refugee community is mostly concentrated around Kuala Lumpur, and to this Vernon suggested they should be dispersed around the country.

“The bulk is in Kuala Lumpur. We would like to move them out and the best way is by legal work opportunity. They can work in plantations, in manufacturing and in construction.

“There are many economic opportunities in other areas and that would decongest Kuala Lumpur. The group is hungry for work. They make very good workers because they know they have to survive,” said Vernon.

According to him, some of the refugees have very good skills useful to the Malaysian employers.

Better control and regulations over the refugees’ situation, in particular the employment issue will help avoid exploitation.

“We have to start today. Lets see if we can find a way to make the refugees more self reliant in terms of work so they don’t create a burden and a situation where we will have social problems.

“If people have a job they are not going to get involved in illegal activities. Their number may go up and may go down but it is better to have a policy and some system in place for dealing with the issue in a predictable way so that it can be properly managed,” said Vernon.

Children’s a Priority

There are some 19,000-refugee children below the age of 18 registered with UNHCR.

Some 10,600 of these children are of school-going age. Nevertheless, it is estimated that less than half of refugee children of school-going age have access to any form of education.

“I have many concerns over the refugees but their children are the priority.

“Children need to be educated. If they don’t get education, this robs their future and could create social problems later on.

“The Malaysian government has allowed the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide education for refugee children. That is a good thing,” said Vernon.

However, he told Bernama of the insufficient means and resources faced by the NGOs in providing the necessary education for the refugee children.

As such, the refugee communities themselves have organised education programmes for their children.

“Children who do not get educated are going to face a lot of difficulty in the future. They may end up with social problems in the future.

“So we rather have them educated so they can contribute to their community and when they return home they can contribute to their society and that can be a positive contribution from Malaysia in helping Myanmar, for example,” explained Vernon.

To Do More

UNHCR is hopeful that it can work more closely with the government, the NGOs and the public to help improve the quality and access to education for the refugee population.

“They did not choose to come to Malaysia. You can say their parents made a choice but not their children so for them we need to work together to try to improve the conditions for them.

“And there is a role for everyone, there is a role for the government, a role for the NGOs, a role for the volunteers and also a role for the United Nations,” said Vernon, adding there is also an important role for the refugees themselves.

UNHCR Initiatives

Where children’s education is concerned, UNHCR has made inroads in getting more refugee children to attend school. From about 2,500 in 2008, the number has currently increased to about 4,700.

UNHCR is also working with its NGO’s partners in training the teachers and to date has trained more than 120 teachers.

The UN body also provides books, stationeries and other school supplies besides getting volunteers’ support for the schools as well.

“All these are efforts to create a school system for the refugees.

“They cannot go to the government school. Even if the government opens up the schools for the refugees, of which I think is possible, not all will go because of the language barrier and also the fact that many of the children have missed school for many years,” explained Vernon, adding that the challenge remains to find an appropriate education programme for a diverse population.

Small Schools

There are about 60 refugee community schools initiated by some refugee groups besides those managed by UNHCR and several NGOs with the majority of them scattered around Kuala Lumpur.

The schools are often very small and set up at locations where the refugees are present.

The refugees, according to Vernon are reluctant to move around as they face a lot of constraints including money for transport.

“Schools are not really schools. Very often it is just an apartment space.

“As for the syllabus, we try to use the Malaysian curriculum but they also have some of their own cultural studies in anticipation of going home.

“The students also get language studies, some English, some Bahasa Melayu. Other subjects are math, science, history and social studies. Quality of schools vary from very good to not very good but we find ways to improve them,” he added.

Help to Help Themselves

UNHCR also has a team to help set up a leadership structure within the refugee community.

“We try to work with all of them and try to encourage them as much as we can but I have to be realistic. Some groups are better than others.

“Some groups easily form a group and organise themselves, others struggle with it. Some are more tolerant in having their women participating in leadership structures than others who think that is a bad idea,” said Vernon.

He too commented on some adverse publicities on some refugee groups but the number involved is small.

“The group here does not want to get into trouble because they know that their situation is fragile and they cannot turn to their government for help.

“So I rarely find refugees getting into trouble but you do have a larger migrant population and with such a big number you are going to face social problems. It is inevitable I think,” he said.

Not Above the Law

Vernon said the UNHCR has always taken efforts to ensure that the refugees stay away from trouble and respect the local laws.

“A refugee is not above the law. If they break the law they can be charged under the law like the rest.

“The UNHCR identification document offers no immunity. They have to follow the law, they have to recognise that their presence here are not something that they can take for granted.

“They are guests in a foreign country and they need to behave as a guest. They should not make the Malaysian people feel threatened or unhappy on their presence,” said Vernon.
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Top UN official views refugee-related issues in Malaysia

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ...Image via Wikipedia
Dr Ko Ko Gyi’s Blog

By drkokogyi

Bernama recently interviewed Alan Vernon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia where he spoke on several issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers. This is the first of the two series.

UNHCR also supported the Malaysian Government in resettling (in Malaysia) several thousand Muslim Chams from Cambodia in the 1980s and several hundred Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. (Refugee statistics)

KUALA LUMPUR, July 12 (Bernama) – Malaysia has been a heaven for refugees starting with the Vietnamese boat people who landed in droves on her shores following the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975.

At the height of the refugee crises about 250,000 Vietnamese people took shelter in Pulau Bidong (a small island off Terengganu’s coast) before most of them resettled in third countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway.

Also, about 9,000 of the refugees returned to Vietnam.

Even after the Pulau Bidong camp was finally closed in October 1991, Malaysia till today remains a heaven for refugees from other countries.

Refugees are actually a global problem and there are 50 million refugees world wide, said Alan Vernon, 56, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

UNHCR commenced operations in Malaysia in 1975 initially to deal with the Vietnamese boat people. UNHCR also helped the Malaysian Government in receiving and resettling over 50,000 Filipino Muslims who fled Mindanao to Sabah during the 1970s and 1980s.

UNHCR also supported the Malaysian Government in resettling several thousand Muslim Chams from Cambodia in the 1980s and several hundred Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. Refugee statistics

In Malaysia, at the end of May 2010 there were some 88,100 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR’s office where they were given the UNHCR identification document.

At present, Myanmar is seen as the biggest contributor of refugees to Malaysia with out of the total, 81,600 are from that ASEAN nation.

The Myanmar refugees consist of some 38,900 Chins, 18,900 Rohingyas, 6,400 Muslims, 3,800 Mon, 3,600 Kachins and the remaining being other ethnic minorities from Myanmar.

“Many more are in Thailand and that country has possibly four to five million refugees from Myanmar because they share the common border.

“For them to come to Malaysia, it is more difficult. They also come here because they know they can survive here. If they cannot survive, they will not come.

“So I think Malaysia is a victim of its own success. If your economy is worst, you will have your own refugees,” said Vernon.

Other 6,600 refugees and asylum-seekers are from other countries including some 3,500 Sri Lankans, 930 Somalis, 580 Iraqis, 530 Afghans and 200 Palestinians.

In terms of gender, 70 per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers are men while 30 per cent are women.

There are also a large number of unregistered refugees and asylum-seekers with their number estimated at 10,000 persons. Not in camps

One of the good things about refugees in Malaysia, as pointed out by Vernon is that they do not stay in camps.

The refugee communities live in decent low cost housings across the country, often sharing these spaces with large groups.

“Sometimes the people think camps are a good solution for refugees but generally what happened in camps is that the people suffer much, much more.

“You would also have a situation of forced dependency, people on welfare, people have to be taken care of in the camps.

“Very often when camps are created they tend to last longer than other kind of situations because the camps take on a life of their own,” explained Vernon who has been the UNHCR Representative in Malaysia since November 2008.

His association with refugees goes a long way starting with the Vietnamese refugees while he was teaching in the United States in 1978.

He joined UNHCR in 1987 and held the position of Associate Resettlement Officer in UNHCR Field Office in Kuala Terengganu (1987-1991). His other postings with UNHCR took him to Sri Lanka and Geneva.

Vernon noted it was a very positive move that the Malaysian government allows the refugees to move about, which means they could find ways to take care of themselves and to fulfil their own requirements. Refugees and migrants

However, there is one important thing that Vernon will like Malaysians to understand, that is, a refugee is not a migrant.

UNHCR’s definition of a refugee is a person who is forced to leave home based on a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of political opinion, ethnicity, religion or membership in a particular group.

“Luckily Malaysia has never had a situation like that. Malaysia has never produced refugees. We are very happy about that but are hopeful that Malaysians will be tolerant of the fact that refugees did not choose to come to Malaysia.

“They were forced to leave their homes and they cannot go back until the condition back home improves so that they are no longer at risk because of the fear that they face -imprisonment and possibly death.

“This is in contrast to migrants who made a choice to leave their countries for better economic opportunities or better education,” stressed Vernon.

It is estimated that Malaysia has in the region of three to four million migrants with 50 per cent of those being here legally. Common challenge

With no short term solution for the refugee problem, the common challenge is to find a way to fulfil the needs of the refugees and at the same time protect the interest of the host country as a whole.

For the record, Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Convention and its Protocol relating to the status of refugees.

Becoming a signatory to the Refugee Convention is an important thing to do otherwise everything has to be done on goodwill. However, this is not predictable and it does not provide guidance to all levels of government.

“So there is a need to put in a legal framework. This is very crucial. This is to make sure they are protected, they are safe, secure until such time when they can go home. Some of them can be resettled but this can never be a solution for every refugee,” he added.

Vernon told Bernama that there are fewer resettlement places than there are refugees in Malaysia.

He said his side submitted more than 10,000 refugees for resettlement last year but reiterated the best solution for refugees was to go home. Managing the issue

Where refugees are concerned, Vernon expresses his optimism that the success stories achieved with the Vietnamese boat people and the Achenese shows there is a solution for the refugee problem.

“When the Vietnamese boats started arriving in Malaysia in 1975 and increased in 1979, it felt like it would go on forever. But it was all over by 1991. The Achenese is another good example, they came and after tsunami they went home,” he said.

According to him, Myanmar is a country that is likely to continue producing refugees for sometime to come.

“There is an election this year and despite the problems in the country we are hopeful that things would get better there,” he added.

The practical reality is that, he said, Malaysia would need to think about how to deal with the situation in Myanmar. Malaysia being part of Asean should to take into account of the Myanmar refugee problem in its foreign policy and find ways to deal with the situation at the source.

“One of the challenges for Malaysia as it aspires to be a fully developed country by 2020 is that it will need to assume its global responsibility and one of those is to help the situation of refugees.

“The way it works has to be through partnership. UNHCR is here. Other NGOs and international communities can also help and I think there is plenty of space to manage this issue in a better way.

Source: Bernama website, Kuala Lumpur, in English 0000 gmt 12 Jul 10
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Chin refugees in Malaysia (Part 1)

Brooklyn Monk in Asia
Antonio Graceffo
July 24, 2010

Out of the Frying Pan, But Still Next to the Fire

The dead corpses of two mangled Chin babies represent the hopeless desperation of people fleeing Burma.

Burma’s citizens stow away in the trunks of cars or hide their children on overloaded fishing boats, giving all of their worldly possessions to pirates and human traffickers in the often vane hope of reaching a foreign country, that would give them refuge until they could be permanently resettled in a land of safety, the US, Canada, Australia, or western Europe.

For many, the desperate flight ends in death. For others, their brief moment of hope and first act of self-determination ends in forced slavery, prostitution, or detention.

For nearly all of them, it is a one way trip. They will never see their homes or their loved ones again.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 Chin refugees are currently taking refuge in Malaysia. The hardworking volunteers of the Chin Refugee Center, Malaysia (CRC) operating out of a small office with almost no funding does what they can help them.

The Chin people are one of the larger ethnic minorities in Burma. They come from Chin State, one of seven ethnic states. Chin State borders on India and Bangladesh. The population of Chin State is estimated at less than half a million. 80-90% of the Chin are Christian.

The Burmese junta subjected the Chin people to the same type of torture and abuse that they perpetrated against the Shan, Karen, Arakan, and other minority peoples. Refugees fleeing Burma tell of forced labor, rape, mutilation, execution and arbitrary detainment at the hands of the Burmese Army.

While many Chin chose to flee their home, others formed the Chin National Army to fight back, against the Burmese government troops. The CNA based themselves out of Nagaland, in neighboring India, as a way of avoiding the Burmese army.

According to a Chin representative, “The Nagaland army of India is fighting for independence from India so they were hiding in Burma. The Indian government asked Burma to chase the Nagaland army out of Burma. The Burmese government asked the Indians to chase the Chin National Army out of India.’

This bilateral agreement, between the governments of Burma and India was essentially the nail in the coffin of the Chin National Army.

The Chin representative went on to explain that the fight was hopeless anyway. “They cannot fight Myanmar army because it is one of the largest armies in the world.’

Including the Shan, Karen, Wa, and remnants of the Karenni and Chin and other ethnic armies combined, the total number of insurgents fighting against the Burmese junta would come to less than 100,000. The Burmese army, the tatmadaw, has nearly half a million troops.

“The Chin National Army is almost finished now. They also have their own families and had to go home to take care of their farms.” Explained the Chin representative.

In Malaysia, the UNHCR is often the only hope that refugees have. If they can get official recognition as refugees, signified by the issuance of a UNHCR card, there is a chance that they can be resettled in a third country.

On a recent visit to the office, Victor Sang, the coordinator of the Chin Refugee Center, Malaysia told me that about 20% of the Chin refugees had been issued UNHCR cards. But, recent attempts to get cards for their families had failed.

“Now the problem on the refuge side is once they get recognized as refugees they bring their family here. We cannot blame them.” Says Victor. “If they have been recognized as refugees and if there is any hope, then they want to bring their family here.”

Victor showed me a photo of women and children horribly mangled in an auto accident.

“These are the families of refugees.” He said. “They were coming here to join their father. They were chased by Thai police who shot out the tires, and 29 people were injured, 13 of them killed.”

Among the images of twisted metal and shattered lives, the one that stood out the most was that of two babies, Chin infants who never had a chance at life. Their tiny lives were ripped apart before they had even begun.

Cultures and languages differ from place to place, but a mother’s instincts are the same everywhere. No mother would ever risk the lives of her fragile children by taking such a dangerous flight unless the alternative was unspeakable horror.

These two bloody babies encapsulated in a single image the reality of life in Burma under the junta. Things in Burma are so bad that you would risk your children’s lives to keep them out of the hands of the generals.

Apparently the father was a Chin refugee in Malaysia who, seeing a mere glimmer of hope, had summoned his wife and children to join him. He had already lost everything when he left Burma, and now the junta had robbed him of his last happiness, his family.

“The father had to identify the babies.” Said Victor solemnly. He was quiet for a moment, then the grieving was shatter by the reality of the tens of thousands of people he was responsible for. “The survivors are all in detention in Thailand ….”

As desperate as life is for refugees in Malaysia, a large percentage of them never even get that far.

Chin State borders on India. So, to get to Malaysia, they must first cross Burma, then cross Thailand and walk all the way to Malaysia.

Some Chin flee to neighboring India. The first stop for Chin in India is Miseram, where Victor estimates there are 70,000 refugees.

“In India they have to go all of the way to Deli for their UNHCR card. It is very far and the process is very slow.”

The number of refugees is shocking. In India alone, Victor said, “There are 90,000 refugees waiting to get to Malaysia.”

Getting to Malaysia is a death defying feat.

“In December 45 Chin died on the sea. The boat was struck by a fishing boat possibly there was a dispute between smugglers so they rammed the boatload of refugees.”

For those lucky enough to make it to Malaysia, more woes await them.

“Life is very difficult for us here.” Explained Victor Sang “Although we are recognized
by UNHCR, we are not recognized by the Malaysian government.”

Another CRC administrator told me. “The Malaysian government doesn’t recognize the refugees as refugees. They recognize them as economic migrants.”

Victor said, “We live in fear of arrest. Almost continuously there are raids. The last three weeks on Sundays, especially in the area around the office there have been raids.”

Immigration enforcement raids in Malaysia are often carried out by RELA a sort of volunteer police force which acts, more or less with impunity. There have been wide spread reports of abuses by RELA, resulting in a wide range of organizations, from the UN down to the Malaysian Bar Association, who have asked the Malaysian government to disband what many see as a deputized band of thugs. Rather than disbanding, the group has now grown to a size rivaling that of the standing Malaysian military.

“We can get raided by RELA or stopped by police, and get arrested or asked for a bribe.” Said Victor.

For refugees without a UNCHR card, which is the overwhelming majority, there is the threat of immigration enforcement. For all refugees, even those with the cards, danger comes from illegal employment.

“The UN doesn’t give any money for refugees, only if they are sick in hospital, and the assistant is 300 -500 Ringits per month.”

So, the refugees are forced to work, illegally in order to eat and pay rent.

“In terms of job, it is difficult, because the government doesn’t allow us to work even if we have the UNHCR card.”

Any refugee who is working is, by definition breaking the law. But, with no support from other sources, work is the only means refugees have of feeding themselves and their families.

Apparently, there are some employers who accept refugees to work if they have a UNHCR card. But the salary is low and sometimes they get cheated.

“Most are working in construction sites or restaurants. Some refugees have been here 5 years and speak Bahasa. They can earn up to 70 or 80 (Around $21 to $24 USD) per day. But for others, they can only get 30 Ringits ($9.33 USD) per day.

The CRC doesn’t have a dormitory for the refugees, so most are living communally, renting a flat.

“We pay 1,580Ringits per month for a flat and have 40 people living in there. They live according to the village they came from in Burma or according to the dialect they speak. They share food. The one with no job have to eat too, so they share.”

Under current law in Malaysia, refugee children are not allowed to attend public school. So the refugees have organized their own schools. “We have around 40 community run schools for Chin children.”

The picture becomes bleaker and bleaker. There are between 40,000 and 50,000 Chin in Malaysia, who are not permitted to work, neither are their children permitted to go to school. About 8,000 to 10,000 of them have UNHCR cards, which, theoretically means that they were awaiting resettlement in a third country.

“The resettlement process depends on the resettlement countries. If they agree to accept more refugees, UNHCR sends more. But now, most host countries have decreased the number they accept. The total resettled is about 8,000 per year.”

“The US accepts the most, 7,000. Australia 500, Norway and New Zealand will take about 100. So, the resettlement rate is very low. The office is controlled by headquarters in Bangkok. Australia also has an office for refugees in their embassy.”

The rest of the Chin wait, and wait. How long have they been waiting? I asked.

“CRC was founded in 2001, but even before that there were refugees.”

“As far as we know no refugee has been given Malay citizenship or residency card.”

So, resettlement is their only option.

(Coming Soon, Chin Refugees in Malaysia, Part 2)

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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Mount Airy's Calvary Lutheran shares space with Myanmar church

The Frederick News-Post Online - Maryland

Originally published July 24, 2010

By Nicholas C. Stern
News-Post Staff

Mount Airy's Calvary Lutheran shares space with Myanmar church
Mount Airy's Calvary Lutheran shares space with Myanmar church

Courtesy Photo

Members of Evangelical Baptist Church, who have gathered in various locations, have finally found a home at Calvary Lutheran Church in Mount Airy. There are approximately 70 members, many from Myanmar.

Lilypons Water Garden

Finding a space to hold worship for about 70 members of the Evangelical Baptist Church was no easy task for the Rev. Zam Khai.

Like most of his congregants, Khai is originally from the Chin State in north Myanmar, part of which borders India. About half are refugees to the United States and live throughout the state, from Baltimore to Brunswick , Khai said.

Finding a central location is difficult enough, and convincing a church to agree to a long-term commitment to house another church's service is another matter altogether, he said.

"As an outsider, you might think people would see it as a ministry, but that's not the way it is," he said.

So Khai was delighted this spring when the Calvary Lutheran Church, 16151 Old Frederick Road, Mount Airy , agreed to host members of his fledgling church for at least a year.

It had not been Khai's first experience in the United States starting a church, nor with having a Lutheran congregation open its doors, he said.

Khai arrived in the country about 15 years ago, and opened a church for native Burmese speakers in Florida, he said.

"For some reason, Lutherans are very open to helping people," he said.

After leaving a space in Damascus, Khai had contacted about 30 churches in the area surrounding Mount Airy , and finally heard back from Ronald Thompson at Calvary Lutheran.

"It was decided wholeheartedly this would be a great outreach effort of both communities to allow them to use the facilities on Sunday evenings," Thompson said.

The time span was typically one in which their church was not being used anyway, Thompson said.

For the next year, the Evangelical Baptist Church will hold Sunday night Bible studies, worship and usually a potluck supper of traditional dishes, Khai said.

Many of the church's young members -- roughly two-thirds are 30 or younger -- had a hard time adjusting to life in the United States, he said. Everything from culture shock to the difficulty of finding doctors or obtaining a driver's license as a refugee with legal status in the country weighed on them.

But slowly they have begun to assimilate.

"A lot of them are helped by the refugee services in the area," Khai said. "It also makes life smoother to have church services."

Followers at the Evangelical Baptist Church "try to follow the Bible as closely as we can," Khai said.

Services are given in Zo, the dialect spoken by the Zomi tribe of Myanmar, of which many in the church belong.

Some members bring their guitars, bass and drums, and sing traditional Zomi folk songs, as well as Christian hymns translated from English, Khai said.

Thompson said from the little he observed of their first service, "they seem to have a tremendous amount of energy, and we're appreciative they have the opportunity to use the worship space."

Khai said their services are open to the public. The group is also planning to host a musical event with music from Myanmar some time in August.

"The congregants like the space very much," he said. "From the pulpit, the singing echoes very well so it's very nice."

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Engaging the junta

Deccan Herald
Rajaram Panda, July 24, 2010

In contrast to Chinese policy of assertiveness, India’s benign approach is a source of assurance to its neighbours.

The planned visit of Myanmar’s military junta ruler General Than Shwe to India from July 25 to 29 has raised eyebrows in some capitals of the world. This needs to be studied in the perspective of India’s engagement with its neighbours. The military junta has called for elections sometime later this year. The election dates have not been fixed, however.

Though it is alleged to be a ‘disciplined democracy,’ meaning that the army will determine the conditions to which candidates will conform to fight elections, it would be a welcome trend that a military junta has chosen a democratic path. The planned election is not going to be perfect in the democratic tradition. Yet it is the better option than none at all.

The military junta has fixed tight rules for political parties which can participate in the election process. According to one of the conditions, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s gets automatically eliminated. The military junta’s move has also led to a split the NLD. While the San Suu Kyi group wants to boycott the ‘sham’ elections, some other group in the NLD is willing to contest. In a clever move to maintain military control, the junta ruler has ordered his colleague to take premature retirement and participate in the civilian election process, which is resented by the people in uniform.

Myanmar has remained under military rule under Than Shwe for the past 18 years through the State Peace and Development Council. Gen Than Shwe took control of the reins after Gen Saw Maung suddenly resigned. Since then, Myanmar has remained in virtual political isolation.

Interestingly during this period, China’s influence in Myanmar has increased considerably, causing worries to India. Though China has its own strategic interests to engage the junta, the junta seems to be worried that its image outside Myanmar is sullied because of repression of human rights allegations and it wants to correct this by introducing some kind of democracy in the country.

What is not to be overlooked is the fact that though China has remained the big benefactor by providing an economic lifeline, something similar to North Korea, the junta ruler has decided to visit India first and then make a trip to China after some time. He did the same in 2004 after deposing Prime Minister Khin Nyunt who was favoured by China.

Obviously, notwithstanding Beijing’s alleged complicity in Pyongyang’s nuclear links with Myanmar and Beijing’s arms supplies to the military regime, the junta has defined a foreign policy strategy which clearly shuns sole dependence on Beijing.

As in the case with Pakistan, India has favoured dialogue for achieving its long term objectives. Imposing of sanctions to obtain compliance to international norms by ‘rogue’ states have not worked effectively. North Korea’s case is a clear example. While limited sanctions may be desirable to keep the country on lifeline, dialogue on a sustained basis may be more effective to get the desired result. India has pursued such an approach towards Myanmar.

Chinese policy

The fissures in Sino-Myanmar ties in connection with Beijing-brokered agreements with ethnic minority groups in north east Myanmar and its impact on the junta’s India policy must not be overlooked. As per the agreement in late 1980s, the ethnic minority groups were to surrender arms but the Chinese have supported the groups to retain their arms with its tacit assurance of autonomy with a view to keep the groups under its influence. This has clearly irked the junta as the Chinese policy tends to undermine Myanmar’s autonomy.

As part of its political reform measures, the military junta has proposed to convert the militia groups into border guard forces, much to the displeasure of the Chinese. The heightening of tension because of this in the north-east Myanmar and China has the potentials of an armed confrontation in the border area that makes the junta uneasy.

In contrast to Chinese policy of ‘assertiveness,’ India’s policy is benign and its democratic foundation is a source of assurance to its neighbours. Maintaining good neighbourly relationship between the two matches their mutual interests. Increased road connectivity and reopening of the historic Stillwell Road facilitates increased commerce.

The Indian help in building parliamentary institution by way of training to Myanmarese officials, offer to help in conducting poll is well-appreciated in that country. The foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw in March 2010 with offer of increased investment in the projects, particularly in infrastructure sector, oil and natural gas exploration are tempting opportunities for the junta.

The relations between the two countries had soured during Rajiv Gandhi’s time following India’s support to Aung San Suu Kyi when the junta crushed democracy protests in 1988. However, of late, Than Shwe has been warming up to India and recently, the junta entered into an agreement with India to sell 80 per cent of the power from a dam in Sagaing division in return for Indian assistance in Myanmar’s construction projects.
There is greater understanding between the two countries now. Besides providing arms and military training to the junta’s militia, India has opposed resolution at the UN against the junta’s human rights violations. Three factors influence India’s Myanmar policy: economic as part of its ‘Look East’ policy, junta’s help in controlling insurgencies in the northeast region, and to countering China’s regional influence. India also has an eye on Myanmar’s large reserves of untapped natural gas that it needs for its sustained economic growth.

(The writer is a senior fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)
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Burmese group seeks India’s help for fair election

Mizoram Express

For a fair poll.

New Delhi: Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) in an open letter to Indian prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh asked India to put pressure on Burma’s military regime to hold genuinely free and fair elections.

The letter is endorsed by 38 civil society organisations and 71 individuals which comprise intellectuals, prominent activists, lawyers, film makers, writers etc from India.

It also asked the Government of India to denounce the upcoming 2010 elections in Burma, unless the military regime takes key steps towards genuine democratization: release all political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, end attacks against ethnic groups, engage in genuine political dialogue, review the 2008 Constitution and 2010 Election Laws, and conduct free, fair and inclusive elections under the supervision of the United Nations and the international community.

“It is completely unacceptable that the Government of India is allowing our neighbour to go ahead with such fundamentally flawed elections,” said Dr. Alana, Coordinator of BCD. “Prime Minister Singh, as the leader of the biggest democracy in the world, must take a lead in pressuring Than Shwe to uphold basic democratic principles that are so far being ignored in preparation for 2010 elections. His silence will be a double-standard that the people of India will not accept.”

Mr. Kim, Coordinator of BCD and exile Burmese activist expressed said: “‘I personally can’t tolerate to see peoples’ elected Prime Minister of India, Dr. Singh and President Pratibha Patil giving a warm welcome to General Than Shwe who ranks the World’s Worst Dictator no.3. He does not deserve a state welcome from a democratic like India. If Indian Parliamentarians and lawmakers do not object to the criminal act of the Burmese Junta our respect for India’s democratic principles would be worthless.”

Mr. Htun Htun, Coordinator of BCD, also stated that India must not ignore the aspirations of more than 1 lakh Burmese population in India who are helplessly fighting for the restoration of democracy in their country.

The petition also urge to put off current short-sighted engagement policy and recommend to focus on long-term mutual interests by encouraging real democratization, peace and stability in her neighbor.
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India, Myanmar pacts against crime, restoration of medieval Buddhist temple

Ananda Temple :Author: Ralf-André Lettau :Date...Image via Wikipedia

The nations will also sign an agreement on small development projects that provide Indian funding for village and town peoples’ uplift programmes and another on science and technology cooperation

by Elizabeth Roche

July 23, 2010

New Delhi: India and Myanmar are likely to sign a clutch of pacts during senior general Than Shwe’s five-day state visit to India starting Sunday, a government official said.

The two countries are expected to ink a treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters—key to combating transnational organised crime, terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling of arms and explosives.

Another accord initialled will see the Archeological Survey of India being tasked with restoration of the famous Ananda Temple in Bagan. The medieval Buddhist temple in central Myanmar is one of the major tourist attractions in the country.

The nations will also sign an agreement on small development projects that provide Indian funding for village and town peoples’ uplift programmes and another on science and technology cooperation, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The accords reflect the strong ties between New Delhi and Myanmar’s ruling junta. Once a staunch backer of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, New Delhi switched tracks when it realised it needed Myanmar’s help to crack down on northeast insurgents, who were using Myanmar as a base for anti-India operations.

An increasing Chinese presence has also played its part in India adopting a pragmatic approach as have discoveries of huge natural gas deposits that New Delhi wants to exploit to fuel its economic growth.

Than Shwe’s visit also comes before Myanmar holds its first polls in 20 years, scheduled later this year. This week, the Association of Southeast Nations grouping, in an unusual step, demanded the ruling junta hold free, fair and inclusive elections at its meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam. Such straight talk is rare from the 10-member bloc, of which Myanmar is part, given its policy of not interfering in one another’s domestic affairs.
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