A recent town hall meeting aimed to dispel concerns about the multi-billion-dollar Yangon New City project and fast, cheap internet access enabled those affected by the project to follow proceedings remotely.

By KYAW YE LYNN | FRONTIER

WHILE HUNDREDS of people gathered in Yangon on June 23 for a town hall meeting concerning the multi-billion-dollar Yangon New City, villagers in the project area were also keenly following events at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

If you were in the conference hall at UMFCCI, though, you could be mistaken for thinking that locals from Twante Township weren’t interested. Few, if any, showed up – but that’s only because they could follow a FB Live feed on their smartphones.

“We were really interested in the meeting, this so-called town hall. But we didn’t bother to go because we knew [the organisers] or someone else would do a Facebook live,” said Ko Myint Naing Kyaw, a real estate agent and farmer from Twante Township’s Tamatakaw village.

Myint Naing Kyaw even watched the event from the comfort of his living room, on an Android TV Box that he bought earlier in June after hearing about the device from a Chinese worker on the New Yangon City project. Curious, Myint Naing Kyaw searched on Facebook and ordered one from an online shop for K55,000, plus K3,000 delivery fee.

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About 30 minutes before proceedings began, a dozen Tamatkaw residents had already gathered at Myint Naing Kyaw’s home to watch the broadcast on his TV. And the verdict?

He said they didn’t know what to expect, but thought that officials would probably just talk for a while and not take any questions. “That’s what they normally do in meetings like this. But it was a bit interactive,” he said. “We liked it even though we didn’t understand most of the discussions.”

There were some disappointing aspects, though, Myint Naing Kyaw said, such as the lack of any senior regional government officials at the meeting, including NYDC chair Daw Nilar Kyaw. “We were also expecting to learn more about land compensation, but we didn’t hear any new information.”

‘Transparency is a powerful tool’

New Yangon Development Company, which was launched in March, aims to attract US$5 billion in investment to turn an undeveloped part of Yangon Region west of the city into a thriving commercial and residential hub twice the size of Singapore.

NYDC is the development vehicle for the project. While it is 100 percent owned by the Yangon Region government, its board contains three independent directors – businessman Mr Serge Pun, former Singaporean foreign minister Mr George Yeo and former senior United Nations official U Tun Myat – and two government representatives.

Pun, the NYDC chief executive officer, said at the event that the company plans to hold more town hall meetings to address confusion and misunderstandings about the project’s tendering and implementation processes.

He said the meeting was organised because of the widespread criticism, particularly on social media, about the project’s perceived lack of transparency. “As transparency is powerful tool, we’ve made it a first priority at every single step.”

The three other panellists – U Khine Win, founder of Sandhi Governance Institute; U Ye Myat Thu, managing director of Alpha Mandalay Company, and U Zeya Thu, deputy chief editor of The Voice – were chosen because they had raised concerns about the project, particularly the government getting involved in business.

But Pun defended the government’s role in the project, saying its only ambition was to attract private sector investment. “The whole [New Yangon City] project will be implemented with 100 percent investment from the private sector.”

Concerns over Sri Lanka

NYDC has already signed an agreement with state-owned China Communications Construction Company to prepare a detailed project proposal for infrastructure works for phase one of New Yangon City. Pun said the infrastructure work required under phase one has been estimated at $2 billion, and two bridges and 26 kilometres of roads had already been identified as priority projects.

Panellist Khine Win said the decision to choose CCCC without conducting a tender had created concern. In particular, he cited CCCC’s track record in Sri Lanka, where a subsidiary, China Harbour Engineering Company, is undertaking a project called Colombo Harbour City. He said he had read case studies that said Sri Lanka had leased freehold land to CHEC for more than 90 years.

CHEC also built a deepsea port in Sri Lanka that critics claim saddled Sri Lanka with debt and ultimately prompted it to lease the port back to a Chinese company for 99 years.

But Khine Win also noted that NYDC had not yet signed any such agreements with CCCC. “We don’t need to worry as [NYDC] is still in an early stage,” he said.

Pun said there was no risk of a repeat of events in Sri Lanka because the government would not be taking on debt to implement the New Yangon City project.

In response to the criticism about not calling a tender for the infrastructure proposal, Pun said it was to “avoid wasting time” and NYDC would instead use a process modelled on the “Swiss Challenge”. In the case of CCCC, once it has finished its proposal NYDC will publicise the documents and call a tender. If a company bids less than CCCC to build the infrastructure, it will be selected instead but will have to reimburse CCCC for the costs incurred.

“You will see that the NYDC Challenge has ultimate transparency,” Pun said.

Pun however didn’t respond directly to a question from the audience as to whether the establishment of NYDC went against the National League for Democracy-led government’s economic policy. The second of 12 points in the policy states that the government aims to support competition and a vibrant private sector.

“I have nothing to say about the policy. But I want to ask one thing: What kind of business is NYDC doing? Nothing. If a bridge is to be built, it will be built by the private sector, not by NYDC. If a road is to be built, it will be built by the private sector, not by NYDC. We don’t. We can’t do it. We also don’t have the money,” he said. “What we are going to do is to invite the investors who want to do it, who has the ability to do it and who will do it in the right ways, and support them.”

Compensation concerns

The farmers of Tamatakaw and other villages in Twante are not the only ones concerned about the compensation process for landowners. Since the project was first announced in 2014, under the former Yangon Region government, speculators have rushed in to buy up farmland in the hope it will appreciate in value.

In the audience at UMFCCI on June 23 was a woman, 38, who owns 2 acres of farmland in the project area. A Chinese teacher at the Yangon University of Foreign Languages, she asked not to be named because she had bought the land for K45 million without her husband’s knowledge.

“I purchased it soon after the plan was announced in 2014,” said the woman.

Under the government’s compensation plan, she will receive 0.4 acres of urban land in exchange for her 2 acres of farmland. But like many others who bought up land in Twante in recent years, she has not registered her purchase or paid tax on it.

“I didn’t also change the land ownership,” she said. “Instead we just did it the normal way by signing a purchase agreement in front of the village administrators and four witnesses.”

She’s now worried that she might miss out on compensation and like the farmers from Tamatakaw had been hoping NYDC would address the issue at the town hall.

“It gives me a headache as I don’t know exactly what will happen,” she said. “I hope the authorities will clear it up soon.”

Most of the nation’s children are educated at government schools, which are facing some significant challenges over a range of issues.

By KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER

WHEN THE rainy season arrives every June, parents and children begin preparing for the start of a new school year. Except for a small minority of children who attend private or international schools in Yangon, Mandalay or Nay Pyi Taw, most youngsters are educated in the government system. Here’s the basics of how it works:

Admission

Admission to government schools is simple and cheap. Lunch is not provided so students have to bring a gyaint (tiffin carrier). Most schools have snack bars, many of which were run by teachers until the 2005-2006 academic year, when the government ordered them to stop. Since then outsiders have been permitted to operate snack bars at schools. In Yangon, it’s common to see food stalls – many of them selling deep-fried snacks – outside school gates.

Some government schools are better than others and parents keen to ensure their children have the best possible education will not hesitate paying a bribe to secure admission to the school of their choice. This often happens when parents want their children to attend a school outside the township where they live, such as the highly-regarded former Christian-run schools that were nationalised after General Ne Win seized power in 1962. It is understood that parents can secure admission to such schools by paying a “donation” ranging from K100,000 to K1 million.

The corruption of the system is condemned by U Soe Win Oo, a private tutor, education reform campaigner and vice chairman of the National League for Democracy in Yangon Region.

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“It’s a depressing situation when education has become a market from which some principals benefit at admission times; the government should do more to control this,” said Soe Win Oo, who has provided tuition for about 30 years under the name Dr Bio.

Corporal punishment

The use of corporal punishment appears to have declined slightly, but many former students speak of receiving beatings from kindergarten to high school.

Teachers hit students for many reasons, such as not paying attention, causing disruptions in class, falling asleep or failing to achieve high marks in tests. For example, in a test marked out of 10, students are expected to score at least seven. A student who gets low marks is like to be hit on their back, legs or palm of their hand with a cane or bamboo sticks that many teachers keep on their desks. Teachers who have big classes often believe they need to hit students to maintain control.

Education experts say corporal punishment can be eliminated if teaching methods are reformed. They say more awareness is needed to address the issue in Myanmar, where culturally and traditionally, beating is considered to be an effective way of dealing with rowdy students.

The role of parents

Each government school has an association of parents and teachers, similar to those in many other countries. A key difference in Myanmar is the way the associations are run. Parents cannot make suggestions and or raise concerns at the annual meetings of the associations. They have to sit and listen to what the teachers say.

Because of the importance of education to their children’s lives, many parents would like to play a more active role in the associations and are dissatisfied that they have to follow decisions made by teachers. Many parents are pushing for the government to reform the associations so they can have a greater say.

The curriculum

Discussions about the education system in Myanmar often tend to be dominated by the curriculum. Education specialists agree that the curriculum is badly in need of reform and would also benefit from the introduction of modern teaching methods and technology.

Some private school teachers said they would like to see some of the subjects taught in Myanmar schools updated.

Students at a mathematics tuition class in Yangon. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Students at a mathematics tuition class in Yangon. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

“I think the topics in the textbooks of the current curriculum are quite old, and don’t really fit with the modern days,” said one private school teacher in Yangon. “This needs to be reviewed.”

Any revision of the curriculum would require careful consideration about subject content, including what languages would be taught.

The curriculum for primary students should incorporate classes in morality, and any such teaching should be secular and not religion-based. There are Buddha images and Buddhist shrines in every government school. Every morning after the assembly to sing the national anthem, the Buddhist students recite a prayer and teachers tell students of other faiths to be still and say their prayers in silence.

Any reform of the government school curriculum will be of little value if it cannot be taught effectively and more attention needs to be paid to teacher training.

Another issue affecting teachers is their pay and consideration must be given to providing a decent income.

Mother-tongue teaching

It should be no surprise that in a nation with 135 officially-recognised ethnic nationalities and eight main ethnic groups, mother-tongue teaching has been emerging as an important education issue and one linked to the peace process. A policy paper issued last month by the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center discusses mother-tongue based multilingual education.

The paper notes that teaching children in their mother-tongue is globally recognised as the most effective way for early learning to occur. Mother-tongue teaching is also mentioned in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Article 4.3 of the declaration says: “States should take appropriate measures so that, wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.”

The Naga Self-Administered Zone in the far north of Sagaing Region on the border with India provides examples of the disadvantages of using Burmese as the only medium of instruction. Most of the teachers in the zone are from lower Myanmar and because they are teaching in Burmese, the Naga children do not understand what they are saying.

“They also teach the kids the history of Bamar dynasties and kings, but it can be difficult for them to understand the terms used by the ancient Bamar kingdoms, and most students can only try to imagine the meaning of these words by closing their eyes,” said Ko Nok Tun, chairman of the Naga Cultural and Literary Committee in the zone’s Namyun Township.

Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier

Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier

The teaching of history is a controversial issue in Myanmar and many in ethnic areas believe they should be taught the history of their own people as well as that of the Bamar.

Ma Nang K Thwe believes that more needs to be done to teach the history of the country’s ethnic minorities in public schools.

“We can look at the language issue from a human rights perspectives, or we can look at the language issue and the history issue from a transitional justice perspective, if Myanmar is really willing to genuinely reform,” Nang K Thwe said, adding that there should be a comprehensive education sector review involving all stakeholders, including ethnic nationalities, the government, the Tatmadaw and the United Nations. She stressed the importance of the language issue in the peace process.

The curricula at government schools should encourage democratic values, morality, tolerance of diversity and Myanmar’s social and cultural heritage. Achieving these objectives would require a sharp increase in funding for education.

Matriculation and beyond

The importance that almost the entire population places on the final matriculation exam cannot be underestimated. The exam decides the future direction of a student’s life and career and if they do not pass they will not have another chance to qualify for admission to university.

There is no equivalent in Myanmar of the General Educational Development test (also known as the General Educational Diploma and General Equivalency Diploma) in the US, which allows students who did not complete high school to qualify for university admission. 

Anyone wishing to attend university in Myanmar must pass the matriculation exam. There are no options, which is unfair to those who could not or did not finish high school and decide after working for a few years that they would like to further their education.

Students who pass their matriculation can face disappointment if they fail to gain admission to the university of their choice.

Critics of the matriculation system, also point to the fact that girls must gain higher grades than boys to study certain subjects at university. For example, in order to be accepted to study medicine, a girl must score at least 504, while a boy only needs to score 488. Other subjects where this applies include dental and nursing. The only subjects that boys need to score higher marks than girls are law and computer science.

TOP PHOTO: Students at a school in Yangon look for their final marks in the all important matriculation exam. (Sai Min Htet Oo | Frontier)

One of the biggest challenges to repatriating the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh will be convincing them it is safe to go home.

By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

THE MYANMAR government wants to show the world that it is ready to accept refugees from Bangladesh.

Late last month, Frontier joined a government-sponsored media trip to northern Rakhine State, during which officials sought to highlight development projects in Maungdaw Township, the epicentre of the violence that convulsed the region last year.

The violence began on August 25 when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched coordinated attacks on police posts and a Tatmadaw base, killing 10 people and triggering a military response that sent nearly 700,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, fleeing to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. The United Nations, the United States and human rights groups have described the military operation as ethnic cleansing; Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of the operation.

Myanmar has largely denied that its forces committed any wrongdoing, and has pushed ahead with plans to begin repatriating the refugees, but many – including the UN and Rohingya in Bangladesh – say conditions on the ground are not conducive for returning to Rakhine.

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The main concerns of the refugees are their safety and security in Myanmar. They also want guarantees about a path to citizenship and freedom of movement.

As part of its repatriation effort, Myanmar has built two processing centres for arriving returnees as well as what it says is a “temporary” transit camp at Hla Pho Khaung, which is capable of accommodating about 30,000 people. Many Muslim villages were reduced to ashes during the violence and it is not clear where their former residents will be permitted to live, should they decide to return.

The media trip, from June 27 to 29, included visits to those facilities, as well as interviews with officials to discuss government plans for development in northern Rakhine, which is one of the least developed and poorest parts of the country. It also included interviews with Rohingya refugees at an area between Myanmar and Bangladesh known as No Man’s Land; these interviews were conducted through a barbed wire border fence.

Oliver Slow | Frontier

Oliver Slow | Frontier

In many ways, the trip also highlighted how much needs to be done before repatriation can begin. Reporters were told of the fear harboured by Buddhists of their Muslim neighbours, saw the torched remains of countless Muslim villages and were made aware of a lack of confidence in the repatriation process among Rohingya refugees.

Lingering distrust

After leaving the state capital, Sittwe, the first stop of the trip was Inn Din village in southern Maungdaw Township.

Although the government has largely denied any wrongdoing in the Rakhine operation, the Tatmadaw admitted that soldiers were involved in the killing of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din last September. Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating the massacre when they were arrested in December.

All of Inn Din’s Muslim residents have fled. The remaining Buddhist Rakhine say distrust between the two communities grew after a Rakhine man was killed by Muslims in nearby mountains before the August 25 attacks.

“Relations were great before,” one villager said. “We could go to the Muslim part of the village all the time, but it changed. Once the attacks happened, you couldn’t go there anymore.”

Construction work takes place in the southern part of Inn Din village, where Muslim residents once lived. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

Construction work takes place in the southern part of Inn Din village, where Muslim residents once lived. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

Some large development projects have begun in the southern part of the village where Muslims once lived. The charred remains of some houses are still visible in the area, which has become a busy construction site. There is a sprawling Border Guard Police compound, which residents said was built after the August attacks.

A gap in the narrative

The original itinerary for the trip included a visit to the Hla Pho Khaung transit camp, but it was cancelled because of what was said to be time constraints.

Reporters were taken to the Ngakhuya reception centre, where refugees returning across the Naf River will be processed before being transferred to Hla Pho Khaung. The other processing centre, on the border at Taungpyoletwe, is for refugees who return by land.

At Ngakhuya, officials from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population told reporters that 154 returnees had been processed there in May and June.

U Htay Maung, an official in charge at Ngakhuya, said 16 of the returnees were children, and the remaining 138 had been issued with National Verification Cards.

It was not clear where the 138 people had been sent or if they had applied for citizenship. Other gaps in the government’s narrative quickly emerged.

Officials introduced journalists to nine men in a waiting room at the camp and said the group had returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh and been granted NVCs, which the purported returnees showed to the media.

Immigration officials wait at the Ngakhuya reception centre for refugees. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

Immigration officials wait at the Ngakhuya reception centre for refugees. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

However, some of the men said they had never been to Bangladesh and had been arrested for immigration offences.

A walk through the facility also gave the impression that the repatriation process is likely to be slow. Rooms designated for processing returnees’ NVC applications had biometric equipment but were otherwise empty, except for staff who apparently had nothing to do.

Frontier asked one staff member what it was like to work at the camp. The person shrugged their shoulders and said it was “boring”.

At the border fence

The final day of the trip involved a two-hour drive north of Maungdaw to Taungpyoletwe, the centre built to process refugees who return by land.

This drive, which passes through northern Rakhine’s picturesque countryside, reveals perhaps the biggest challenge to repatriating the refugees: almost all of the Muslim villages are gone.

Throughout the journey the group observed the charred remains of villages on both sides of the road. In some could be seen the ruins of what had obviously been mosques. Frontier stopped counting after passing more than a dozen torched villages.

Oliver Slow | Frontier

Oliver Slow | Frontier

It was clear they had been deliberately torched. The surrounding areas, including paddy fields and Buddhist communities, were untouched. The journey passed three villages still occupied by Muslims, but most of the rest seemed to have been burned down.

After a quick stop at Taungpyoletwe – which is empty of returnees – the reporters were taken to the nearby border fence to speak with Rohingya living in “no man’s land” on a small island between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

In September, Frontier had visited the area from the Bangladesh side, and since then Myanmar has built barbed-wire fence about eight-feet (2.4 metres) high that is guarded by BGP officers.

Speaking through the new fence, Rohingya refugees said they would only return if they could be guaranteed citizenship, and the same rights as all other communities in Rakhine.

“We came here for our safety, but we want to go back to our homeland,” said U Mohammed Dill, a leader in the Rohingya camp. “We do not want to go to Bangladesh; we want to come back, but the government of Myanmar must make sure of our safety.”

TOP PHOTO: A Border Guard Police officer stands near a fence at the “No Man’s Land” area between Myanmar and Bangladesh. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

By FRONTIER

YANGON — The UN human rights chief said yesterday that attempts to “whitewash” atrocities against the Rohingya would not absolve Myanmar of its crimes and called for the country’s immediate referral to the International Criminal Court.

High commissioner for human rights Mr Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein slammed Myanmar’s denial of allegations that its security forces have engaged in an “ethnic cleansing campaign” against the Rohingya, which has led to the flight of over 700,000 people to Bangladesh since August 2017.

Myanmar says its military “clearance operations” were a legitimate response to attacks on police posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants.

Zeid called this misleading, given the cycles of violence and human rights abuses that long pre-date ARSA, and the concomitant campaign to erode the legal personality and rights of the Rohingya, which he said has steadily intensified.

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Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, Zeid also contested Myanmar’s claim that it is ready to welcome the return of refugees; almost a year since violence restarted, not a single Rohingya refugee has returned under the formal framework agreed with Bangladesh.

He said most, if not all, of those who returned voluntarily have been detained. Meanwhile, thousands of Rohingya continue to flee Rakhine State: as of mid-June, the UN has counted 11,432 new arrivals in Bangladesh this year.

Those interviewed by the UN described continuing violence, persecution and human rights violations, including killings and disappearances, Zeid said.

“No amount of rhetoric can whitewash these facts. People are still fleeing persecution in Rakhine – and are even willing to risk dying at sea to escape.”

Replying to the rights chief, Myanmar’s representative to the United Nations U Kyaw Moe Tun said that finding a solution is one of the government’s top priorities.

He said “distorted or exaggerated” information in Zeid’s report could prompt “false memories, which can cause unjust convictions” and warned that if UN member states were misled into making “wrong decisions” it would negatively affect the shared goal of finding sustainable solutions.

“The root cause of the tragedy was terrorism and terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstance,” he said, adding that Myanmar would not condone human rights violations.

With the arrival of the monsoon season, Myanmar is doing its utmost to repatriate “verified displaced persons” to avoid another humanitarian disaster, Kyaw Moe Tun continued, saying he hoped the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding between the government and two UN agencies would expedite the process.

‘Investigative whitewashing’

Zeid said in his report that Myanmar’s sincerity towards the repatriation process “will not be measured by the number of agreements it signs and the committees it establishes, but by its recognition that the Rohingya are citizens with the same rights that are enjoyed by other citizens”.

Citing a pattern of “investigative whitewashing” he said there was every reason to believe that another internal inquiry “will again seek to whitewash the terrible crimes which have occurred”.

“Myanmar must grasp that the international community will not forget the outrages committed against the Rohingya, nor will it absolve the politicians who seek to cover them up,” he said, calling for immediate access for independent investigators and UN Special Rapporteur Ms Yanghee Lee, who is barred from entering the country.

He urged the UN Security Council to “immediately” refer Myanmar to the ICC and to establish a “new international, impartial and independent mechanism complementary to the fact-finding mission, to assist the criminal investigation of individual perpetrators”.

Zeid said he also “deplored” the failure to include the Rohingya in discussions on their own future, and the failure of certain members of the international community to uphold the community’s right to self-identify as Rohingya.

“Refusal to name the Rohingya as such, including in official documents and statements – even at this Council – adds disrespect to the terrible violations they have suffered,” he said.