Thursday, January 1, 2009

China workers cry foul

By Melissa Sim

More than 100 workers from China were at the Manpower Ministry yesterday to lodge complaints against their bosses for not paying them on time. At least four such incidents involving foreign workers occurred last month. -- ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE

OVER 100 construction workers from China thronged the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) yesterday, claiming they had not been paid their salaries.

They form the latest group of foreign workers turning to the authorities for help, with the economic downturn biting. At least four such incidents involving about 400 workers cropped up last month.

The workers' complaints have been similar - that they are unpaid, unfed, have little hope of finding work and, in some cases, poorly housed, if at all.

Labour MP Halimah Yacob told The Straits Times that both foreigners and locals will be hit by the economic slowdown. She stressed that foreign workers 'should be paid their salaries and other benefits due to them'.

'They should not be exploited just because they are foreigners,' she said, following the abandonment of 180 workers by their sub-contractor two weeks ago.

Yesterday's case involving the China workers surfaced because, following MOM's intervention on Tuesday, the workers were still unhappy with their two employers' offer.

About 200 workers first approached MOM for help on Tuesday, saying they had each been given allowances of $200 a month in their first three months here, with their first full salaries paid only in the fourth month. Most said they have not been paid at all since September.

They were also unhappy that Zhonghe Huaxing Development and China Nuclear Industry Huaxing Construction had unilaterally slashed their net salaries from about $700 a month to about $400 starting last month.

After MOM intervened on Tuesday, the employers agreed to bank September's salaries and pay the rest of the money by Chinese New Year.

Yesterday, the workers were back at the ministry because, they said, they had not received their September pay and did not want to wait until Chinese New Year for the rest of what was owed to them.

An MOM spokesman said some of the workers have returned to work, but others still had additional issues to raise with the ministry. MOM, which said it was looking into the matter, was unable to give further details.

Straits Times

READ MORE---> China workers cry foul...

UN’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ Won’t Work in Burma

December 29, 2008
The Irrawaddy News

This year we saw many twist and turns and ups and downs in Burma—but the tragedy of Burma seems to have no end in sight.

Early this year, the regime surprised the world by announcing that it would go ahead with a constitutional referendum implementing part of its seven point road map to prolong military rule. UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari accepted the proposal, while pushing for an independent monitoring body—but without considering the opposition parties’ stand, let alone the opinion of most people of Burma, who want to see regime change.

Political issues were swept away by the deadly cyclone that slammed into lower Burma in May, killing more than 100,000 people and making millions homeless.

The international community responded to the disaster with sympathy and offers of material aid. The US, Britain and France sent warships to the area, loaded with food, medicines and other supplies. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured the cyclone-flattened region and met leaders of the military government, urging them to allow more aid into Burma.

Not surprisingly, the junta opened the door slightly to aid agencies after dragging its heels on the dispatch of emergency relief to the cyclone victims.

At the same time, the regime went ahead with its sham referendum, claiming 92 percent approval for its proposed constitution.

Then, to the surprise of many, the regime launched its “shock and awe” strategy, handing out heavy prison sentences to prominent opposition leaders and humanitarian workers and sending them separately to remote prisons.

Now it is shocking to learn that Gambari has suggested that governments should offer Burma financial incentives to free its political prisoners, estimated to number more than 2,000—including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—and to initiate democratic change.

The Nigerian diplomat must be insane to think that the corrupt generals who terrorized the whole nation can be bribed into compromise.

The influential Washington Post has reported: “In the months ahead, the UN leadership will press the Obama administration to relax US policy on Burma and to open the door to a return of international financial institutions, including the World Bank.”

Several years ago, when the World Bank offered the Burmese regime US $1 billion in return for political reform, it was told, in effect: “Don’t give us bananas, we are not monkeys.”

Minutes of a meeting between Gambari and a UN Burma team led by Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe—obtained by The Irrawaddy—seem to suggest that Gambari, a citizen of one of Africa’s failed states, is giving advice to some officials from a failed state of Southeast Asia.

The Irrawaddy reported that Gambari had told the Burmese team that if there was progress towards reconciliation in Burma before the new administration took office, Washington might modify its Burma policy.

The Washington Post, in its report, quoted the Nigerian diplomat as saying: “It cannot be business as usual. We need new thinking on how to engage with Myanmar [Burma] in a way that will bring tangible results.”

The UN, he said, cannot rely simply on “the power of persuasion with too little in the [diplomatic] toolbox.”

Gambari appears to be suffering from the “Stockholm syndrome”—held captive by the deceptions of the Burmese regime, he is in danger of succumbing to them. If he thinks that the UN and the international community can bribe the regime to free political prisoners and Suu Kyi, his understanding of Burma is indeed questionable. It clearly shows that the UN envoy is out of juice.

More dangerously, Gambari—snubbed by the regime and opposition leaders alike—appears to be deluded.

It cannot be business as usual to allow the UN and Gambari to work as normal on Burma. The UN’s engagement with the regime must be strictly monitored to ensure that it is transparent and accountable.

The Burmese generals must be laughing at Gambari and his proposal. The country’s political prisoners, however, have nothing to laugh about. They will be asking whether a more effective and better informed UN special envoy cannot be appointed.

Persuasion and bribes won’t move the captors of more than 2,000 innocent people.

READ MORE---> UN’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ Won’t Work in Burma...

The Stories We Missed in 2008

The Irrawaddy News
December 31, 2008

As I was preparing to take a break for the New Year, a Burmese colleague who has extensive sources in Burma walked into my office.

I knew this individual to be one of our most avid readers—and an unsparing critic who has often alerted me to the shortcomings of our coverage. But I also knew that he was uniquely well-informed and always constructive in his criticism, so I stopped what I was doing and braced for an earful.

“Your coverage on Burma this year was excellent,” he started. “Your reports on Cyclone Nargis, the referendum, political prisoners, women’s issues, tycoons—spot on! Superb!”

I thanked him on behalf of our hardworking staff, and explained how we started every morning with an editorial meeting to go over the stories and opinion pieces of the day and to discuss the content of the monthly print edition. He listened politely as I told him how pleased we were with the success of our Web site, which has been receiving astonishing numbers of visitors.

Then he started his criticism: “You claim to be an independent news organization searching for the truth, but this year you have failed to expose the reality of the exiled opposition.”

He said we didn’t write enough about the government-in-exile—the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)—or the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) and other umbrella organizations, and that what we did write was too soft.

“Several years ago, you wrote a good editorial about the NCGUB, but you no longer write this stuff,” he said.

I recall that editorial well. It questioned the effectiveness of the NCGUB under the leadership of its self-appointed prime minister, Dr Sein Win, cousin of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Most Burmese exiles agree that Sein Win is a fine person, but they say that he is simply not articulate or media-savvy enough to be a good lobbyist for Burma’s democratic opposition.

My visitor pointed out that nearly a decade after we published our editorial, the NCGUB was still underperforming. Like many others, he noted that US officials in the Bush administration have shown little interest in meeting with the Washington-based NCGUB, preferring instead to establish contacts with rank-and-file activists living in exile in Thailand or the US.

“What about Maung Maung?” my visitor continued, referring to the general secretary of the NCUB. “You published some good articles about him last year, but you didn’t really follow up on them.”

In September 2007, at the height of the Saffron Revolution, Maung Maung upset many fellow exiles when he took credit for the monk-led uprising. My visitor was among those shocked by Maung Maung’s claims and their consequences for the pro-democracy movement.

“Maung Maung was quite effective when he was working on labor issues,” my visitor said. “Even the regime acknowledged his campaign.”

But, he added, Maung Maung undid much of the good he accomplished over the years when he made claims that undermined the credibility of exiled opposition groups.

“Do you know that the people who are now pushing hard for governments and aid groups to start sending money into Burma are using Maung Maung and the NCGUB to discredit opposition groups in exile? They are both doing a disservice to Burma and the democracy movement. Why can’t someone remove them?”

He added: “No one knows where Maung Maung lives or what he does. There is very little transparency.”

But, I argued, Maung Maung is not the only Burmese exile known to the outside world. There are others, like Bo Kyi from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—Burma, and Shan activist Charm Tong, who are widely recognized for their excellent work.

My visitor nodded. “I agree, but my point is that the ineffective groups and politicians are having a negative impact on the image of the movement.”

I couldn’t argue with that, and my visitor also sounded more conciliatory when the topic returned to The Irrawaddy’s coverage of the year’s events.

“I really liked your piece on Kyaw Myint,” he said, referring to a former Wa drug lord who is also known as Michael Hu Hwa. Kyaw Myint is now a businessman based in Vancouver, Canada, where he has also been using his money to recruit exiled activists to his newly formed political party.

This prompted me to mention that we have provided extensive coverage of ethnic issues over the past year. However, I had to confess my regret that we did not write in greater depth about the fate of Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo, who is serving a long sentence at a prison in Kachin State.

This wasn’t the only ethnic-related issue we had failed to cover, my guest insisted. “You don’t expose those ethnic groups that are just political opportunists who will take sides with whoever is in power in Burma,” he complained.

“What about some of the ethnic leaders in exile? I’ve heard that some of them are ready to get on the next plane to Rangoon—they’re just waiting for the visas.”

This was intriguing, but he didn’t divulge any details, so I said we would need more information before we could follow up on it. I told him that if we could confirm what he was saying, we would publish a full report.

He then turned his attention to another group: the so-called “third force,” consisting of Burmese and foreign academics who profess neutrality in the struggle between the junta and pro-democracy forces.

“I heard you received a lot of flack for your coverage of the EU Burma Day meeting in Brussels, where there was a lot of talk about the third force inside Burma.”

I responded that this was a touchy subject, but my well-informed friend wouldn’t let the matter rest there.

“You are always crowing about your investigative reporting and independent journalism, but you don’t even educate your readers about who the third force groups are—their shady backgrounds and who is behind them. It could be a real exposé. But your reports on them are just hit and miss.”

I told him that there are people now quietly monitoring what the third force and the “new opposition” groups are doing in Burma. I added that we would soon have some exclusive news to report on them.

“Don’t be shy about going after these opportunists,” my visitor said. “If you don’t demonstrate that you are watchdog, you will become just another lapdog instead.”

I wasn’t sure how to take this, but before I could let it sink in, my guest touched another nerve.

“By the way, have any of your donors threatened you because of your criticism of the UN and Ibrahim Gambari’s mission, or for questioning the value of humanitarian assistance to Burma as long as the junta still runs the whole show?”

I immediately came to the defense of our donor’s honor. “I swear to God, there has been no pressure from our donors—only expressions of respect for our work here. We are immensely grateful to them for respecting our editorial independence.”

He smiled at this, as if to show he understood what I really wanted to say. Then his look and tone became even more conspiratorial.

“I’m no Deep Throat, but I can tell you some things, if you’re inclined to listen.”

I nodded, and he began: “There are those who say that aid to border-based groups will soon be a thing of the past. They say that cutting off assistance to the troublesome exiles in Thailand is the only way to end the conflict in Burma.”

I immediately countered that no one could be stupid enough to believe such nonsense. I pointed out that many of the so-called “cross border” groups, such as the human rights organizations and the school projects and Dr Cynthia Maung’s clinic, were providing invaluable assistance to hundreds of thousands of people inside Burma—a fact that everyone acknowledges.

“But there are some donors and policymakers who are only too happy to ignore these facts,” he said. “On the other hand, if they hear something negative about the groups on the border, they are quite happy to pass it along.”

We discussed this sad state of affairs for a while, noting with disappointment that despite The Irrawaddy’s efforts to highlight the degree of cooperation between nascent civil-society groups inside Burma and exiled groups along the border, especially during the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, this was a story that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

We agreed that if anything good has come out of these two major crises, which struck Burma within a year of each other, it was that they served to strengthen the bond between Burmese inside and outside the country.

“But this cooperation is now in danger because some aid groups want to divide them,” said my visitor.

I told him to stop being so alarmist, and assured him that if I detected such a policy taking shape, I would be the first to report on it.

At this point, my guest decided to tackle another subject that he felt we had been remiss in covering over the past year.

“What about the National League for Democracy? Your editorials on Suu Kyi and the rest of the party’s aging leadership have been too soft. Why don’t you write about how they seem to be just hanging on for dear life, without doing anything to advance the country’s political situation?”

“They’re not just clinging to survival,” I retorted. “They’re waiting for Suu Kyi’s release and for the junta to begin a dialogue with them.”

“But dialogue is not going to happen. You know it, and so do they.”

Before I could say any more on the perennial subject of the regime’s lack of good faith and its stubborn determination to avoid an honest dialogue at all costs, my guest changed topics again.

“You criticize China every chance you get, but why don’t you mention India’s disgraceful Burma policy? Right now, New Delhi is calling for the international community to tackle the problem of terrorism in Pakistan, but they don’t seem to mind shaking hands with the terrorist regime in Naypyidaw. What hypocrites!”

Then he abruptly shifted to another subject that evidently filled him with indignation.

“Why don’t you write about prostitution in the Irrawaddy delta? I’ve heard that even sex workers are chasing after the aid money that’s making its way into the region,” he said.

“‘Follow the money.’ Isn’t that what you journalists say when you want to get to the bottom of some dirty business? You should be taking lessons from the sex workers.”

I thanked him for his suggestion, but I refrained from mentioning that our local stringers were not much good at chasing after money. In fact, they’re lucky to get US $250 a month from us, which is about all our donors are willing to allow for local staff inside Burma—even though they are facing 20-year prison sentences if caught working for The Irrawaddy.

All of this was becoming a bit depressing to think about, so I was glad when my guest decided he had offered enough criticism for one session. We exchanged New Year’s greetings, and he left me to my own thoughts.

It had been a challenging conversation, and it certainly made me wonder how we would ever live up to our readers’ expectations. But I vowed to myself that next year there would be fewer gaps in our coverage of Burma.

READ MORE---> The Stories We Missed in 2008...

Burmese Migrants Earning, Learning in Thailand

The Irrawaddy News

A 56-year-old ethnic Shan migrant worker, Sam Htun, is typical of many Burmese who live in Thailand, grateful for the opportunity to work for a decent income.

“I feel my life in Thailand is more secure than in Burma,” he says. “In Thailand, it is easier to make a living.”

Burmese migrant workers in Chiang Mai prepare a rudimentary dinner for a ceremony.
(Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

He lives in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, where thousands of Burmese migrant workers have gainful employment, enabling many workers to send money home to family and loved ones.

Sam Htun earns about 4,500 baht (about US $130) a month. In Burma, he earned 10,000 to 20,000 kyat (about $8 to16) per month. He never had enough money to get by, he said.

He now sends about 17,000 kyat (about $13) every month to his family in Taunggyi in Shan State in eastern Burma. He said he left Burma because he felt oppressed by Burmese authorities and because of the poor economy.

He is one of the hundreds of Shan migrant workers who stay at Kakanok 2, a Burmese migrant worker camp in San Kamphaeng in Chiang Mai Province.

The Kakanok 2 camp houses about 200 Burmese migrant workers, mostly ethnic Shan, who have legal work permits.

Most work in construction and have lived in Chaing Mai from three to eight years. A close knit community, they attend training workshops and hold ethnic celebrations on holidays and other occasions.

A Burmese migrant workers’ shantytown in Chiang Mai.
(Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

Much of the training is provided by a nongovernmental organization, the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which specializes on migrant labor rights.

The migrant workers have created their own worker rights group, the Migrant Workers Federation. On International Migrant Workers Day, December 18, they held a simple ceremony attended by about 200 migrants, guests and a few journalists.

When the ceremony started about 7 p.m, workers, children and elders gathered in a hall, looking happy and excited.

During the evening, there were question and answer games that served to educate workers about labor rights. For a correct answer, prizes were awarded.

“The ceremony is good because it educates migrant workers about their rights,” said migrant worker Sam Htun.

The chairman of the Migrant Workers Federation, Sai Kad, who organized the ceremony, said, “I’m glad when I see a lot of migrant workers come together and enjoy the evening. It makes me want to fight more for the rights of migrant workers.”

He said too many migrant workers still experience poor working conditions, and they didn’t know how to complain and demand compensation from employers if they are injured or denied wages.

“Before, they didn’t even know they were abused,” he said. “But they know now.”

A 26-year-old migrant worker, Sai Hla Woon, said, “I’m glad I came to this program. I learned something. We can rely on ourselves and help each other.”

“If I am mistreated now, I will go to the labor protection and welfare office,” he said.

READ MORE---> Burmese Migrants Earning, Learning in Thailand...

Restrictions stepped up against Win Tin

Dec 30, 2008 (DVB)–Authorities in Rangoon have been stepping up restrictions on the movements of veteran journalist and senior National League for Democracy member Win Tin in an effort to hamper his political activities.

A couple of days ago, authorities in Insein township told taxi drivers based near Win Tin’s home that if they picked him up they could be prosecuted under two laws, according to a taxi driver who did not want to be identified.

The authorities issued the warning to drivers at the taxi rank situated at the top of Malar Myaing road in Pauktaw ward of Insein.

However, Win Tin rarely uses the taxis as he has been ferried around the city by a friend.

Win Tin was released from prison in September this year after serving more than 19 years behind bars.

Since his release, Win Tin has resumed his work with the National League for Democracy and has spoken out about the need for unity and perseverance in the struggle for democracy.

He recently visited the families of political prisoners and has also been working to heal rifts between NLD leaders and youth members.

Reporting by Aye Nai

READ MORE---> Restrictions stepped up against Win Tin...

NLD youth attend talk on independence

Dec 31, 2008 (DVB)–The second in a series of talks for National League for Democracy youth members was held at the party headquarters yesterday and focused on freedom and independence.

The two-hour talk, entitled 'People and Freedom', was held at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon in advance of the 61st anniversary of Independence Day which falls on 4 January.

Around 200 young people and senior NLD members attended the event.

During the talk, NLD leader Khin Maung Swe said that only the ruling elite had enjoyed the fruits of freedom since Burma won its independence in 1948.

"He said since the independence in 1948 the public has not tasted freedom and pointed out the lack of basic rights for the people thus," said Rangoon division youth member Aye Naing, who attended the talk.

"He said in any kind of struggle, there can be no success without the participation of the people."

The talk was followed by a discussion by youth members and NLD leaders on the best way to achieve freedom and basic human rights.

The next talk is to be held on 14 January and the topic will be the HIV/AIDS crisis in Burma, Aye Naing said.

Around 300 youth members attended the last meeting, entitled ‘Youth and the Future’, which was held on 16 December and chaired by senior NLD member Win Tin.

Reporting by Naw Say Phaw

READ MORE---> NLD youth attend talk on independence...

Nine NLD Youth arrested

Arrested 30th December 2008

Today (30 Dec 2008), the National League for Democracy (NLD) party held a ceremony to mark the 61st anniversary of Burma Independence Day at their headquarters.

After the event, nine NLD Youth members marched from NLD headquarters to Sanchaung Township, Rangoon, holding photographs and placards with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's image.

They called for the release of all political prisoners, and demanded national reconciliation.

When they arrived at the public square in Sanchaung Township, they were arrested by members of the Swan Arr Shin (People’s Power Force) the regime's hired thugs, and brutally beaten. Their whereabouts are now unknown.

The nine are:

  1. Tun Tun Win (from Sanchaung Township)
  2. Htet Htet Oo Way (from Shwepyithar Township)
  3. Ye Ni Oo (Thkhin Ko Daw Hmaing's grandson, NLD Sanchaung Township)
  4. Pyae Pyae (Sanchaung Township NLD)
  5. Aung Phyo Wai
  6. Min Thein
  7. Win Myint Maung (aka) Pe Pyoat (Kha Yan NLD Youth)
  8. Kaung Htet Naing
  9. Thet Maung Tun
Sources from AAPP
Long Walk for Freedom and
Ko Aung Myo Tint

READ MORE---> Nine NLD Youth arrested...

Nine arrested in rare protest in Rangoon

30 December 2008

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – At least nine opposition party members demanding the release of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested by police in a rare protest on Tuesday in Rangoon, according to eyewitness and opposition sources.

The protesters holding aloft pictures of the leader of the National League for Democracy party and banners reading – "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" – urging people to express their desire were arrested by the police in front of an unused Parliament building on Tuesday afternoon, the NLD spokesperson Nyan Win told Mizzima.

"I know seven people were arrested but some said nine people were arrested," Nyan Win said.
(also read Nine NLD arrested)

An eyewitness said, at least nine youth members of the NLD, who had finished attending a meeting, held at the party head office in West Shwegondine Street in Bahan Township, marched out on to the street shouting slogans. They were picked up by the police in a light TownAce truck near an unused Parliament building.

Nyan Win said, the NLD regularly conducts meetings on Tuesday to discuss current and contemporary politics of Burma. Today's discussions were led by party executive member Khin Maung Swe, who was released recently after serving a long prison term.

The eyewitness, who had also attended the meeting, said, security police, beat the peaceful protesters before taking them away to unknown location.

According to the eyewitness, those arrested included Htet Htet Oo Way, Tun Tun Win, Ye Ni, Win Myint, Thet Maung Tun, Pyae Pyae, Min Thein, Aung Phyo Wai, Kaung Htet and Kaung Htet Hlaing.

Additional reporting by Myint Maung

READ MORE---> Nine arrested in rare protest in Rangoon...

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