Friday, February 24, 2012

Burma's workers push back

Posted By Min Zin

As I write this, about 2,000 Burmese workers in a town on the outskirts of Rangoon are continuing a strike at the Chinese-owned Tai Yi slipper factory. (The photo above shows a worker at a garment factory in Rangoon.)
"This could be the biggest labor strike since oil workers went on strike and marched in protest against the Burma Oil Company and British colonial rule in 1938," Phoe Phyu, a young lawyer who represents the workers, told me earlier this week. "More than 90 percent of the workers joined the strike."
The walkout started on Feb. 6, when the company refused to pay five days of wages that it had deducted for a holiday to mark the Chinese New Year, which is not officially recognized in Burma.
An industrial worker in Burma earns about $50 to 60 per month. All workers have to work overtime, and draw on hard-to-get performance bonuses to make around 60,000 to 70,000 kyat ($75 to $87.50) a month.
The workers from Tai Yi factory are now demanding a 100 percent hike in their hourly wages from 75 kyat (less than 10 cents) to 150 kyat ($0.18) and an increase in their monthly bonuses from 6,000 kyat ($7.50) to 8,000 kyat ($10). After a series of negotiations between the owner, government officials, and the workers' representatives, the company only agreed to raise the hourly wages by 25 kyat ($0.03). This incredibly low-wage situation for ordinary workers shows that poverty is deepening and inequality is widening in a country where you have to pay a minimum of $625 minimum for mobile phone service. The workers turned down the company's offer.
Meanwhile, the company is trying to get the workers to knuckle under through a variety of threats, including reducing the supply of water to the dormitory where they live. The Tai Yi case was submitted to the government's Trade Dispute Committee late last week for arbitration. But Phoe Phyu has few hopes for a positive outcome.
"As my past experiences have showed, the regime's Labor Ministry has not given any support to the workers," he told me. "The chance that the strikers will win a fair settlement is very slim."
Although there have been some labor protests in Burma's industrial towns over the past few years, the current strike is significant not just because it's the largest one to take place in the country for several decades, but also because it's taking place in the context of a new law introduced last year by the government. The law legalizes labor unions but stipulates that they have to have the approval of the official Labor Union Federation if they want to stage a strike. And since the government has not allowed any labor unions to register under the new law, the individual workers are technically not entitled to stage a strike.
"The law prohibits continuing a strike once the case has been submitted to the Trade Dispute Committee," female strike leader Moe Wai told me on the phone. "Even though the law does not protect us, we've vowed that we'll go on fighting for our basic rights."
So far the government has avoided using force against the workers, since it can't do so without contradicting the rhetoric of reform that it has been using to buff up its image at home and abroad. The workers are also receiving growing support from members of the general public, who have been providing them with water and food. The activists are using that support to push the limits of what is allowed by the powers-that-be. Political scientist Kevin O'Brien has dubbed this approach "rightful resistance," his name for action that "operates near the boundary of authorized channels." This is exactly what we are now seeing in Burma.
Rightful resistance also emboldens activists like Phoe Phyu, who has represented political prisoners, farmers, workers, and the poor in hundreds of legal cases. It helps him to leverage the reform rhetoric of the government for the sake of his causes.
Phoe Phyu, who has been detained three times for his advocacy work (including a year spent in prison starting in 2009), is feeling the wind in his sails. "Earlier, when I was a trouble-making lawyer, I didn't get much help," he says. "Now a growing number of my colleagues in the legal community are supporting me."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Burma: How to end a civil war

Posted By Min Zin

On Sunday, President Thein Sein gave a speech on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Burma's Union Day. There are several reasons why this speech is worth noting. The presidentsaid that his government is holding talks with armed groups aimed at securing "eternal peace," an effort that requires the "participation of the entire national people." In effect, he was vowing to end the civil war that has plagued Burma for more than sixty years. (For an official copy of the speech, see here.)

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing fact in his message was the president's reference to thePanglong Agreement, the 1947 deal reached with the country's disparate ethnic groups by independence leader Aung San. It was this agreement that formed the basis for the union between the majority Burmans and the ethnic minorities.

Despite this, it's been quite a while since the country's leader was willing to give a positive mention to the Panglong Agreement in a Union Day speech.

In his Union Day messages, Than Shwe, the leader of the military junta, not only passed over the Panglong Agreement in silence, but also refused to mention the role of Aung San, who happens to be the father of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (She's shown in the photo above, against the backdrop of an image of her father.)

Instead, Than Shwe rather bizarrely preferred to invoke "anthropoid primates" discovered in Burma "40 million years ago," his rather peculiar way of asserting that Burma has a long and continuous history and that all of its people are unified. Anthropologists and historians found this sort of thing bemusing at best. Burma's ethnic minorities took it as an absurd insult to their search for equal rights and autonomy.

In contrast, Thein Sein's message acknowledged both Aung San's leading role in working toward "national solidarity" and the Panglong Agreement itself. If the president's words can be taken to mean that he accepts the principle of multi-ethnic agreement as the nation's organizing principle (rather than Than Shwe's program of coercive domination by the majority), then this speech potentially marks a big step toward reconciliation.

The civil strife in Burma has its roots in a lack of credible commitment by the government. The leaders who ruled Burma after Aung San's assassination in 1947 refused to honor the Panglong Agreement. The ethnic minorities felt betrayed, and launched struggles for equal rights and autonomy. Burma descended into one of the longest civil wars in the world.

When the military seized power in 1962, they did so under the pretext that this was the only way to prevent the disintegration of the Union. (What the ethnic minorities were actually demanding would have been described in most places as "federalism" - hardly a subversive notion in itself.) Successive military regimes violated the spirit of the Panglong Agreement and committed unspeakable atrocities against ethnic groups. No wonder the problem of mistrust of the government remains such a big issue.

In recent months the Burmese government has struck a series of fragile ceasefire deals with at least seven armed ethnic groups. It has been holding talks with some of the others. Many ethnic leaders - those who have negotiated ceasefires as well as those who have not - have told me that they wonder whether these truce agreements will lead to genuine political solutions. There is a widespread anxiety that the government will again renege on these deals when the former generals feel that they have gained adequate international legitimacy and are confident in their ability to shape the domestic political scene. Given their bitter experiences at the hands of past regimes dominated by the majority Burmans, the ethnic groups definitely have a right to worry.

President Thein Sein's rhetoric should be welcomed as an important step toward ending this crisis of trust. But he has yet to walk the walk. The international community should craft its incentives carefully to deter the president from reneging on his stated commitment by making the solution of ethnic strife a key benchmark for judging Burma's progress.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Burma's rebels: Women demand a say

Posted By Min Zin

Generally speaking, women have not exactly been conspicuous among the leaders of the ethnic minorities that are at odds with the Burmese central government. But that may be changing.

In late January, a group representing the Karen, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Burma, issued a statement calling for women to be given a bigger role in the peace talks between Karen rebels and the government. "Our concerns must be brought to the negotiating table, and the abuses we have suffered must be redressed and prevented once and for all," Naw Zipporah Sein, who is the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), told me on the phone. She was speaking from a town on the Thai border. (The photo above shows a Karen girl in a refugee camp in Thailand.)

Before she was elected to that post in 2008 she served the head of the Karen Women Organization (KWO). It was under her leadership that the KWO published a widely noted 2004 report entitled "Shattering Silences," which documented 125 cases of the systematized rape and sexual abuse of women allegedly committed by Burmese military troops in Karen State over a twenty-year period. Today, despite her unprecedented leadership position in the KNU, Zipporah Sein told me that she's still unhappy with the status of Karen women. To the injury of maltreatment on the battlefield by government troops comes the insult of inadequate representation in the ruling circles of the rebel leadership.

The KNU, one of the most powerful rebel groups in Burma, has been fighting for ethnic autonomy since 1948. The government recently announced that it had concluded a cease-fire deal with them. A few days ago, however, it was none other than Zipporah Sein who called that agreement into question. The New York Times quoted her as saying that "[w]e still need to discuss the conditions."

Efforts to stop the fighting drag on. As the latest in a series of fragile ceasefire deals, the Mon ethnic group, which operates along the Thai-Burma border, announced last Wednesday that it reached "a preliminary ceasefire agreement" with Burma's pseudo-civilian government.

Similar agreements have been struck recently between the government and other ethnic rebel armies, including the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, and at least seven other armed groups. The one major exception is the continuing war between the Kachin and government troops.

Unfortunately, the participation of ethnic women in these conflict resolution processes is disturbingly low. It is a tragedy that the people who have suffered the most from these conflicts are those who seem to have the least say in the process of their "resolution."

At least a dozen reports over the past decade -- many of them produced by the women's groups associated with the ethnic minorities -- have accused the Burmese military regime of systematically allowing government troops to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic populations.

Since March 2010, when the current president Thein Sein took office in Burma, the Women's League of Burma, which brings together representatives of the major ethnic women organizations, has documented 81 rape cases in Shan and Kachin States. The League repeated its allegations in a letter it sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November, just before she made her historic visit to Burma.

According to a report by the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), some women were gang-raped by Burmese military troops in front of their families as the military regime waged harsh offensives against Kachin rebels starting in 2010. According to Shirley Seng, the KWAT spokeswoman, although the Kachin rebels and the Burmese government are holding talks, the abuse of women goes on. "Since 2010, large numbers of Burmese troops have entered the Kachin villages," Ms. Seng told me. "Wherever they are stationed, they abuse our women and girls."

UN Security Council resolutions have specifically called for women to be involved in the peace process because that means that talks will address the issues that directly affect women.

On Sunday, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, ended a fact-finding visit in the country by calling on the Burmese government to acknowledge its past human rights violations -- and those committed against women in particular. The government, he said, will have to acknowledge its responsibility for the "violations that people have suffered" in order to "ensure national reconciliation and to prevent future violations from occurring."

Considering what they've gone through, it seems only right that women should not only have the chance to shape the conflict resolution process but also the nation-building effort that is yet to come -- assuming that all goes well, of course.

Who's to blame for Burma's economic misery

Posted By Min Zin

Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement saying that Burma has a chance to become "the next economic frontier in Asia." But the IMF went on to note that the country can realize its potential only "if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world" to its advantage.

In a word, it's up to the government.

Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it's not western sanctions that are causing Burma's economic woes. It's government policy. The Burmese government's Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he respondedto a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: "We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them."

In 2004, the well-known U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that sanctions against Burma had "systematically weakened the economy by limiting trade, investment and foreign aid." It's an argument that many critics of sanctions have made.

The media love to use terms like "pariah," "isolated," and "closed" whenever they describe Burma and the effects of sanctions on the country.

If the term "pariah" denotes a country that utterly disregards international norms and behavior, and correspondingly meets with unrelenting censure from the international community, then that's a pretty good fit for Burma. But when the word is used in a way that's supposed to characterize the country's overall economic position (invariably in combination with words like "closed" and "isolated"), then it doesn't describe the situation at all.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma's exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That's higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma's exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don't cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.

As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That's more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia's latest investment darling, Vietnam.

These facts suggest that Burma's exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries. In this light it becomes extremely hard to argue that sanctions have deprived Burma of FDI and trade, much less that Burma is "isolated" or "closed." (This also offers an eloquent commentary on how ineffective the sanctions regime has actually been.)

Of course, sanctions do have negative effects on the economy (for instance, job losses in garment industry after the 2003 sanctions imposed by the U.S.), and there are many spillovers to other sectors, ranging from education to the growth of civil society. But the government cannot use sanctions as an excuse for its mismanagement and kleptocratic corruption.

Given this extent of economic involvement with the outside world, Burma should boast a good growth rate and corresponding improvements in the lives of its citizens. But the socioeconomic indicators tell a different story. For instance, since 1988 Burma's GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Index ranked Burma 132 out of 169 countries. The country is the lowest in Southeast Asia (Laos and Cambodia ranked 122 and 124 respectively). What's wrong with this picture?

The problems are twofold. First, the regime has tailored trade liberalization policy to benefit the natural resource extraction sector. The FDI that has come into the country has also focused on natural resource extraction and hydropower. Agriculture and manufacturing received a mere one percent of FDI because of the many problems that plague these sectors, including poor infrastructure, unfavorable exchange rates, electricity shortages, the lack of skilled workers, and so on and so forth. Since the natural resource extraction sector is capital intensive, most of the benefits go to those who own the capital. And that means the military conglomerates, whichcontrol almost all the capital in a society that is starved of private capital. As result, the distribution of income is highly uneven. The military takes the biggest share and most of the population never sees any benefit.

Second, the regime does not re-invest that revenue in education, health care, or necessary infrastructure. Instead, for example, it has plowed money into building the wasteful new capital Naypyidaw at a cost of about 1 to 2 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. By the government's own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 percent ($2 billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, while the country spends a mere 1.3 percent on health ($110 million) and 4.13 percent ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 percent of the overall budget. No wonder the country is mired in poverty.

The IMF's statement calls on the Burmese government to use revenues from natural resources "to build human capital and infrastructure." The Fund describes these as the "key priorities to alleviate poverty and reduce bottlenecks to industrialization."

Burma's third session of Parliament, which opened last Thursday in Naypyidaw, is now set to discuss the budget for the 2012/2013 fiscal year. This will be a litmus test for the new pseudo-civilian government. We will soon see whether it is willing to "redefine national spending priorities and bring fiscal transparency," as the IMF suggests, or whether, instead, everything stays the way it's been until now.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Burma: The war that won't stop

Posted By Min Zin

As I write this, Burmese government troops are still staging attacks on the Kachin ethnic rebel group - even as the two sides have been trying to conduct negotiations in the Chinese city of Ruili, just over the border. The new Burmese president Thein Sein, an ex-general, has publicly ordered the army to stop its offensive twice (once in mid-December, and more recently last week). But the army has kept fighting.

Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population in the government, was recently forced toconfess that the president's orders had not "reached the grassroots level."

In 1994, the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) agreed on a ceasefire. It held for 16 years. Then, in June 2010, the ceasefire broke down. The war that has gone on since then has caused over 60,000 people to flee the fighting.

The KIA, which has 10,000 armed troops (see photo above) and operates in northeastern Burma along the border with China, questions the government's sincerity. Yesterday I managed to callGen. Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA and one of its most influential leaders, who spoke to me from his headquarters in the city of Laiza. "The new government tells the international community that it is all for peace, peace, and peace," the general said. "But right now there are still 48,000 soldiers, or 120 battalions, attacking us and trying to encircle us."

Since 2009, the Burmese military has pressured no less than 17 armed ethnic groups to lay down their arms and accept a new status as "border guard forces" under the military's direct control. But some of the big rebel groups -- including the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) -- refused to give in to the junta.

After the military succeeded in cracking down on the Kokang ethnic group's bases along the China-Burma border in mid-2009, the generals were emboldened and launched a major offensive against the Kachin in 2010.

Gun Maw told me that the Kachin regard the ceasefire offers they're now getting from the government as a warmed-up version of an earlier truce deal that existed before the border guard plan. The new government, which came into power last year, abandoned that plan after it met with massive resistance from the ethnic armies. Gun Maw says that the government is merely attempting to undo the damage it did to the ethnic groups in 2009-2011. He believes the generals simply want to hold the minority groups at bay for a time as they try to improve their international image.

In early January, the Burmese government reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement with another big ethnic rebel force, the Karen National Union, which is based in southeastern Burma near the border with Thailand.

The Burmese government is clearly desperate to give the impression that the country is at peace before it assumes the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hosts the group's summit in 2014. The government is also well aware that ending the violence in the ethnic areas is one of the conditions the U.S. administration has set for removing its sanctions against Burma. And when the head of the Burmese military visited Beijing recently, the Chinese also pressured him to find a solution to the continuing instability along the border between the two countries. The Chinese have not been happy with the flow of refugees over the border. They are also worried about the potential disruptions of Chinese economic and strategic interests, including the Sino-Burma gas and oil pipelines that pass through the Kachin state.

The talks between the KIO and the government ended Thursday without a ceasefire being reached.

"The major hurdle in the way of a ceasefire deal was that the Burmese negotiating team did not have a mandate to promise the withdrawal of troops," said Gun Maw. He told me that an enormous number of Burmese troops have pushed into the Kachin region since the start of the offensive in 2010. The Kachin see little point in negotiating unless the government is prepared to reduce that presence.

A brief statement jointly issued by both sides said that negotiations will continue. Still, the general told me, "Kachin resentment against the Burma military is very high because they have committed many abuses against the local population." He said that many Kachin villagers are criticizing their political leaders for entering talks with the Burmese army.

Given the geopolitical pressures and the incentives offered by the West, it seems likely that both sides will eventually be forced to come to terms. But a lasting peace will never take hold unless the government can find a way to respect the autonomy of the ethnic groups in this multi-ethnic country. And the cycle of conflict will drag on and on.