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Nine dams in Laos release water, forcing many to head for higher ground

Villagers in northern Laos are once more scrambling for dry land after water releases from nine upstream dams to relieve pressure after a week of heavy rain caused flooding in some areas. The Meteorology and Hydrology Department of the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment predicts even more rain is in store for the region as a tropical depression is expected to cover northern Laos from Aug. 19-28. The dams that released water are the four Nam Ou dams in Phongsaly Province and Luang Prabang Province; the Xayaburi Dam, on the Mekong mainstream in Xayaburi Province; two Nam Khan dams in Luang Prabang Province; and two Nam Lik dams in Vientiane Province. Residents told RFA’s Lao Service that their homes, places of work and farms are now flooded. Many said they had to escape to higher ground. “Our farm was on low ground, and our floating restaurant on the Khan River is damaged,” a resident of Samakhixay, Xeing Ngeun district, Luang Prabang province, who like other sources in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA Friday. “We’re now trying to save our livestock by moving them to higher ground. We hope that the Nam Khan dams are able to control the water soon. We don’t worry much about water from the rain, but we do worry a lot about the dams because we’re afraid they could break,” said the source. Laos has aggressively built dozens of dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries in its controversial economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by selling the generated electricity to neighboring countries.  But villagers living near the dams say the projects have upended their lives. Many residents have had to move, often facing protracted disputes over compensation and being relocated to less fertile lands, while those left behind sometimes have to scramble for higher ground if the dams release water without prior notice.  The Xayaburi dam’s release resulted in rising waters inundating corn fields, a resident of Pak Hung Village in the city of Xayaburi, Xayaburi province, told RFA. “The corn fields of at least 20 families in this village near the Mekong River are under water. The current of the Mekong River is very strong,” the source said. A resident of Feuang district, Vientiane province, told RFA on Friday that the two Nam Lik dams had begun releasing more water the day before. “The Lik River has gone up about 50 centimeters [about 20 inches]. Up to now, our floating raft guesthouses have not been affected yet,” the Feuang district resident said. Because the Mekong has many tributaries, a dam that releases water in one spot may force others downstream to do the same, as was the case with the Xayaburi Dam, according to an official of the  Agriculture and Forestry Department of Xayaburi Province. “We’re monitoring the water level of the Mekong River below the Xayaburi Dam. The Nam Ou dams are still releasing water; that’s why the Xayaburi Dam must also be releasing more water too,” the official said. Multiple sources told RFA that authorities issued safety warnings prohibiting floating guesthouses from receiving tourists, in some cases saying that the water level could increase as much as four meters. Others were concerned that the flooding could sweep away fishing boats and flood roads, isolating residents in the process. Many locals said they were packing their valuables before heading to higher ground.  “The Ministry of Energy and Mines, the authorities of Feuang district and of our village should make sure that the warning reaches all the residents because this time of the year is the rice planting season, and many villagers stay at their farms for several months to plant rice,” a resident of Hat Don Kang Yai Village in Feuang district said. “The authorities should also give notice several days in advance, so that the business owners have enough time to prepare,” the source said. Men work to pry apart a clump of debris in the Mekong River on Aug. 13, 2022 in Sanakham District, Vientiane Province. Credit: RFA Lao Service Official response Government officials told RFA it is standard practice for the dams to release water in heavy rains, and that dam operators warn the authorities in advance. “The Xayaburi Power Company wrote to us on Saturday that our department should inform all districts below the Xayaburi Dam,” an official of the Energy and Mines Department of Xayaburi province told RFA.  “A day later, our department informed the Xayaburi Municipality, Pak Lay district and Kenthao districts and their residents to pack their valuable belongings. Based on the report from the dam, the Xayaburi Dam is releasing more water because the Nam Ou dams in Luang Prabang province and Phongsaly province are releasing more water,” he said. “We’re gathering information about the impact and the damage caused by the flood and water discharges,” an official of the Ministry of Energy and Mines told RFA. “The water is coming from all directions, from Luang Prabang province and other northern provinces.” Xayaburi province issued a warning on August 13 to all provincial districts about releases from the Xayaburi and Nam Ou dams. Similar warnings were issued by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which on Tuesday warned that the Nam Lik 1 and 2 dams would release water on Thursday. The operators of the Nam Khan 2 and 3 dams warned on Tuesday that those dams would also release water on Thursday.  Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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Critics say Cambodia tries to trick UN official into believing it respects rights

Cambodian labor activists said a visiting United Nations human rights official was given the false impression that the country supports worker rights by authorities who paused a violent crackdown on a  months-long protest by a group of former casino employees while the official toured the site. Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, is on an 11-day official visit to the country, his first since assuming office in March 2021. His tour included a meeting with the group of former NagaWorld Casino workers who have been protesting since they were among 1,300 laid off by the casino in December 2021. The workers say they were unfairly fired and offered inadequate compensation. “I was pleased to be able to visit striking workers and see them exercise their freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly today,” Vitit Muntarbhorn wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. During the visit, the former workers were uncharacteristically allowed to protest directly in front of the casino on Wednesday and Thursday. United Nations Human Rights in Cambodia also monitored the protest on Wednesday, releasing video footage on Facebook with a statement acknowledging that the protest was peaceful.  “The UN Human Rights Cambodia office welcomes today’s developments and looks forward to authorities continuing to protect strikers’ rights, including the right to #peaceful #assembly and #FreedomofExpression,” the statement said. But the scene has not alway been so peaceful. The striking workers have more typically been met by police officers, who often used violence to force the protestors onto buses, which would then shuttle them to quarantine centers on the outskirts of town on the premise that their protests violated COVID-19 prevention measures. Some strikers have been injured in the crackdown, now in its ninth month. One woman said she suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injuries inflicted by police.  Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the new hands-off approach to the worker over the past few days is a ruse intended to convince Vitit Muntarbhorn and the U.N. that Cambodia respects human rights, but things will return to normal once he leaves. “The government wants to save face and trick the rapporteur,” Rong Chhun said. “Please, Mr. Rapporteur, don’t believe this trick. … [Later] there will be more freedom restrictions.” The rapporteur’s presence alone was enough to get authorities to ease restrictions, Chhim Sithar, leader of the NagaWorld union that represents the strikers, told RFA. “Before the arrival of the rapporteur, there were serious violent attacks [on the strikers] which injured at least two women recently. It is completely different now,” she said.   “We have observed that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen requested that [the rapporteur] report positive things about Cambodia, so violence has been reduced. This is just a show to make sure that the rapporteur  can’t see factual events,” she said. Government supporters say that the special rapporteur is being shown the true Cambodia. “Those who accuse the government of faking respect for human rights are trying to create a toxic environment to destroy the government’s reputation,” Kata Orn, spokesman for the government-backed Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told RFA. He said that there is an understanding between the workers and the authorities that allows the workers to strike without any crackdown. Political analyst Kem Sok told RFA that the rapporteur should gather information from all the stakeholders before making any statement.  “Hun Sen has no desire to respect human rights and democracy otherwise it is a threat to his power,” he said. U.S. delegation A group of U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) also visited Cambodia this week as part of their tour of Asia. During a meeting with more than a dozen government officials, Markey urged Cambodia to protect human rights, political freedoms and free speech. “Cambodians overcame decades of war and chaos that cost the country millions of lives, and deserve to enjoy the democratic freedoms they were promised. The government must release political prisoners, end the crackdown against opposition parties, and allow for freedom of expression and a free press,” Markey said in a statement.  Markey also called for the release of Cambodian American activist Theary Seng, who is serving a six-year prison sentence for her outspoken opposition to Hun Sen. The delegation also met with opposition leader Kem Sohka, who is on trial for what critics say are politically motivated charges of treason. “I thank Mr. Kem Sokha for his bravery and willingness to continue to stand up for the rights of all Cambodians despite ongoing harassment by the government,” said Markey.  “All charges against him should be dropped immediately, and he and the Cambodia National Rescue Party should be free to participate in elections.”  Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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Clashes between junta forces and Arakan Army rattle Rakhine, Chin states

Renewed fighting between Myanmar regime forces and the Arakan Army has intensified in Rakhine and Chin states with at least 10 clashes since July 18, following the dissolution of a fragile cease-fire that had held for a year and a half, residents of the western states told RFA. Junta troops have blocked roads connecting Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. More than 150 residents from at least three villages have been displaced due to fighting in Rathedaung, locals said. Clashes between junta forces and the Arakan Army (AA), which wants control of Rakhine state and Paletwa township in Chin state, have been going on for about three weeks, compounding difficulties people are facing because the military has closed all major roads in the area, said a Paletwa resident who declined to be named for security reasons. “We could hear explosions of heavy weapons,” he said. “Yesterday, the shelling started at about 10 a.m. Fighting has been going on for over 20 days.” A ship carrying freight that usually runs between Chin and Rakhine once a week has not been traveling because of the armed conflict, cutting off the flow of goods to Paletwa, he said. “We don’t have any cooking oil, [and] the price of rice, which used to be just over 60,000 kyats [U.S. $28], is now over 100,000 kyats [U.S. $47],” the resident told RFA. Myanmar military and AA forces had fought fiercely in Rakhine from December 2018 to November 2020 over the latter’s demand for self-determination for the state’s Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minority. But the two sides struck an uneasy truce a few months before the military seized power from a democratically elected government on Feb. 1, 2021 and Rakhine had been relatively quiet amid widespread protests and fighting against the coup and junta across the country of 54 million people. On Aug. 13 military and AA soldiers clashed about 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) north of Paletwa’s Thu Htay Kone village. The AA said yesterday that fighting had occurred around the area for about two weeks and that junta forces were mainly firing from a distance with heavy weapons. In northern Maungdaw township, locals said there were continuous battles in three places in Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships on Aug. 13, following two battles in the area on July 18. Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun blamed the AA for the fighting in the northern part of Maungdaw that took place on July 26. Roads closed Kyaw Min Khaing, a resident of Rathedaung, said the military has shut off the roads connecting the three Rakhine state townships because of the clashes. “The road connecting Ah Ngu Maw, Buthidaung and Maungdaw has been closed indefinitely by the military,” he told RFA. “It is still impossible to travel from place to place. Getting food and health care is difficult in that area. Right now, we cannot travel there.” More than 150 residents of Chein Khar Li, Koe Tan Kauk and Kyan Taing Aung villages in Rathedaung have fled their homes because of the hostilities, he added. One nearly two-hour skirmish that occurred 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) north of Done Paik village in Rathedaung on Aug. 13 resulted in the deaths of 31 junta soldiers and the AA’s seizure of weapons and ammunition, according to a statement issued by the guerilla force on Monday. Another battle took place near Maungdaw’s Kyauk Pan Tu village, near milestone 40 of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, during which at least six junta soldiers were killed, the AA said. During these battles, the AA also suffered casualties, but the ethnic armed group did not disclose the number. RFA has been unable to independently confirm the number of casualties reported by the AA. The AA predicts that the fighting will become more widespread because the Myanmar military is bringing in reinforcements by large military vehicles as well as by ships and helicopters. The guerilla force said it would fight back the junta’s army with the help of allied ethnic armed organizations and the public, and warned civilians in the area to remain on alert. RFA could not reach Rakhine state junta spokesman Hla Thein for comment. The national military has not released any statements about the renewed fighting in Rakhine. Pe Than, a veteran Rakhine politician and a former lawmaker from Myebon township, agreed that the fighting will spread if the two sides cannot come to an agreement to end their hostilities. “If we don’t want these battles to continue, there must be some reconciliation,” he said. “If they cannot talk over things, there will be more fighting and people will suffer. That’s why a dialogue between the two groups is important. Otherwise, I can see that there would be more battles in one place or another.” Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Environmentalists released after allegedly being roughed up by Hun Sen’s bodyguards

Police in Cambodia’s Takeo province on Tuesday released a group of young environmental activists and journalists after they were allegedly violently detained earlier in the day by bodyguards of Prime Minister Hun Sen as they tried to inspect an area of a protected forest where trees had been cleared.  The Phnom Tamao forest, located roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh, is home to many rare and endangered species, and is the only forested eco-destination anywhere near the capital. It encompasses an area of more than 6,000 acres (2,450 hectares) and is home to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, established in 1995. In April, media reported that the government had agreed to sell more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares) of the protected forest to Leng Navatra, a real estate company, and two other businesses said to be close to Hun Sen’s family. Later reports suggested the entire area had been earmarked by the government for development, excluding the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) that contain the wildlife center. In a rare move this month, Hun Sen ordered an end to the clearance of the Tamao forest adjacent to the country’s largest zoo, following multiple appeals by environmental groups and members of the public. The group of activists who were released on Tuesday said Hun Sen’s bodyguards assaulted them after they tried to inspect the area and ask local residents to sign petitions seeking clarification from local authorities regarding a fenced off 600 hectare (1482 acre) plot of cleared land that the prime minister had ordered to be replanted. The bodyguards claimed that the activists and journalists were trespassing. They said they steered clear of off-limits areas and were on the way to a pagoda from which they could view the clearing. Hun Vannak, one of the activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the bodyguards kicked him and hit him in the face. He said that a group of about 10 bodyguards forced the group into cars and took them to a nearby military camp. He said they were not told why they were being detained. “We didn’t dare to say anything because they took us to their camp,” Vannak said. “No one could help us. I felt we were with wild people, they didn’t consider the law, they used only violence. They detained and assaulted us arbitrarily.”  Also among the group was Hy Chhay, a journalist for the local independent news outlet VOD who, according to Vannak, was slapped in the face by the bodyguards. The group was transferred to a police facility in Takeo’s Bati district after which they were released. RFA was unable to reach Bati district Police Chief Chhay Keomoni for comment on Tuesday. The bodyguards violated the constitutional rights of the activists and journalists, Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, told RFA. “I have observed that [authorities] respect only their orders, [not the law],” Nop Vy said. “It is wrong. Restrictions on the youths and journalists are contrary to Hun Sen’s decision to replant the trees.” The violence against the group must be investigated, according to Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, a local  rights group. “This is a serious human rights violation,” he said.  The activists told RFA they plan to file a complaint against the bodyguards.  Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong. 

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‘Ghost buildings’ show boom times are over for Cambodian resort town

A mass departure of Chinese investors from Cambodia’s Sihanoukville during the coronavirus pandemic left behind more than 1,000 unfinished buildings and an economic headache for the once booming coastal city. Sihanoukville was a popular international and domestic tourist destination in the midst of a building boom as investors in new casinos hoped to cash in on the gambling industry. But once it became clear that tourism was going to be crippled by pandemic restrictions, many investors decided to cut their losses, and the so-called “ghost buildings” remain unfinished, diminishing the beauty of the seaside resort town. Authorities say the problem could lead to more economic decline and even fewer tourists. Mean Samnang, who keeps a shop near one of the city’s Chinese-owned casinos, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the ghost buildings are driving tourists away. “If the authorities would have taken measures to finish up those large-scale construction projects sooner, it would have been better for the people who have to make money for a living,” he said. He said that two years ago business in the shop was much better, and many of his customers were Cambodians who were employed by the casino. Mean Samnang said that he hopes authorities will start restoration on the buildings by opening up a flow of foreign investment, as had been the case in 2019. In the meantime the ghost buildings have been used as hideouts by criminals and gangsters, he said. Long Dimanche, the deputy governor of Sihanoukville province, predicted that Chinese investors may return soon, but he did not deny that the empty buildings could negatively affect the city’s economy long term. “We have not discussed everything yet,” Long Dimanche said. “The other day, we encouraged the Provincial Chamber of Commerce to organize a forum for consultation over the private sector to discuss the issue between landowners as well as foreign investors, who came to invest in construction. In the discussion, there was  participation of experts who specialize in solving the stalemate in the real estate sector.” Long Dimanche added that there were more than 1,600 construction projects with an investment of more than U.S. $ 8.4 billion in Sihanoukville between 2017 and November 2021. Of these, there are more than 600 high-rise construction projects, defined as buildings between five and 53 floors, most of which are Chinese invested. One of the many unfinished buildings in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Credit: RFA The construction slowdown is a direct result of the Cambodian government’s efforts to ban illegal online gambling, as well as the pandemic, Sreng Vanly, the Sihanoukville coordinator for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, told RFA. The two events forced Chinese investors to return to China, abandoning their buildings and hurting the economy and livelihoods of local residents, especially the owners of the land underneath the buildings. Many of the owners borrowed money from the bank to buy the land, thinking that the rent revenue from Chinese builders was a safe bet. But now they aren’t collecting anything. Only a few small buildings have resumed construction, Cheap Sotheary of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA. “Right now we aren’t seeing a lot of building demolition or building restructuring yet because the economic downturn has affected everyone regardless of whether they are rich or poor,” she said. “Who does not owe the bank? The banks seize many of [the properties,] but more important is the affordability of renewing construction. The market economy in Sihanoukville is down now,” said Cheap Sotheary. Rents for houses are down from thousands of dollars per month to $200 to $300 per month as the economy remains depressed, she said. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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Vietnamese artist ‘shocked’ after being ordered to destroy 29 paintings

Popular Vietnamese artist and poet Bui Quang Vien is vowing fight an order from authorities in Vietnam’s largest city to destroy 29 of his abstract paintings because he showed them in a gallery last month without a permit. The Ho Chi Minh City government on Aug. 9 fined Vien 25 million dong  (about US $1,000) and, in an unprecedented move critics called a “step backward” even in a country known for heavy censorship, ordered the destruction of his work for a painting exhibition he held July 15-30 at Alpha Art Station. “I can’t find a word to express my shock,” the artist, who publishes poetry under the pen name Bui Chat. He called the order “unbelievable and unimaginable.” “I knew I would be given a fine because they had established an inspection group of 15-16 people who came and made a record that I had held the exhibition without a permit,” he told RFA Vietnamese in an interview. “I acknowledged that I had organized the exhibition without applying for a permit,” said Vien, who told RFA he was too busy organizing the show and had no idea that he needed to apply for a permit. “I was thinking they would only give me a fine,” he added. The administrative order–signed by Duong Anh Duc, vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City government–states that if Vien does not destroy his artwork, they will be forcefully destroyed, while interest will be charged if he pays the fine late. “Over the past year, many exhibitions took place at the same time as or a little bit earlier than mine, almost all in small galleries in Saigon that I know, did not apply for an exhibition permit,” he said. Saigon is the former name of Ho Chi Minh City. “They were held as usual and without any problems. However, my exhibition was punished for not having a permit,” added Vien.   Vien, whose 29 paintings that have been targeted by authorities contained no political message or nudity, is no stranger to harassment by authorities in the one-party Communist state. In 2011, under his pen name Bui Chat, he won the International Publishers Association’s 2011 Freedom to Publish Award. However, after returning from a trip to Argentina to receive the prize, he was detained and grilled by the police for two days. Censorship of culture and literature has been a long-standing practice in Vietnam but experts said that censorship of paintings was a new thing. “Vietnam is known for destroying books. However, this is the first incident in the field of painting. Before I had never heard about a case in which a fine given to an exhibition came with the requirement to destroy paintings,” said Hoang Dung, a professor and member of the Vietnam Independent Literature Association’s Advocacy Committee “To put it bluntly, this is a step backwards in culture management. I believe that anyone with a normal conscience would be shocked by such a decision,” added Hoang. Vien told RFA that he would fight to protect his artworks and not easily give up. “The decision says that I can make a complaint or take legal proceedings. Therefore, I’ll see my lawyers to carry out procedures to file a complaint or lawsuit to protect my rights and interests,” he told RFA. “There is no way that I will destroy my artwork.” Translated by Anna Vu. Written by Paul Eckert.

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Lao residents call for inspection of development projects to combat corruption

Residents of a province in northern Laos are calling on the government to take a closer look at local development projects following revelations that state employees had profited illegally from contracts financing the work, Lao sources say. News that state employees and members of Laos’ ruling communist party were involved in corruption followed a 6-month review by Xayaburi province authorities of state development projects, local sources said. The identities of officials accused of wrongdoing were not made public, however, angering local residents who told RFA they want the names revealed. “There are a lot of corrupt state employees now,” one Xayaburi resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “And if the government discovers who they are it should make their names public so that the people can be informed.” Central government authorities should do more now to protect the country’s development budget, another Xayaburi resident said. “All development projects, such as those for building infrastructure, should be thoroughly inspected,” the resident said, also declining to be named. “And if these are found to be substandard and not following proper guidelines, the contracts should be revoked, and the projects should be canceled and not allowed to continue,” he said. “The banks that allocate money for these projects will be upset if they find out that those projects are being investigated for crime,” a third provincial resident agreed. Xayaburi’s six-month review of state development projects in the province show that of 47 projects each supported by investments of 10 billion kip ($656,167) or more, 37 failed to follow proper rules of concession, leading to state losses of over 45 billion kip, according to state media reports. And of 233 projects invested at lower amounts, 79 were examined, with 17 showing losses to the state of 1.62 billion kip. More than 150 projects remain to be examined by the end of the year. Leakage from project budgets is found mostly in the education and health-care sectors, an official from Xayaburi’s inspection unit told RFA, also speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “For example, when money is allocated to build toilets for schools, these are often not up to standard. The money has been used for something else, and the people who gave the money are not happy,” he said. Also speaking to RFA, a second provincial official said that though laws are in place to punish corruption, “we send the bigger cases to central authorities to deal with if we find we can’t handle them at lower levels of authority.” The Lao government has lost U.S. $767 million to corruption since 2016, with government development and investment projects such as road and bridge construction the leading source of the widespread graft, according to the country’s State Inspection Authority. However, despite the enactment of an anticorruption law that criminalizes the abuse of power, public sector fraud, embezzlement and bribery, Laos’ judiciary is weak and inefficient, and officials are rarely prosecuted. Berlin-based Transparency International 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Laos at 128 of 180 countries in the world. Laos received a score of 30 on a scale of 0-100, on which 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya for RFA Lao. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Skyrocketing rice prices another hardship for Myanmar citizens

The price of rice, a food staple in Southeast Asia, and other commodities has shot up as much as 50 percent over the last two months in Myanmar, another hardship for the country’s beleaguered citizens, many of whom have already had to flee their homes because of ongoing conflict, traders and consumers said. The average cost of basic food on average in Myanmar has risen by 35% in the past year, according to recent data compiled by the World Food Program. A 24-pyi (4.7-pound) bag of Shwebo Pawsan rice, considered locally to be the best quality rice, has gone up even more. A bag that sold for 66,000 kyats (U.S. $31) on July 1 now sells for 90,000 kyats (U.S. $42). In Yangon, traders said the price can spike to 100,000 kyats (U.S. $47) in retail markets. Prior to the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup that sparked the conflict, the price of a 24-pyi sack of the rice was 52,000 kyats (U.S. $25). The inflation has hit hard low-income people who now have difficulty affording even lower quality rice and are dealing with a shortage of jobs since the democratically elected government was ousted, sources said. Low-quality rice that used to cost 25,000 kyats (U.S. $12) is now selling for 45,000 kyats (U.S. $21), said a low-income Yangon resident. “Right now, it’s very hard for manual laborers to earn money,” he said. “Manual laborers need to get money first to have their meals, and then they can buy rice in the evening after work.” The price increases have made lives even harder for the 1.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled their homes due to the fighting, aid workers said. Most IDPs are living in areas where transportation is difficult. Meanwhile, military checkpoints have restricted the movement of food along major routes, pushing up the cost of supplies, they said. A member of the Mindat township IDP Camps Management Committee in western Myanmar’s Chin state, where fighting between military forces and opposition groups has been intense, said the cost of transporting goods is double what it is in other areas and rice has to be smuggled in. “In faraway places, the price reached almost 100,000 kyats when the cost of transportation, which is about 50,000 kyats, was added to the original price,” said the aid workers, who declined to be identified out of fear for his safety. “We haven’t had any donations for the IDPs for the last two months, so we can’t buy rice anymore,” he said. “We won’t have supplies for distribution for the rest of August or for September and October.” Ye Min Aung, chairman of the Myanmar Rice Federation, blamed the rising prices on COVID-19 virus outbreaks, the country’s political instability and the high costs of production. “COVID-19 issues, political issues and internal instability in central parts of Myanmar along with the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel in international markets are to blame,” he said. “Fertilizer prices have tripled,” he said. “Farmers have to use fertilizers and fuel and so their production costs have also risen. Moreover, rice mills have had to install generators due to the decrease in the electric power supply, resulting in an increase in production costs.” Buckets of rice are seen at a rice shop in Yangon, Myanmar, April 12, 2022. Credit: RFA ‘Fleeing for our lives’ Shwebo Pawson, the most expensive and popular rice in Myanmar, is usually grown in Shwebo, Kantbalu, Khin U, Ye U and Taze townships in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, where the fighting between military and opposition forces has been particularly intense. In an effort to clear the area, government troops have burned dozens of homes and other structures in recent weeks. Some farmers have been unable to plant rice or other crops this year, while others cannot properly care for their cultivated fields, said residents of the townships. A farmer in Shwebo township said he and other residents have not been able to work because they have been forced to run from Myanmar soldiers. “We have been fleeing for our lives to safety because of the military attacks, and many of the fields have been left unattended,” said the farmer who did not provide his name because of safety reasons. In the Ayeyarwady region, Myanmar’s rice bowl, farmers have been grappling with a drought amid what is supposed to be the rainy season. They say they are unable to make capital inputs and have had to cultivate fewer acres because of high production costs. Myanmar has more than 17 million acres of rice paddies in production, but the country’s agricultural targets have not yet been met, military junta leader Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said in the capital Naypyidaw on Aug. 8. He warned that officials may need to adjust how much rice is exported and how much is set aside for domestic consumption. But Myanmar still plans to export rice and green beans, he said. An economist, who declined to be named so as to speak freely, said that statement may mean the junta could seize rice stocks to generate revenue, further pushing up the price. “They themselves have announced that they are going to export rice and green beans,” he said. “If they do that, they will look for rice in any way they can get and will hoard it.” With the current shortage of hard currency in Myanmar, the junta appears to be eyeing up rice exports to get badly needed U.S. dollars, the economist said. “They seem to be planning to get dollars directly into their hands from exports,” he said. “The more they do that, the more the prices of commodities will rise, especially that of rice. Besides, traders will find it difficult to buy [rice] and will keep what they have, so that prices will rise even more.” Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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aung san suu kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 6 more years in prison

  A Myanmar military court on Monday sentenced former national leader Aung San Suu Kyi to six years in prison following her conviction on corruption charges that critics say are without merit. Suu Kyi, 77, now faces a total of 17 years in prison, with today’s 6-year term added to an 11 years already imposed following trials in other cases brought by Myanmar’s military leaders, who overthrew her democratically elected civilian government in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup. The three cases heard on Monday were tied to the acquisition of land in the capital Naypyidaw by the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, which was named after Aung San Suu Kyi’s late mother, and to the construction of a building on that land and of foundation headquarters in Yangon. Naypyidaw Mayor Myo Aung, Deputy Mayor Ye Min Oo, and Naypyidaw Municipal Committee Member Min Oo, who were also charged in the cases, were each given 2-year terms. The sentences imposed by a prison court in Naypyidaw were themselves unlawful, however, as Myanmar’s now-ruling military had seized power illegally, Bo Bo Oo—a former Yangon lawmaker for the National League for Democracy. “This case has been all wrong right from the start,” said the former parliamentarian, whose party’s government was overthrown by Myanmar’s military last year. “To begin with, the military coup was carried out in violation of the law, so it’s silly for them to say that they are now on the side of the law. I don’t recognize their authority,” he said. Calls seeking comment from junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun received no response, but a veteran legal expert told IJ-reportika that Aung San Suu Kyi should not have been prosecuted on corruption charges for a project done for the country’s benefit. Junta allegations that national funds had been lost by the land’s sale at a low price should not have been filed. “When action is taken against nationally beneficial projects like the La Yaung Taw project just because they are connected to Aung San Suu Kyi, this will cause other projects to be stopped that could be helpful to citizens in the future,” he said. “This is just another example of how the junta deals with political problems in Myanmar not by using political means but through hatred and animosity,” agreed Arakan National Party chairman Tha Tun Hla. “People who are tied to political cases should not be punished and imprisoned,” he added. Aung San Suu Kyi now faces charges in 9 more cases, including a case brought under Section 3(1)[c] of the Official Secrets Act, that also carry long prison terms, sources say. ‘Methodical assault on human rights’  Myanmar political observer Than Soe Naing said that by arresting and jailing Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s military is carrying out its goal of removing her entirely from the country’s political life. “However, history will show that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has never bribed anyone or committed financial fraud. Her virtue, integrity and dignity can never be damaged, even a little,” he said. Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Monday that the Myanmar military junta’s conviction and sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi is “part of its methodical assault on human rights around the country. “The junta’s fabricated trials, torture of detainees, and execution of activists highlights its broader disregard for the lives of Myanmar’s people. “The United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), European Union, United States, and other concerned governments should press for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all those wrongfully imprisoned,” Pearson said. “This verdict should push them to undertake urgent action against the junta to ensure there’s justice for its victims and a reckoning for its crimes.” Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Hong Kong exodus continues as rights groups pinpoint leaders’ overseas property

Hongkongers are continuing to leave the city in droves amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under a draconian security law imposed by Beijing. Recent figures from the city’s census and statistics department showed the city’s population has fallen for the third year running, with net departures of permanent residents totaling 113,000 during 2022 alone, and around 121,000 compared with the same time last year. “This is pretty unprecedented,” Chinese University of Hong Kong business school researcher Simon Lee. “[Before this] we saw population growth for a long period.” “Many of these people leaving are young and strong, and it’s too early to tell whether they will come back or not,” Lee said. “This is a blow to our economic recovery in the short term, because fewer people means less economic activity and less consumption.” A social activist who gave only the nickname Peter said it is increasingly difficult for people in Hong Kong to get information about what is happening to those who leave. “There is less news out there, no more Apple Daily, Stand or Citizen News,” Peter said. “In one sense, to a certain extent the government … wants to force people to leave, so they can’t stand together.” Peter said he has started a letter-writing program to allow overseas Hongkongers to support people currently behind bars for their role in the 2019 protest movement or held as part of subsequent political crackdowns. “Everyone has to live their own lives, because it’s hard to even think about the [protest movement] if you don’t do that,” he said. “But while we’re doing that, we can use some of our leftover energy to reconnect [with everyone else].” “Whenever I have time to write a letter, I remind myself why I can’t go back to Hong Kong,” he said. “I can’t go home.”   People lie in hospital beds with night-time temperatures falling outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on Feb. 16, 2022, as hospitals become overwhelmed with the city facing its worst COVID-19 wave to date. Credit: AFP     Foreign property owners Peter’s initiative has seen letters pour in from the U.K., Norway, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, among other countries, and the democratic island of Taiwan, which has offered immigration options to Hongkongers fleeing the crackdown. The U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch has also called on governments to step up sanctions on the city’s officials, many of whom own property overseas. The group said it had identified property belonging to four Hong Kong officials in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. Health secretary Lo Chung-Mau owns a flat in London, while non-official executive councilors Margaret Leung, Moses Cheng and Eliza Chan own property in Sydney, London and Toronto, the group said. “It beggars belief that Hong Kong officials who denounce Western countries so gleefully are destroying their fellow citizens’ basic freedoms and rights [and] continue to own property in the U.K., Australia, and Canada,” the group’s advocacy director Sam Goodman said. The group called on the governments of the U.K., Canada, and Australia to join the U.S. in introducing Magnitsky-style sanctions targeting the assets of Hong Kong officials who are “complicit in gross human rights violations.” Meanwhile, international arrivals have fallen sharply in Hong Kong amid the city’s COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Passenger volumes have plummeted, with 18 times fewer passengers arriving in Hong Kong via the airport this summer — just over two million per month in July and August 2022 — compared with pre-pandemic figures.    People lie in hospital beds with night-time temperatures falling outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on Feb. 16, 2022, as hospitals become overwhelmed with the city facing its worst COVID-19 wave to date. Credit: AFP    Losing to Singapore Lee said the recent easing of quarantine requirements for inbound passengers was unlikely to improve things. “With regard to tourists, people won’t come unless they have to for business, because they have a lot of choices for leisure travel,” he said. “Why would they come to Hong Kong? They would only come if they like Hong Kong a lot.” While the government recently eased restrictions in a bid to kickstart the city’s flagging economy, the number of flights arriving in the city is still far lower than those destined for Singapore, which lifted quarantine requirements for arrivals in April. We counted 61 flights arriving at Hong Kong International Airport on Aug.12, compared with 289 flights arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport, nearly five times as many. The Singapore Tourism Board estimates between four and six million visitors will arrive in the city this year for tourism purposes, with 543,000 inbound tourists in June compared with 418,000 in May, and the figures have been rising for five months in a row. Lee said Hong Kong’s COVID-19 policy had hit its status as an international aviation hub, and the city would struggle to catch up with its main competitor. “It is a short-term phenomenon, but other places returned to normal six months ago,” Lee said. He said the development would likely mean people get out of the habit of booking flights routed through the city. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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