Sunday, January 13, 2008

Burma villagers sift for junta's glitzy scraps - Military scoops up nation's lucrative gem, gold deposits

By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times

Kharbar, Burma -- Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table.

Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury.

Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Burma's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies.

On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in.

Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people.

During 45 years of military rule, the generals have steadily consolidated control over the country's most lucrative mining areas. They have amassed enormous wealth from gems, minerals, timber and other vast natural resources, and left most of Burma's people poor.

The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar offer a glimpse of a struggling people's helpless, yet strengthening, rage against the government.

The junta's violent crackdown against pro-democracy street demonstrations in September, the largest in two decades, sparked new calls for an international boycott of the government's biggest moneymakers, including rubies, sapphires, oil and natural gas.

First lady Laura Bush has urged jewelers not to buy gems from Burma, also known as Myanmar. Some of the world's biggest names in precious stones, such as Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany, say they won't sell Burma's blood-tainted treasures anymore.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation last month to tighten sanctions against the junta by banning imports of that country's rubies and high-quality jade. The House already passed its version of the bill but must act again on the Senate-passed version to approve minor differences.

But as Western shoppers shun Burma's jewels, buyers from neighboring China are rushing in to scoop up the country's gold and jade, highly prized by the growing middle class and by the fabulously wealthy, eager to find more ways to flaunt their new wealth.

It's one of the main reasons why the junta is still strong after years of sanctions: When Western countries try to tighten the economic noose, neighbors led by China, India and Thailand loosen the knot by increasing trade and investment in Burma.

Government officials say jade replaced rubies as the main attraction at a state-run auction held recently in Rangoon, the capital, also known as Yangon. The fourth auction this year, it raised about $125 million for the junta in badly needed foreign currency.

But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border.

It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold.

Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years.

On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.

After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left.

"We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow, I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food."

It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system.

For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.

Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade into the middle of the river. They work for up to three hours at time under water.

As the economic chasm widens between Burma's people and their corrupt military rulers, places that were once synonymous with the sparkle of precious stones are now earning a darker reputation as hotbeds of political dissent.

One is Mogok, for centuries the entrance to the Valley of Rubies, which lies slightly more than 200 miles south of Kharbar but might as well be a thousand, because the government rarely allows foreign visitors to see for themselves what is happening there.

Some of the earliest protests against rising fuel prices were held in Mogok last summer before they spread to the capital and grabbed world attention. In November, more than 50 Buddhist monks defied the junta's crackdown and marched peacefully through Mogok.

Anger has been boiling beneath the surface there for years as the junta pushed out more small-scale miners, who are left to search the dregs of abandoned mines, said Soe Myint, a leader in exile of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

"Most of the gems are mined by government firms, or those affiliated with the junta, the generals' relatives and cronies," said Myint, who was elected to Burma's parliament in 1990 and then jailed for 14 years when the military rejected Suu Kyi's victory at the polls.

"Whether it's jade, rubies or sapphires, locals cannot mine them anymore. They only get a very small portion. That's why Mogok is at the forefront of the demonstrations. The local people have nothing else to do because all the land has been confiscated by the government and government companies."

The trade in gemstones, the country's third-largest source of revenue, is dominated by the Union of Burma Economic Holdings Limited, a consortium co-owned by the Defense Ministry and military officers who hold the bulk of the company's shares.

The government tightly controls access to the country's gem and jade mines, but it's possible to get a hint of the suffering that has stirred so much anger against the junta by traveling north to the rough roads and fast-moving rivers around Kharbar. Here, two rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers converge to give birth to the Irrawaddy River, the broad backbone of Burma.

Long canoes with ear-splitting motors are the only way into the region's most promising gold panning sites, one of the last places where small-scale miners can legally eke out a living. The area also is home to some of the world's best jade deposits.

But the junta shut the biggest operations down two years ago, and the flood of cash from Chinese businesspeople suddenly dropped off. The local economy suffered more as most of the jade trade moved south to Mandalay, where more than 100 factories cut and polish the stones, mainly to supply growing demand in China.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

READ MORE---> Burma villagers sift for junta's glitzy scraps - Military scoops up nation's lucrative gem, gold deposits...

Grants to help refugees from Myanmar obtain health care

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Northeastern Indiana charities bracing for another wave of refugees fleeing Myanmar's repressive regime say $133,000 in grants from Catholic Charities will help provide health care to the often sickly new arrivals.

Catholic Charities, the local State Department-approved refugee-sponsoring agency, expects about 30 refugees to arrive in Fort Wayne in early February from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Those arrivals will be the first of an estimated 800 to 1,000 new refugees from Myanmar who will settle in the city this year, said Debbie Schmidt, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend.

"We have a massive amount of refugees coming in," said Schmidt, who was in Washington, D.C., last week to lobby for additional aid for Catholic Charities and other local agencies serving the refugees.

Fort Wayne is home to an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 people from Myanmar who have fled the Southeast Asian nation, where a military junta has cracked down on supporters of democracy.

In an average year, 100 to 200 refugees from Myanmar settle in Allen County. But secondary migration from other communities accounts for an even greater portion of the refugee population.

About 40 percent of the adult refugees from Myanmar are likely to be infected with latent tuberculosis and hepatitis, officials have said. Many of the children will likely suffer from low body weight and will need standard childhood vaccinations, the foundation said.

About $98,000 of the new grant money will create a Refugee Health Program and pay for a coordinator and an administrative aide. Another $35,000 will help coordinate medical interpreters, said the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, which announced the grants Friday.

The new health program will coordinate medical follow-ups for refugees by setting appointments, providing help with Medicaid, arranging for transportation and interpreters.

The grant money will also help to enhance electronic medical records shared among local free or low-cost medical providers and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.

Fort Wayne's city-county health department anticipates asking the Allen County Council for additional money to help pay for disease screening and follow-up services for refugees. Health officials are also seeking a waiver to charge Medicaid for services provided to covered patients.

Source: Indy Star

READ MORE---> Grants to help refugees from Myanmar obtain health care...

Bomb kills ethnic Karen rebel, injures 4 civilians in Myanmar, state media reports

YANGON, Myanmar: A bomb exploded during a circus show in northern Myanmar, injuring four civilians and killing the Karen rebel who allegedly planted the explosive, state media reported Sunday.

The bomb was detonated Friday evening in rural Pyu township, killing a 25-year-old member of the Karen National Union who allegedly set it off, the New Light of Myanmar reported.

The explosive device wounded four others, including a 4-year-old boy, the paper said.

The report said a revolver, 20 rounds of ammunition and two other explosive were found on the dead man's body.

A suspect, who was arrested as he tried to leave the scene, said the victim was a member of the KNU, the paper said.

The KNU has been fighting for half a century for greater autonomy from Myanmar's military government. It is the only major ethnic rebel group not to have agreed to a cease-fire with Myanmar's junta

Early Friday, another bomb exploded at a railway station in the new administrative capital of Naypyitaw, killing a 40-year-old ethnic Karen woman.

Investigators said the woman set off the bomb, the paper reported. The report said traces of gunpowder were found on the clothes in her luggage.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for either bombing.

The state-run paper said a major organization "provided terrorists with cash and equipment to create public panic and to carry out bombings in the country with the intention to destabilize the country."

It did not name any group or organization.

Authorities have recently warned the public to be vigilant against terrorists and to cooperate with officials by informing them of suspicious activities and turning in the suspects.

Terrorism is rare but not unknown in Myanmar, which has been under military rule almost continuously since 1962.

The country underwent extreme political turmoil in September, when the government crushed nonviolent, pro-democracy demonstrations, detained thousands and killed at least 31 people, according to a U.N. investigator, whose tally was twice the toll acknowledged by the junta.

The government often blames political opponents and ethnic rebels for bombings, though no firm evidence has been produced. Government opponents deny carrying out attacks on civilians.

Pyu is about 192 kilometers (120 miles) north of Yangon.

Source: AP - IHT

READ MORE---> Bomb kills ethnic Karen rebel, injures 4 civilians in Myanmar, state media reports...

Myanmar sees three consecutive explosions

Ha Noi (VNA) - At about 8:00 GMT on January 13, a blast at a railway station in Myanmar's main city of Yangon injured a woman, foreign media reported.

One day earlier, a bomb blasted in Bago Division, central Myanmar, claiming a life and injuring four others.

The two blasts followed a bomb exploded at the railway station in Pyinmana township in the new capital city of Naypyidaw on January 11. The January 11 bombing, the first in the new capital city, killed a 40-year old woman.

After the bombings, the Myanmar authorities called on the people to keep constant vigilance.

Three state-run major papers ran news items on the bombings, saying that “terrorists” were planning to conduct bombings in the country and calling on the people to raise vigilance and inform the authorities of any suspicious actions as well.

Source: News Agency

READ MORE---> Myanmar sees three consecutive explosions...

Young Martyr Ko Ko Win

Original Source: Nwe Aye - Nicknayman blog - photo
Translated: Nay Chi U - Who is Who in Burma

Since 1962, there have been countless Democracy Freedom Fighters, who have been brutally killed by the ruthless military junta. One of those Martyrs, who selflessly and willingly gave their lives for the freedom and development of their beloved country was Ko Ko Win.

The eldest son of U Htay Oo and Daw Win Win Myint, who lived in 376 Marga Road, 12th Quarter, South Okkala, Ko Ko Win protested in September's Golden Colour Revolution. On 27 September, at the foot of Shwe Dagon Pagoda, he was beaten by soldiers and riot police. His head, back and chest were hit with steel batons. He was being treated at first, in local clinics but was sent to Thingun Gyun Hospital on 24 October, as his condition was worsening. He died on 3nd November, as a result of the head injury he sustained during the attack.

Burma, an independent country, in name only, will be staging many more fightings until the Democracy Freedom is achieved and inevitably, there will be many more fallings of its most precious stars.

READ MORE---> Young Martyr Ko Ko Win...

UK health, child aid to Burma doubles

By Supalak G Khundee

The United Kingdom will double humanitarian aid to Burma this year despite the difficulties in providing such assistance in the military-ruled country, a senior British official said.

The assistance will be increased from ฃ9 million (Bt520 million) last year to ฃ18 million this year, UK Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander, who was in Thailand to visit Burmese refugees along the border, said yesterday.

Alexander visited the largest refugee camp of Mae La on the Thai-Burmese border in Tak province, which shelters more than 40,000 refugees.

"As the leading donor, I want to understand the scale of the challenge and capacity of aid agencies on the ground in the region who provide support to Burmese who have fled from the military regime," he said after a visit to the camp on Thursday.

The additional assistance from the UK will help more children to have basic education and treat more people who are facing the threat of malaria, tuberculosis and Aids, he said.

The assistance will go through international agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, Unicef and some NGOs like Save The Children, rather than through the military regime, he said.

International pressure and the political situation in Burma make humanitarian assistance inside the junta-ruled country very difficult, he added but said agencies such as the UN had experience working in challenging environments.

Alexander said he had met several refugees, both ones who had lived in the camp since 1984 and ones who had arrived a few months ago.

Some of them told him their tragic stories of rape, forced labour, violence and severe political pressure that had caused them to flee.

However, the British official said he was impressed with the management of the refugee camp by NGOs such as the Thai-Burma Border Consortium as well as healthcare facilities run by Dr Cynthia Maung.

Source: The Nation

READ MORE---> UK health, child aid to Burma doubles...

Ban on timber imports from Burma could be lifted

Cheewin Sattha Piyarach Chongcharoen

Critics say embargo makes no sense

The northern province of Mae Hong Son is considering lifting a ban on Burmese timber imports, citing disadvantages from indirectly buying Burmese timber from neighbouring countries. Mae Hong Son governor Thongchai Wongrianthong said the province is thinking of resuming the timber trade with ethnic Burmese minorities which get approval from the ruling Burmese junta.

''Mae Hong Son borders Burma, but we let business opportunities slip away while Malaysia, China and Singapore have imported timber from Burma. Thailand ends up buying Burmese timber from Malaysia,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Mae Hong Son authorities seized 926 items of processed golden teak wood and timber processing machines in a raid at a factory in Muang district on Friday.

On the previous day, authorities confiscated a number of processed pieces of timber from the factory belonging to Direk Puyati.

Muang district police chief Pathom Prachankhet said Mr Direk claimed he purchased the wood from the Forest Industry Organisation in Tak's Phop Phra district.

However, Pol Col Pathom said the timber was fresh and was possibly felled illegally less than three weeks earlier.

A source said a smuggling ring had supplied timber from Thailand and Burma to a police general, who is reportedly building a golden teak house in Samut Prakan which he plans to sell to wealthy businessmen or politicians.

In Kanchanaburi, governor Amnart Pakarat wants better protection for the Khao Chang Phuak forest in tambon Huay Khayeng of Thong Pha Phum district.

The governor made the statement after the recent discovery that 1,000 rai of the forest had been cleared for rubber plantations.

He said officials also found 13 stumps of hundred-year-old deciduous dipterocarp trees, measuring more than two metres in diameter, and processed timber in Ban Huaykob in tambon Nonglu, in Kanchanaburi's Sangkhla district.

He urged authorities to beef up forest protection measures and take action against encroachers.

The governor conceded that a lack of manpower hampered forest conservation work.

The 10th Forest Protection Unit in Kanchanaburi, which has less than 10 officials, has to take care of a vast area of forest, which stretches over seven million rai, he said.

He is to report the problem to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry so that appropriate action would be taken.

Source: Bangkok Post

READ MORE---> Ban on timber imports from Burma could be lifted...

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