On September 18, the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017 released a meticulous and damning report.

THE 444-PAGE document included a litany of alleged human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states since 2011, which the FFM said amounted to the gravest crimes under international law. The three-member panel called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be investigated for genocide.

Among other things, the report is the most comprehensive and explicit appeal yet to Myanmar’s civilian government to immediately address the devastating impact of military impunity. For a government that was elected on promises to end human rights violations and to bring the Tatmadaw under civilian control, it might have been a wake-up call.

Instead, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, U Kyaw Moe Tun, rejected the document as “one-sided” and said it undermined the government’s efforts to bring peace, national reconciliation and development to the entire nation. Instead of engaging seriously with the report and making a commitment to solve the formidable challenges that it describes, Myanmar’s civilian leaders are covering their ears, in the hope that these challenges will disappear.

Kyaw Moe Tun’s claim that the report is one-sided is a disturbing indication of how unwilling the government has become to examine the very issues in which it claims to be invested. It might not take the report seriously, but other countries will; the findings are already shaping policy in Canada and the United Kingdom, and are likely to trigger further targeted sanctions on Myanmar in the coming months.

The government may feel that it can survive all this by leaning on powerful allies including China, which has signaled throughout the Rohingya crisis that it will protect Myanmar at the UN Security Council, and elsewhere.

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This is not pure altruism: Myanmar is a critical element of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Beijing knows that in return for its support, Myanmar will have little choice but to support its grand plans, such as a deep sea port at Kyaukphyu where the gas and oil pipelines that already give China strategic access to the Indian Ocean have been operating since 2013 and 2014, respectively. On September 9, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, locking Myanmar politically into a deal.

China is offering financing for major infrastructure projects, which may kick-start the stumbling economy. It is offering to help solve the intractable domestic conflicts that continue to play out along the shared border. And it has presented its own “three-phase solution” to the Rohingya crisis, which provides an alternative to the international community’s rigorous demands.

But while China can provide sanctuary, it cannot solve Myanmar’s problems. Foreign direct investment into economic zones, new roads and railways may boost the economy, but needs to be accompanied by progress on issues such as rights and democratic reform.

Until the government addresses its human rights crises, places the Tatmadaw under civilian control, and empowers human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and other members of civil society to do their work — all recommendations by the FFM — Chinese investment is likely to do more harm than good. Without public consultation, including in conflict areas, mega-projects will fuel land grabs, militarisation and abuses, much as they have in the past. This would not be China’s fault, just as the Rohingya crisis is not the fault of the international community.

In Beijing earlier this month, National League for Democracy Vice Chair U Zaw Myint Maung warned China to respect local laws and to focus on peace when investing in Myanmar. This attitude is dangerous. It is Myanmar’s responsibility to strengthen its legal framework, to improve the rule of law and commit to ending its civil conflicts. Only after the government has its own house in order, can it expect responsible investment, from China or any other country.

This editorial first appeared in the September 27 issue of Frontier. 


YANGON — Myanmar’s largest private lender, Kanbawza Bank, said Thursday it would finance the entire restoration of the Secretariat, one of Myanmar’s most historically important buildings, as a mixed public and commercial development.

The Secretariat, in the heart of downtown Yangon, has played a crucial role in the administration of the country since the building’s completion in 1905.

Originally known as the Minister’s Building, it was the administrative seat of British Burma. Today, it is most significant as the location where independence hero Bogyoke Aung San, seven members of his cabinet and a bodyguard were assassinated on July 19, 1947.

The sprawling building and its compound have been closed to the public for decades, opening only on Martyrs’ Day which commemorates the assassinations and more recently, for art exhibitions curated by the Pyinsa Rasa collective.

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In 2012, the Anawmar Art Group won a government tender to manage the Secretariat, although specific details about their plans for the sprawling site have not yet been made public.

KBZ Bank said in a statement that following the restoration the building would house a Martyrs’ Museum and the National Museum of Yangon.

The project would “reimagine the entire venue and create new public and commercial spaces for modern Myanmar citizens to gather, learn about their heritage and reimagine their futures” it said.

The restoration is expected to be completed by the end of the year, the statement said.

The government has rolled out incentives for Asian tourists, but industry insiders say more could be done to woo back westerners.


TOURISM IN Myanmar boomed after political reforms were launched in 2011, but against the backdrop of the crisis in Rakhine State, recent tourism statistics have spelled trouble for an industry currently angled towards big-spending, longer-staying tourists from Europe and North America, and have prompted a move towards the Asian market.

The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says that – minus the 1,039,949 doing border hops without visas – 682,100 tourists visited in the first six months of 2018, a rise of 2 percent from the same period a year before. However, North American visitors had dropped by 15 percent, to 40,233, and visitors from Western Europe by 26 percent, to 93,138.

A 13 percent rise in visitors from elsewhere in Asia, to 513,072—aided largely by a 36 bump in Chinese visitors, to 133,697, and an 18 percent bump in Thai visitors, to 153,814—compensated for the drop in western travellers. But this would not necessarily have made up for the lost income, since Asian travellers tend to take shorter, cheaper trips.

Though numbers increased slightly between 2016 and 2017, tourism income fell by 10 percent, according to the ministry, coinciding with a similar dip in western visitors and rise in Asian arrivals.

Targeting Asia

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In a campaign to attract more Asian tourists, the government is making it easier for Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese, including citizens of Hong Kong and Macau, to visit. Visa-free travel for Japanese and South Koreans, and visas-on-arrival costing US$50 for Chinese who enter through Yangon, Mandalay or Nay Pyi Taw airports, will take effect on October 1 for a one-year trial. Chinese nationals previously needed to apply for visas in advance.

The new visa rules were approved in late July by the Central Committee for National Tourism Development headed by Vice President U Henry Van Thio. A move by the Ministry of Labour, Population and Immigration to require Japanese and South Korean visitors to have $1,000 in cash on arrival was scrapped following criticism from the tourism industry.

Myanmar Tourism Federation chairman U Yan Win said the industry needed to switch its marketing focus to Asia because Myanmar’s image in western countries had been spoiled by the Rakhine crisis.

“The number of Chinese tourists has been rising and the introduction of visas-on-arrival will contribute to a further increase,” Yan Win told Frontier.

Income would not ultimately be affected by the fall in arrivals from Europe and other western countries because Chinese tourists were the world’s top spenders, he said.

However, U Kyaw Swar Min, a former general-secretary of Myanmar Tourism Marketing, said Chinese tourists avoided costly accommodation and preferred to spend their money shopping for items including jade.

“The Chinese are not interested in heritage sites; they are only interested in entertainment and their mentality is not the same as Europeans,” said Kyaw Swar Min, who is managing director of Grand Lotus Tours and Travel.

Hotels and Tourism Minister U Ohn Maung said he hoped the appointment of Yangon-born Japanese singer and actor Win Morisaki, 28, to promote Myanmar as a travel destination would help to boost the number of visitors from Japan to 200,000 a year. In the first six months of 2018, only 48,745 visited, a slight decline from the year before.

Win Morisaki, formerly Win Kyaw Oo, was born in Yangon and moved to Japan when he was 10 to join his parents who worked there. The Myanmar Tourism Federation named him a brand ambassador in a ceremony in Yangon on August 18.

“I will do my best for the Myanmar tourism industry and I believe the number of Japanese tourists will increase,” said Morisaki Win.

Ohn Maung said there were also plans to appoint brand ambassadors for China and South Korea.

The European market

The move to attract more visitors from China, Japan and South Korea has prompted the tourism industry to push for the government to also allow visa-free entry for Europeans and other westerners.

Yan Win said the Myanmar Tourism Federation had put the proposal to the Central Committee for National Tourism Development and he was hopeful it would be implemented.

The tourism industry could only benefit if travellers from more countries were granted visa-free entry, he said.

Ohn Maung said the ministry was planning promotions later this year in Spain, Italy, Britain and Germany, as well as in Scandinavian countries.

He said tourism promotion accounted for most of the ministry’s K1.1 billion budget allocation. However, negotiations between the ministry and satellite broadcaster CNN on a tourism promotion project had been discontinued, he said.

A criticism often levelled against the tourism industry in Myanmar is the cost of accommodation, especially when compared with rates in neighbouring Thailand, one of the world’s most popular destinations.

Myo Win from the Myanmar Hoteliers Association said, “It’s true, Myanmar hotels are expensive. Tourists have to consider their budget and if a country is too expensive, they won’t go there.”


GENEVA — The UN Human Rights Council voted Thursday to set up a panel to prepare criminal indictments over atrocities committed in Myanmar, amid allegations of genocide against the Rohingya minority.

The top UN rights body voted to “establish an ongoing independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.”

The text, a collaboration between the European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, says the panel will be responsible for preparing “files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings… in national, regional or international courts or tribunals.”

Thirty-five of the council’s 47 members voted in favour of the resolution while only three — China, the Philippines and Burundi — voted against.

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The remainder either abstained or refrained from casting a vote.

The text was presented after a damning report was released to the council earlier this month, outlining in meticulous and searing detail atrocities against the Rohingya, who fled a violent military campaign that started in August last year.

The 444-page report by a UN fact-finding mission concluded there was enough evidence to merit investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s army chief and five other top military commanders for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.

Troops, sometimes aided by ethnic Rakhine mobs, committed murder, rape, arson and torture, using unfathomable levels of violence and with a total disregard for human life, investigators concluded.

More than 700,000 of the stateless Muslim minority took refuge in Bangladesh, where they remain — fearful of returning to mainly Buddhist Myanmar despite a repatriation deal between the two countries.

The military has denied nearly all wrongdoing, justifying its crackdown as a legitimate means of rooting out Rohingya militants.

The UN and rights groups meanwhile say the operations were vastly disproportionate and a troop build-up in the area occurred before insurgents attacked police posts in August 2017.

Further pressuring Myanmar, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague independently ruled that it had jurisdiction to open a preliminary investigation, even though the country has not signed the treaty underpinning the court.

Thursday’s text took note of the ICC ruling, and requested “the mechanism to cooperate closely with any of its future investigations pertaining to human rights in Myanmar.”

The resolution also said the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission should be extended until the new mechanism is operational.

Thursday’s decision marks the first time the Human Rights Council has itself opted to create such a mechanism.

A similar panel was created in late 2016 to build cases for the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, but it was set up following a vote in the General Assembly in New York.