Myanmar president pardons jailed aid workers

Three aid workers, including two employed by United Nations agencies, have been pardoned by Myanmar President Thein Sein after being sentenced last week, the U.N. said Wednesday.

The charges that landed the three people in jail remain murky, but appear to involve their alleged roles in the outbreak of violence earlier this summer in Rakhine state. A U.N. human rights envoy had earlier called for them to be freed, saying charges against them were unfounded.

The president announced the pardon on his website Tuesday, giving no reason for the decision. Eri Kaneko, associate spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, said it was still unclear at this time if the three workers had been freed.

“This is all coming to us rather suddenly,” Kaneko said. “What we can say for now is that we welcome their release.”

The aid workers were sentenced last week in Maungdaw District Court in western Myanmar, with scant information given to the United Nations about their alleged crimes, the charges and the sentences. One worked for the U.N. World Food Program, one for the U.N. refugee agency, and one for a partnering nonprofit. They reportedly faced prison terms ranging from two to six years.

The three detainees were among a dozen humanitarian workers imprisoned in June after deadly riots erupted in Rakhine between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. A Myanmar news outlet, Eleven News Journal, reported the three were allegedly involved in arson and promoting hatred.

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Aid workers sentenced after Myanmar ethnic clashes

In Myanmar, aid workers from the United Nations and a partner agency have been sentenced in a murky case that has been linked to the ethnic violence that wracked western stretches of the country earlier this summer.

The aid workers included a Myanmar national working for the U.N. refugee agency and another worker from a partner nonprofit, said Babar Baloch, communications officer with the agency.

A third worker with the U.N. World Food Program was also sentenced, a U.N. spokesman based in Myanmar told the Associated Press. The World Food Program declined to comment on the case.

Baloch said the refugee agency had received no official information about the workers' alleged crimes and punishments. The sentences were handed down Friday in Maungdaw District Court, but news of the case did not spread until later, with many details still unclear Monday.  

"We are very disappointed with the outcome of these cases, especially after the positive development which had happened," Baloch said, referring to the release of six other prisoners held in connection with the matter. "We have pressed the Myanmar authorities to clarify what the charges are. Every individual deserves a fair trial according to international standards."

The charges are widely believed to be linked to the ethnic violence that erupted in Rakhine state earlier this summer. Eleven News Journal in Myanmar reported that the three were imprisoned for "alleged involvement in arson attacks and promoting hatred between Buddhists and Muslims."

According to the Myanmar news outlet, the World Food Program employee was sentenced to two years in jail, while the other two workers were dealt sentences of six years and three years. A Myanmar government official described the same sentences to Agence France-Presse.

A dozen U.N. and other aid workers were first detained in June after the start of the riots, a devastating series of revenge attacks that began after a Buddhist woman was reportedly raped by Muslim men. Rakhine descended into chaos as mobs burned homes and killed scores of villagers.

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Myanmar stops censoring articles before they go to print

Myanmarmedia

Journalists in Myanmar will no longer have to send their articles to state censors before publication, a landmark step announced Monday toward lifting restrictions on the press.

But reporters in the changing country still fear being punished for what they write. Free speech activists say other rules that clamp down on government criticism or touchy topics are still in place, inhibiting journalists from writing freely.

“If you break the law, what’s going to happen?” asked Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of Democratic Voice of Burma, which broadcasts news on Myanmar from Norway. “The laws are still there.”

Myanmar, long isolated under a military junta, has been tiptoeing toward reform over the past year, freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. The changes have won it new investment from abroad. Media censorship has slowly eased as well, allowing once-prohibited photos of Suu Kyi to show up in the press.

A government official told reporters earlier this year that the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division would be abolished, its next step toward reform. But while the Monday announcement said the censorship board would no longer shape articles before they went to print, it will still scrutinize what gets printed after the fact, according to media watchdogs.

“This is a sea change only because the bar was so low before,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Freedom House. “We’re a long way away from freedom of the press.”

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Aid agencies in Bangladesh told to stop Rohingya aid

Rohingya

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

Three aid agencies reportedly have been asked to halt their activities in Bangladesh because their helping hand is encouraging Rohingya refugees to cross from Myanmar into the country.

The three international groups, identified in news reports as Doctors Without Borders, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid, were helping illegal immigrants without permission from the government and slurring Bangladeshi in the media, a district deputy commissioner told Bangladeshi media.

“In two to three days, they will close their office and leave the area,” Joynul Bari told the Daily Star in Bangladesh, complaining that the groups were attracting ethnic Rohingya people across the border.

Doctors Without Borders confirmed Thursday that Bangladeshi authorities had sent the group a letter asking it to stop its work in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar.

“We are currently discussing this matter with the Bangladeshi authorities and cannot comment further,” DWB media relations manager Michael R. Goldfarb said in an email.

Action Against Hunger said it could not confirm or comment on the reports. Muslim Aid could not be reached Thursday; its security coordinator in Bangladesh told Agence France-Presse that the group had stopped a project helping Rohingya refugees after getting the order.

[Updated 11:56 a.m. Friday, Aug. 3: Muslim Aid issued a statement saying that  it and other charities had halted their humanitarian operations to comply with the government order.

"It is unfortunate that this action has been taken in the holy month of Ramadan, which is a special occasion for helping vulnerable people and feeding the hungry," the group said, adding that it had appealed to Bangladesh to reconsider the decision and allow relief work to continue.]

Labeled as foreign intruders in Myanmar and rejected by Bangladesh, the Rohingya people are essentially stateless. In a recent searing report, Human Rights Watch said government forces in Myanmar, also known as Burma,  had killed and raped Rohingya after recent bouts of violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.

Bangladesh, in turn, has repeatedly turned back rickety boats of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar, to the chagrin of human rights groups who say the Rohingya are in desperate need. Officials in Bangladesh argue that  the country already shelters hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees and is being asked to shoulder a problem that Myanmar should handle.

“It is not our responsibility, it is their responsibility,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a recent interview  with Al Jazeera television when pressed about turning away Rohingya.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Rohingya Muslim women rest in their hut at an unregistered refugee camp in Teknaf in the  Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh on June 20, 2012. Credit: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP/Getty Images


Government forces killed, raped Rohingya in Myanmar, report says

Government forces killed, raped Rohingya Muslims, report says

In Myanmar, government forces stood by while Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were slain in devastating rounds of violence and retribution, then joined in by killing, raping and rounding up the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on the devastating sectarian attacks.

As the long-isolated country takes steps toward reform and gains increasing acceptance abroad, human rights activists and analysts have warned that ethnic tensions are one of its most stubborn problems and must be addressed before the country can forge a sustainable peace.

Violence exploded in June after a Buddhist woman was reportedly raped by Muslim men, sparking a deadly cycle of attacks and reprisals as mobs from both Rakhine and Rohingya communities ransacked villages and killed their people. Witnesses on both sides told the group that security forces had failed to protect them in the early days of the attacks.

“The government could have stopped this,” two men -- – one Rakhine, the other Rohingya -- told Human Rights Watch.

The attacks killed 78 people, according to Myanmar officials, but human rights groups believe the death toll was much higher. As the carnage and chaos wore on, security forces joined in against the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch found.

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Human rights at risk as U.S. opens Myanmar investment, groups say

Myanmar

As the United States begins allowing new investments in Myanmar for the first time in nearly 15 years, human rights activists charge that the step will fuel abuses instead of rewarding its steps toward reform.

The Obama administration eased financial and investment sanctions on Myanmar this week, praising the country for freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing the opposition to take part in elections.

The most stirring symbol of the change that has swept the long-isolated country is democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, formerly jailed as a dissident, now serving as a sitting member of parliament. But the country is still far from free, with the military still clashing with ethnic minorities and wielding remarkable power.

Letting U.S.companies do business in Myanmar “will set a model for responsible investment and business operations as well as encourage further change, promote economic development and contribute to the welfare of the Burmese people,” the State Department said in a statement.

The changes were cautious and calibrated, it argued. Companies are still barred from investing with the military and Defense Ministry, as well as a list of banned individuals. U.S. companies investing in Myanmar also will have to provide information on any human rights, corruption and environmental risks tied to their projects.

But human rights groups were appalled by the move, saying the Obama administration had failed to put in true safeguards to prevent U.S. investment from bankrolling abuses such as forcing villagers off their land to make way for pipelines or mines.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “Whatever the U.S. corporations wanted, that’s what they went with.”

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What’s in a name? In Myanmar – or Burma – it’s political

Suukyi

This post has been corrected. See the note below.

In a divided country racked by ethnic violence and edging toward reform, one of the most stubborn battles may be a war of words: Is it Burma or is it Myanmar?

After democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi toured Europe and Thailand, calling her country “Burma” as she was greeted by adoring crowds and a deluge of press, the national election commission issued a complaint in the state newspaper saying she should respect the constitution, which refers to the nation as “Myanmar.”

Suu Kyi shot back Tuesday that she will keep calling the country what she wants. Her party has argued that it isn’t against the law to call it Burma, the name it favors.

"The right to speak one's mind freely doesn't insult anyone. This is also about democratic principles and policy,” Suu Kyi was quoted as telling reporters by Agence France-Presse. “So I assume that I can use whatever I want to use as I believe in democracy."

The names have political overtones. The country long known as Burma was renamed in 1989 by the ruling military junta, which explained that the name Myanmar would separate the nation from its colonial past and be more ethnically inclusive than “Burma,” which reflects the traditional name of the majority Bamar ethnic group. The junta also renamed cities and streets; Rangoon became Yangon, for example.

Political opponents of the junta rejected the new name, sticking with Burma. “The whole idea of changing the name was to legitimize their rule,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “For us, using the name is political. Our activity is for promotion of democracy and human rights. So we will not legitimize this regime.”

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Aung San Suu Kyi makes historic address to British lawmakers

Aung-san-suu-kyi
LONDON -- In a historic address to both houses of Parliament, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday that her country finally had a chance to “reestablish true democracy” and that she would welcome help from nations such as Britain.

“It is an opportunity for which we have waited many decades,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said. “If we do not use this opportunity, if we do not get things right this time around, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again.”

Suu Kyi’s half-hour speech, before a rapt audience of lawmakers and other dignitaries, made her the first Asian, the first non-head of state and first woman besides the British monarch ever to address a joint assembly of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Previous speakers given the honor include Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama.

The occasion also was notable because she was addressing representatives of a nation that once subjugated hers, before Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, won freedom from British colonial rule in 1948.

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi honored at Oxford

Aung-sang-suu-kyiLONDON -- Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader of the opposition in  Myanmar, made an emotional homecoming visit to Oxford University on Wednesday as she continued her first trip abroad in 24 years, much of that time spent as a political prisoner under house arrest.

At Oxford, where Suu Kyi studied beginning in 1964 and spent the early years of her married life, she received an honorary doctorate in civil law.

“Today many strands of my life have come together,” said Suu Kyi, speaking after the ceremony in the 17th century Sheldonian Theater to academics, students and fellow honorary doctors.

“During the most difficult years I was upheld by memories of Oxford," she said. "These were among the most important inner resources that helped me to cope with all the challenges I had to face.”

During her long years under house arrest in her homeland, which is also known as Burma, Suu Kyi was unable to travel to Britain to visit her husband, Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999.

Her memories were simple but precious, she said: summer days spent on the river, “reading on the lawn, or in the library -- not reading but looking out of the window.”

But life as an Oxford student had taught her above all “to respect all that is the best in human civilization. ... It gave me confidence in humankind.”

Campus life was one “in which young people can make a world of their own,” a freedom “that our young people in Burma have not had for decades,” she said. “I would like a bit of Oxford ... in Burma.”

Her arrival in Oxford on Tuesday was feted  by academics, students, freedom campaigners and refugees with flowers, waves and cheers of support interspersed with singing and greetings as the day also marked her 67th birthday.

Aung San Suu Kyi graduated in 1967, then lived in Oxford beginning in 1974 with her husband, an expert on Tibet. They had two sons.

She left her family in 1988 for Myanmar to lead the National League for Democracy in elections. The military junta first placed her under house arrest in 1989.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which she finally was able to receive in Oslo over the weekend.

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 -- Janet Stobart

Photo: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar holds her honorary degree in Oxford, England on Wednesday. Credit: Andy Rain / European Pressphoto Agency


Refugees of 2011 underline 'suffering on an epic scale'

One in four new refugees in 2011 were from Afghanistan.

More people became refugees in 2011 than in any other year since the new millennium began, with one out of every four of them coming from Afghanistan, the United Nations refugee agency reported Monday.

The agency called the new numbers a sign of “suffering on an epic scale.”

Though more than 800,000 people fled across borders last year, the highest number since 2000, the number of people displaced worldwide actually dropped as millions of people returned to their homes, the agency said.

All in all, 42.5-million people were displaced or seeking asylum last year, a figure that could actually be higher since many countries do not report the number of people believed to be stateless.

Afghanistan produced the most refugees, followed by Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Most fled to neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Kenya; Pakistan hosted more than 1.7-million refugees last year, the largest number in the world according to government estimates. Nearly all of them came from Afghanistan.

The U.N. refugee agency said while growing numbers of displaced people have returned home, it is alarmed that almost three out of every four refugees under its watch have been exiled from their homes for at least five years, many of them languishing in refugee camps.

The report was released ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday. The day comes as the agency is grappling with several new crises.

The U.N. recently lamented a dire shortfall of funding to help people uprooted by conflict in northern Mali, where Tuareg rebels have declared their own state. Bangladesh has turned away Rohingya Muslims trying to leave Myanmar after a recent eruption of ethnic violence, despite calls from the U.N. and other countries to allow them in. And in South Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees crossing from Sudan are suffering from deadly dehydration.

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— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Afghan refugees travel on a truck as they cross the border between their homeland and Pakistan  at Torkham on May 20. Credit: A. Majeed / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.


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