Friday, March 27, 2009

The ‘Sherpas’ of Burma

The Irrawaddy News

KYAIK HTI YOE—After paying homage to the pagoda, 14-year-old Than Naing bent down and hooked over his shoulders the straps of the huge bamboo basket—which was almost the same size as himself. His knees almost buckled as he pushed himself up from a squatting position. He wobbled for a minute, getting his balance. Then he set off from the famous Kyaik Hti Yoe Pagoda back down the hill.

Pilgrims and tourists coming to this world-famous Buddhist pagoda in Burma’s Mon State are forced to endure a steep 2-kilometer climb to the top of the hill where the photogenic golden rock and pagoda stand precariously overlooking a cliff.

Than Naing, 14, sets off on the one-hour climb to Kyaik Hti Yoe.

Almost invariably, visitors prefer to hire porters to carry their bags, picnics and assorted offerings for them. After all, it’s a breathless enough journey without having to carry your bags as well.

Elderly family members or those too unfit to manage the ascent by foot can hire a porter to carry them up too. For a US $8 fee, four porters will carry him or her in a hammock suspended from a bamboo pole on the one-hour pilgrimage to the top, wait for them to pray, make merit and take photos, then carry them back down again.

Most of approximately 400 porters are local residents of Kyaik Hti Yoe. Their ages range from 13 to about 70. To qualify as porters, they must register at the labor office where they are issued a blue shirt with an official registration number on the chest.

For each trip, the porters receive a standard fee of 4,500 kyat ($4.50). From this, the labor office deducts a 500 kyat ($ 0.50) “tax,” so the porter takes home 4,000 kyat ($ 4) for each trip he or she can manage.

Four porters carrying a person to the pagoda will receive 2,000 kyat ($2) each, but again they must deduct 500 kyat each time for the labor office.

Bo Aye (right) has been working as a porter for 40 years.

The labor office at Yathei Hill organizes the tours and coordinates the visits to Kyeik Hti Yoe Pagoda with the tour groups and drivers. They maintain a fairly rigid system and if customers complain about a particular porter, he or she will most likely be suspended for 10 days as a punishment.

With more than 400 porters vying for business, many go home each day penniless.
The busiest time of the year for pilgrims to the site is during the religious festival of Tazaung Mone in November.

But sometimes in rainy season, barely a single pilgrim will visit the pagoda. Outside the holiday season, many porters have to find alternative jobs.

Some of the porters use their unemployed time during the rains to scavenge the nearby mountains for herbal tree roots and fruit to sell at the market. Others work as farm hands.

In the off-season, Than Naing cuts down bamboo plants near his village, then chops them up and sells the bamboo to souvenir shops. But he only earns 100 kyat ($0.10) per plant and can barely manage five plants a day.

With six persons in the family, Than Naing’s mother must spend an average of 3,000 kyat ($3) per day on basic meals alone. Than Naing knows his salary from cutting bamboo is not enough.

On the other hand, working as a porter at Kyaik Hti Yoe Pagoda earns him in the region of 4,000 kyat ($4) to 8,000 kyat ($8) per day.

“As long as Kyaik Hti Yoe is standing, we’ll never starve,” he said confidently.

But while the energetic teenage porters bound up and down the hill happily three times a day, the veterans of the trade, some of whom have been doing the job for 40 years, get exhausted after one trip.

Aware of the steepness of the hill, most visitors prefer to choose young porters. More often than not, the “old boys” will spend several days sitting in the shade of the trees waiting for an officer to call their registration number.

“I’ve been working here for more than 40 years,” said 68-year-old porter Bo Aye. “I can carry any amount of baggage from Kinpun Point to the pagoda or even from Yathei Hill to the pagoda. But the visitors seldom hire me.”

Kyaik Hti Yoe Pagoda is a natural wonder that defies gravity.

Bo Aye said that, in the past, he could always earn enough as a porter to feed his family of four. But now he only gets work perhaps one day out of three or four, and is unable to provide for his family. His eldest son joined the military and died in battle when he was 17, but a younger son is also a porter.

“Some of the older porters want to retire or open a shop because they can no longer climb the hill every day,” said a 30-year-old woman, one of the few female porters at Yathei Hill. “Sometimes, they get exhausted by mid-journey and another porter has to take their load.”

She said the porters generally believe that by carrying the bags of Buddhist pilgrims they are not only making money, but making merit too.

“But I don’t want to work as a porter my whole life,” she said. “It’s very hard work.

“Each time I reach the top of the hill I pray at the pagoda that I can save enough money to quit this job and open a stall at the market.”

READ MORE---> The ‘Sherpas’ of Burma...

Than Shwe Sets Guidelines for 2010 Polls

The Irrawaddy News - AP

NAYPYIDAW — Burma's junta chief set some ground rules Friday for historic elections scheduled for 2010, calling on political parties to avoid smear campaigns and to remember it will take awhile to establish a "mature" democracy.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe rarely says anything in public except at the annual Armed Forces Day, a holiday celebrated Friday to mark the military's might with a customary ostentatious display of troops and military equipment.

Burmese soldiers march during the 64th anniversary Armed Forces Day held at the parade ground in the country's administrative capital Naypyidaw on March 27. (Photo: AP)

As a traditional practice, the public was not allowed to attend the tightly guarded event at a massive parade ground in Naypyitaw, the remote administrative capital the junta moved its government offices to in 2005.

After reviewing more than 13,000 troops from inside a moving convertible, Than Shwe gave a 17-minute speech that focused on elections scheduled for 2010—which will be the first polls in almost two decades.

The elections are the last stage of the junta's so-called "roadmap to democracy," a process critics have called a sham designed to cement the military's four-decade grip on power.

The 76-year-old Than Shwe said political parties that contest the elections should "
refrain from inciting unrest, avoid personal attacks and smear campaigns against other parties." (JEG's: there you go, a blank card boys... let the games begin)

Parties that carry out "mature party organizing work will receive the blessing of the government," he said, but added the country should not expect a "well-established democracy" overnight.

"Democracy in Myanmar [Burma] today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention," Than Shwe told the invited guests, which included military leaders, government ministers and reporters. Foreign media were denied visas to cover the event.

"As a Myanmar proverb puts it, 'a recently dug well cannot be expected to produce clear water immediately' — understanding the process of gradual maturity is crucial," he said. (JEG's: he means, maturity in establish the army firmly to touch)

A precise election date has not been set and it is not yet known who will contest the polls. Before a political party can participate it must meet the standards of a "political parties registration law," which has not yet been announced by the government.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962.

The current junta took power in 1988 after violently crushing a pro-democracy uprising. Two years later it refused to hand over power when Aung San Suu Kyi's political party won a landslide election victory.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years.

As part of its roadmap, the junta drafted a new constitution that enshrines the military's leading role in politics. One of the provisions of the constitution effectively bars Suu Kyi from holding any kind of political office in Burma.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy did not participate in the drafting process and says last year's constitutional referendum—which adopted the charter by 92 percent—was engineered by the junta. It has called for a review process that includes pro-democracy groups and ethnic representatives.

In his speech, Than Shwe clearly indicated there will be no review, saying the "constitution (was) adopted by the people."

Armed Forces Day is held every March 27 to commemorate the day in 1945 when the Burma army rose up against Japanese occupation forces.

Initially called Resistance Day, the name was dropped in 1974 to avoid offending Japan, Burma's top aid donor in the 1970s. In recent years, commemoration speeches have refrained from mentioning the fight against the Japanese.

READ MORE---> Than Shwe Sets Guidelines for 2010 Polls...

Burmese Armed Forces Day Celebrated in Naypyidaw

The Irrawaddy News

The 64th anniversary of Armed Forces Day was observed on Friday in Naypyidaw with the troops on parade before high-ranking members of the junta.

The 400,000-man army, navy and air force, called the tatmadaw, is one of the most battle-tested forces in Southeast Asia, having engaged ongoing armed Communist insurgents and armed ethnic separatist armies for more than six decades.

Burmese soldiers march in formation during the 64th anniversary Armed Forces Day held at the parade ground in the country's administrative capital Naypyidaw on March 27. (Photo: AP)

Since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the Burmese generals have doubled the size of the armed forces, now the most dominant and strongest institution in the country.

“In 1988, the army had not more than 180,000 armed personnel, but nowadays it reaches more than 400,000 personnel,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Chinese-based Burmese researcher.

He said that although Burma has upgraded its military arsenal, it has not produced high quality military commanders since the military sized power in 1988 and it suffers from low morale among the troops.

“They have formed many battalions, but a battalion has decreased in the number of personnel,” he said.

About 200 troops make up a battalion in the Burmese army.

The military has a tradition of religious and racial discrimination in the promotion of officers, according to analysts.

Burma's No. 3 leader, Gen Thura Shwe Mann, top right, speaks at the award giving ceremony held after the parade show at the 64th anniversary of Armed Forces Day. (Photo: AP)

Defense scholar Maung Aung Myoe said there was no discrimination on racial or religious grounds in the military until the mid-1990s; Christian officers, for example, were appointed to senior staff and command positions.

Since then, however, religion and race appear to be important criteria. Although there is no official regulation, non-Buddhist officers or officers with non-Buddhist spouses are unlikely to climb beyond the rank of major or hold important command position, noted the defense scholar.

“If your spouse is a non-Buddhist, you will be sacked,” one retired captain who now works as a security officer in a hotel in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy.

The Burmese military faces problems of low morale among its forces, and the desertion rate is a concern.

Defense scholar Maung Aung Myoe quoted a confidential report that said between May and August 2006, a total of 9,467 desertions were reported; 7,761 desertions were reported between January and April 2000. Some estimates claim that the tatmadaw has a monthly average desertion rate 1,600 troops.

A retired army officer said, “The tatmadaw has low morale, especially in army.”

“Officers are involved in taking money from illegal trading in their areas,” he said. “While high-ranking Burmese military officers become wealthier, pay for ordinary soldiers at the bottom is below-standard.”

The officer-level morale is high, he said, partly because they earn more than civil servants, and they are given other benefits such as trips abroad to study on scholarships. (JEG's: this why they are against democracy as the good boys are being "looked after, all is dandy in their world but if they were at a lower rank they will be able to SEE and feel the light")

Even through the Burmese army is Southeast Asia’s second largest military force, it has many financial and logistic difficulties.

Maung Aung Myo said the air force is still very limited in its ability to project power. Problems include a shortage of trained pilots to fly existing aircraft, especially advanced aircraft such as the MiG-29.

READ MORE---> Burmese Armed Forces Day Celebrated in Naypyidaw...

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