Written by: Aileen Phyu, OBA member.

If anything, Latpadaung copper mine issue embodies the very essence of messy Myanmar politics and a plethora of the country’s struggles that are waiting to be slowly and wearily untangled. Recent decision of the commission’s report to continue mining operations in Monywa only proves that even a democracy superwoman who sacrificed 15 years of her life under house arrest cannot stay insulated from condemnation. Since its release, the report has created a clear split between groups, summoning critics who demand a complete abortion of the project on the one hand, and supporters who sympathize with Daw Su and approve the commission’s decision. 

The copper mine operation has been a controversial issue since its birth. Last November,  local demonstrations against the project came under the spotlight as the police used tear bombs containing phosphorus against the protestors, setting alight the latter’s camps. As images of protestors suffering burns floated on the internet, it’s inevitable that angry commentators started to question the government’s boastful commitment to reforms. Whoever is in charge of the Latpadaung inquiry commission is doomed to find him/herself in a quandary. While there have been unlawful confiscations, community displacement, and environmental problems associated with the project, shutting it down completely would also mean turning away from foreign investments that Myanmar desperately needs for its economic growth. So I empathize with Daw Suu, the chair of the commission, who has been juggling politics with morals quite unsuccessfully herself.

If you are expecting me to pick a side, dear readers, then read no further. Given the already abundant debates on the issue, I see it futile to argue at this point whether the mining operation should proceed or be stopped. Daw Suu is right in reminding us that every political decision is bound to be contentious. From building a well in a village to undertaking a billion dollar mining operation, there will always be people who agree or disagree, people who benefit more than others, and some even not at all. But it is not the point of my article to singly pick what Daw Suu said and argue whether or not I agree with her.

I think the real issue is that what seems to be missing in all the conversations in regards to the copper mine controversy is the most crucial ingredient: the people. For now, the overall impression is that Latpadaung residents are included as part of the plan only insofar as passive citizens who are no more than chess pieces to be moved around by politicians, corporate investors and development elites. My point may seem absurd given that the locals have proven to be active participants by orchestrating protests and the like. Yet this may exactly prove my point. Despite all the obvious clues, the officials have failed to see these people as citizens who have a voice and know how they want to lead their own lives (let’s not get into metaphysics here!). Instead, in a 19-minute video clip of Daw Suu’s visit to the village, we see her lecturing the local residents on how to be a good citizen.

A particular part of the video stuck with me. When the democracy heroine asked the villagers whether they’ve read the commission report that was included in the newspapers, the answer was a no. But her question soon backfired as the people responded by saying newspapers never even get delivered in their village. These few seconds of the video clip show us, first, lack of public engagement in the commission’s decision to push ahead with the mine operations. The panel’s report may have exposed that land in the area is worth 1.5 million kyat ($1730) per acre, much more than the ridiculous 5 to 80 kyat per acre that had previously been offered to residents under an outdated law. But findings such as these mean close to nothing if those whose lives would be most affected were not even part of the decision making process. Second, that the residents have not even read the commission report does not represent their ignorance but that of those in charge. It exposes a system that is only legible on paper but broken in practice. 

Some observers are too quick to say that these villagers blindly oppose the mine project without even reading the report.  These criticisms blithely assume that public tools and resources are widely available and accessible by everyone in all parts of the country. But who are we kidding? In a country frozen in time, where most people are deprived of basic necessities, we’d only be making a fool of ourselves if we actually believed it.   

I find the locals’ continued protests over the project encouraging. Unsuccessful and overlooked they may be, but emerging from their dissents are dialogues and social platforms for new ways of political engagement. Needless to say, they cannot just carry on without having any productive results. A country still needs to keep its economy going. 

The task of participation is almost impractical for a country that had been fine tuned to the Orwellian rhythm for the past five decades. But unless we remind ourselves that people make country and not otherwise, even a billion-dollar copper mine may not be pampering enough. How to reconcile such an ideal with the practical needs of the economy remains the ultimate challenge for Myanmar’s leaders.
__ Cannot escape from this point for a while yet
We enjoy traffic jams
Our daily life is our school lesson
Have a bathe and wash your clothes while it rains
Blow out and save your candles while the moon shines
Do business while waiting for the green light
We have all sorts of news in our arms 
Eleven, Voice, Modern, Myanmar Times
What happened in Letpadaung Hill
What will happen to the mobile internet rate
Murder cases during the month­­­
Hooligans wreaking havoc in downtown
The more horrible the news is, the more sensational it is, isn’ it
Or to hang in your new big car
Here's  sabe, zun, ngwe, shwe flowers
Still fresh though dipped in the water since last night
By the way thazin  track is also damn fresh
Part 1, 2 and 3 are on hand if you'd like
What! thazin  track is no flower
Let it be if you have no idea
Then what's your line, politics or economics
Then here's the draft Telecommunications Law
Or the Constitution is also available  
Still on sale though printed long ago
Yet I don’t know whether it is still in good shape
The Foreign Investment Law is just released
Obtainable in Burmese and in English
We've got Burma maps and Yangon maps too
You can get lost even in your own regions and streets
And a roadmap will still be handy
Until it is replaced with a new one
Will you buy at least something, brother
You cannot escape from this traffic point for a while yet
At least, a Daw Suu Calendar
Or a fighting peacock flag
Just a souvenir

By Pandora
10 Dec 2012  

(Translated from the Burmese by the author, edited by Mg Tha Noe)

*Pandora was born in 1974 in Burma delta. As an English major at R*angoon University, she wrote poems and short stories for the campus magazines under several pen names, all of which she has now forgotten. She took a hiatus from writing when she came to Singapore to study in 2001 but bounced back on the scene in early 2007 as literary blogger Pandora. Since then her poems, essays and short stories have been seen in online Burmese journals and books and in printed media inside Burma. Recently she has returned to Rangoon for a change after a ten-year spell in Singapore.
Written by: Regina Paulose, J.D., LLM, International Crime and Justice and author at acontrarioicl.com

In November 2012, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the ICC released its Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2012, which examines situations in various countries for acts which could potentially amount to crimes against humanity and/or war crimes. Some of the countries mentioned in this report are North Korea, Columbia, and Afghanistan.[1]

While one could question some of the cases the OTP is currently investigating,[2] this author takes the position that there are other atrocious human rights situations which need the immediate attention of the ICC.  In particular, the OTP should begin to make efforts to investigate and address the continued persecution and abuse of the Rohingya population in Burma.[3]

The Status Quo Conflict and Response

According to some scholars, the Rohingya’s origins are not entirely clear.[4] Setting aside this debate, the Rohingya mainly reside in Burma on the western side. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Burma where the majority of the population is Buddhist. It is estimated that there are currently 800,000 to 1 million Rohingya living in Burma. Since the 1970’s the regime in Burma has been trying to drive out or restrict the Rohingya.[5] This sentiment was put into law in 1982 when it created a Citizenship Law, which mandates that a person must prove their Burmese ancestry dating back to 1823 in order to have freedom of movement and access to other basic rights such as education in the country.[6] (Recall: Armenian Genocide and Nazi Germany). This law is one of the prime reasons why the Rohingya have become “stateless.”

The Rohingya have been the target of violence and recent clashes, which has left “dozens dead and tens of thousands internally displaced.”[7] One does not have to look further than the last 8 months to truly see how the regime continues to treat the Rohingya. In June 2012, an outbreak in communal violence between the Buddhist and Muslim Rakhine and the Rohingya lead to massive sweeps resulting in detention of Rohingya men and boys. (Recall the massacre at Srebrenica). Reports indicated that these groups were subject to ill treatment and were held “incommunicado.”[8] In October 2012, satellite images showed that homes of the Rohingya were being destroyed by security forces. The security forces then overwhelmed and cornered the Rohingya to drive them out of the area. This destruction is on top of the gruesome reports of beheading and killing of women and children.[9] (Recall: Rwanda).

Faced with no other alternatives and with no access to justice in their country, the Rohingya have begun to flee only to be met with rejection from other countries. On the first day of 2013, some members of the Rohingya group were intercepted by Thai authorities and were deported back to Burma.[10] The Thai Navy is under orders to send them away from Thailand. Bangladesh has also expressed that it is not willing to accept Rohingya into their country.

Some countries however are reaching out to the Rohingya. Malaysia does accept the Rohingya as refugees. Iran recently sent humanitarian aid in order to help and has called upon the UN to take action.[11] Regionally, ASEAN offered to conduct “talks” but that was “rejected.” The regime explained that it sees the escalating violence as an “internal problem.”[12]

After a close examination of these events, the U.S. Presidential visit in November 2012, made the waters murky. President Obama felt that Burma was “moving in a better direction” and that there were “flickers of progress.” During the visit the President met with an advocate of the Rohingya population. While President Obama stated that his visit was not an endorsement of the current government, simple questions arise as to what the U.S. would be willing to do (or not do) to prevent this sectarian violence from escalating.[13] Not surprisingly, after the visit, Thein Sein made 2013 human rights news, when his regime admitted to using air raids against the Kachin rebels who are battling the government for control over certain territories.[14]

The ICC and its potential involvement

There are two interesting points of discussion that this scenario creates. The first is how the OTP would be able to meet jurisdictional requirements if it were to seriously consider prosecution. The controversial propio motu powers of the Prosecutor would allow her to investigate this situation. Articles 13, 15, and 53 of the Rome Statute require temporal jurisdiction, territorial or personal jurisdiction, and material jurisdiction. In addition, there are requirements in the Statute concerning admissibility. Burma is not a state party to the Rome Statute. The real challenge with this case would be with meeting the territorial or personal jurisdiction elements. Of course the easiest way to meet this requirement would be if the UN Security Council (UNSC) would be willing to refer the case as it did with Bashir of North Sudan.[15] As stated above, the U.S. Presidential visit does not make clear at this time what the U.S. position would be, especially considering the U.S. also eased sanctions on the regime in November.   

Another interesting point of discussion also concerns the potential charges. This author believes that this is a strong case for various charges under crimes against humanity. Charges under war crimes would prove to be interesting, depending on how the situation is viewed.  As previously noted, the regime has continuously called the situation with the Rohingya an “internal problem.”  The situation with the Rohingya can be distinguished from the conflict with the Kachin rebel/soldiers who are fighting for territory and independence.

Some other kind of action is now necessary besides dialogue and commentary from high level UN officials. Our cries of “never again” have become hollow.  The purpose of the ICC should be to facilitate deterrence in addition to punish perpetrators of grave crimes. The international community waits for these situations to become so grave that every action becomes too late. We cannot say we are students of history, when we continually are faced with the same situations over again and repeat the same mistakes. Our ability to ignore tragedy has come at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.

                                                                                                                     Click 'Read More' to view Footnotes:

___Htwet Yat Poute* [Great Escape]by Khin Aung Aye

(Translated by Aileen Ei Pwint Phyu, OBA member)

We say we have our victory
And we dance.

Whether once in a decade
Or a score of years,
We gather, and dance.

Whilst in secret
Our subconscious admits defeat,
And with it everyday
We wipe our eyes in discreet.

17th December 2012
Chilton Grove, London 19:04

* The translation ‘Great Escape’ does not do justice to the poem’s title. Htwat Yat Poute refers to a term used in ancient rituals when people believed their souls have transcended the human body to acquire a better life. The term was also used metaphorically by Ba Maw and General Aung San in founding Bama Htwet Yat Gaing (Freedom Bloc), a political organization established in 1939 against colonial forces, in support of Burmese independence and democracy. 

Name and location withheld.

With a picturesque backdrop of the mountains and jungle, you could – in places –almost be forgiven for forgetting that this is one of the nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. 

Having been established two decades ago, along with its population, the camp’s economy and size has also expanded significantly. Inside, you can find shops, tea shops, restaurants, hair dressers, a hospital and a large market. If you have money, you can buy almost everything you need, from clothes and shoes to books, paper, mobile phones, kitchen utensils and DVDs. There’s an internet café and there are even motorbikes, bicycles and one or two cars, as well as a motorbike ice-cream seller.

Yet if you don’t have money, you’re left to live on the meagre rations of white rice, yellow beans, oil, charcoal and, approximately once every three months, some soap. And I can’t even begin to describe how bad the ration rice tastes. I didn’t realise rice could taste quite so bad; this was like eating white gravel.

Although for much of the year water is readily available and is piped through the camp, it’s not drinking water; it can only be used to shower with and to wash clothes and dishes. I was lucky enough to be living where donors have provided a UV water filter, but even so, I arrived at the end of the rainy season, so we didn’t had any fresh water to put through the filter. That wasn’t a problem for me – it was easy enough to buy bottled drinking water and I had the money to do so – but my students told me that they don’t really drink anything when it hasn’t rained.

One day, one of my students took me to visit her dormitory. It was a 55 minute walk/hike away, sometimes along busy, wide, flat mud roads with shops and houses on each side, and sometimes climbing on narrow, slippery paths through jungle. It was a typical dormitory, housing around 40 students. The buildings were typical bamboo buildings, but they were nicely built and fairly sturdy. I was cooked a nice lunch and then I asked where the toilets are. Initially, I couldn’t understand why that question had caused such a fuss – there are toilets built by the French NGO Solidarités throughout the camp. But then the students showed me their toilets. The building had been dismantled and the squat toilets were covered with planks of wood. They are full, I was told, and they had been for a couple of weeks or so, but they were going to start making new ones on the following Saturday. 

By Daniel Di Francesco and Agnieszka Fal, OBA Members
St Hugh's College and Wadham College
Originally published 6 June 2012 by The Oxford Student (reprinted with permission)

In recent months the attention of the international community has turned towards Burma, and many column inches have been spent in discussing the democratic reforms, which started at the end of last year, and the enthusiasm with which international leaders have received them. Yet an issue that is notoriously overlooked is the ongoing armed conflict within the country, and especially the fate of those who have been forced to leave their homes as a result. These people become known as internally displaced persons (IDPs), and even though there is estimated to be over 650,000 of them in Burma, living in relocation sites, in ceasefire areas or in hiding, they receive little or no media attention. Displacement can occur for a variety of reasons –  the most obvious being as a direct result of armed conflict between insurgents, but also for other reasons, including the plethora of abuses which follow: land confiscation by the armed groups (often for the extraction of natural resources), predatory taxation and forced labour. Due to the sheer magnitude and severity of these abuses, it is often argued that they constitute crimes against humanity.

Yet the government seems to be moving in the right direction. In his enthusiastically received address to the Parliament on 1 March 2012, President Thein Sein expressed his commitment to ending ethnic conflict, emphasising that he is determined to “end the misunderstanding and mistrust between ethnic groups and the government”. To this effect, he set out a three-step process, which aims to deliver sustainable peace and an opportunity for recovery. The first step would be signing ceasefires in all war-torn areas, followed by negotiations between local authorities and the national government, dealing with cultural, political and socio-economic issues. Finally, changes would be made to the Burmese constitution, to ensure equal rights and respect for all ethnic groups.

By Janeen Sawatzky, OBA Member
Worcester College, Oxford
Originally published 27 April 2012 by The Oxford Student (reprinted with permission)

It is easy to believe that Burma’s battle for democracy may soon be over. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s historic trip in late 2011 and David Cameron’s call for the suspension of economic sanctions this week while visiting Burma are clear indications that the international community is taking notice of the incredible progress unfolding in the Southeast Asian nation.

That this once pariah state, condemned for its egregious human rights abuses and violent suppression of pro-democracy activists, may finally see over 50 years of western isolation come to an end is nothing short of astonishing. What is more astonishing, however, is the rapid pace at which the nominally civilian government is enacting political reforms.

_By Hkanhpa Sadan
Joint General Secretary of the Kachin National Organisation (KNO) & friend of the OBA
Originally published 26 April 2012 by The Oxford Student (reprinted with permission)

On Friday 13th April, David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister to visit Burma since independence in 1948.  He said the UK would argue in favour of suspending – not lifting – all EU sanctions on Burma, except the arms embargo. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also backed this position. Since the UK has been the only EU member arguing to keep sanctions in place, sanctions are likely to be suspended, probably after the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 23rd April 2012.

The day before the PM prepared for his historic visit to Burma, he praised President Thein Sein for his “courage” in introducing political reforms.  He stated: “If Burma moves towards democracy then we should respond in kind, and we should not be slow in doing that. But, first I want to go and see for myself on the ground how things are going.” I am sure that David Cameron saw signs of progress, especially “on the ground” in Yangon and central Burma, which is the main majority Burman populated area of the country. I am from Kachin State, in the north of the country, but for me, my relatives and my friends, change “on the ground” has not yet come. In fact, in recent months the situation has deteriorated dramatically.

_By Katie Myint, OBA Member
Jesus College, Oxford
23 April 2012

I'm a third year studying medicine at Jesus College. During the Easter vacation, I travelled to Burma for experience at the Jivitadana Sangha Hospital in the former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), in order to learn about healthcare in a developing country.            

The humanitarian crisis in Burma has been described by the Human Rights Watch as one of the worst in the world. Over a third of Burmese people live on less than $1 a day, and this is reflected in the major causes of death: tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition; most of these are diseases of poverty, and preventable. Unfortunately healthcare provision in Burma is poor, with a lack of equipment and medicine which is directly attributable to the shockingly low government expenditure on health in Burma.

The Burmese government spends approximately $23 per person on health each year, a measly sum in comparison to $345 per person in neighbouring Thailand, and $3399 per person in the United Kingdom (WHO, 2009). The quality of healthcare in Burma is so poor that Burmese government officials are known to travel to Thailand and Singapore to receive better care. Sadly, this is simply not an option for most ordinary Burmese people, who cannot afford the expense.

_By Josh Powell
Queen's College, Oxford
December 2011

Ethnic minorities make up roughly 40% of the Burmese population, yet many of these minorities have been sorely oppressed for decades. Despite ‘full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas’ promised in the Panglong Agreement of 1947, this has never materialised, and many groups, among them the Karen, Shan and Kachin, have been attacked ruthlessly as part of the government policy of ‘Burmisation’: an attempt to maintain the geographical and cultural integrity of Burma, preventing minorities from establishing autonomy; a policy which has also led to widespread religious persecution such as that of the Muslim Rohingya people. Burma’s ethnic national tribal groups have suffered countless human rights abuses: millions have been displaced, both internally and into neighbouring countries; many, including children have been enslaved as forced labourers or soldiers; rape has been consistently used as weapon of war; civilians have been deliberately targeted by the army; and many villages have simply ceased to exist.


Oxford Burma Alliance