Destitution on Australia’s hardening border with PNG – and the need for a better aid strategy



Visiting women from the South Fly selling their crafts in an informal market on Boigu Island in the Torres Strait.
Author provided

Mark Moran, The University of Queensland

Less than four kilometres from Australia’s northernmost islands in the Torres Strait lies the South Fly District of Papua New Guinea.

If you’ve ever heard anything about this borderland region – wedged between Australia, Indonesia and the Fly River in southern PNG – it’s likely about protecting Australia from disease, illegal migration, drugs and gun smuggling.

However, the story of the South Fly District is much more complex. It is a story of chronic underdevelopment and growing frustration with a border management regime that favours some PNG nationals over others and ever-tightening restrictions on trade across the Australian border.

Over the past four years, researchers from the University of Queensland visited 35 South Fly villages and five Torres Strait islands to better understand the relationship between the two sides of the border. The findings were just released as a book, Too Close to Ignore: Australia’s Borderland with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

A map of the South Fly District in southern PNG and neighbouring Torres Strait Islands.
Author provided

Extreme poverty on the PNG side

The World Bank has set the international poverty line at A$2.70 per person per day, but the median income in South Fly villages is less than half of this. Worse still, basic goods like flour and sugar are twice what people pay in remote areas of Australia, and the cost of fuel is A$3–4 per litre.

PNG is often described as having a dual economy, with mining and other foreign investment driving the main economy with money, and subsistence gardening underpinning the other. Subsistence activities (growing only what is needed for survival) remain essential in rural areas where more than 80% of people live.

But cash is also desperately needed for basic food items, health services and schooling. People are constantly looking for markets, but they face formidable obstacles due to the remoteness of the region and high transportation costs.

Now, the hardening of the Australian border is proving to be another barrier, too.

A South Fly Village house with an improvised door (scavenged from the Torres Strait).
Author provided

Hardening of the border

To stem any threat of coronavirus, cross-border travel with the exception of medical emergencies has been banned since mid-February, more than a month before PNG’s first confirmed case.

But even before then, a complex border management system was fuelling frustrations.

Under the Torres Strait Treaty, residents of 14 nominated “treaty” villages in PNG have been allowed to cross the border, so long as they have a pass signed by a Torres Strait Island councillor.

Passage is limited to traditional purposes only, which is interpreted by Australian authorities to exclude commercial trade. South Fly residents, however, still seek to barter across the border for cash and goods. This trade is critical to their economic survival.




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For PNG residents, the Australian government approach to border management relies on a hierarchy of haves and have-nots — those villages with treaty status, and those without.

As non-treaty villages can’t cross the border, they sell their goods to treaty villages, who then on-sell them into the Torres Strait. The treaty villages guard their privileges, informally helping to manage the border.

But the treaty villages themselves are now also struggling to trade, as the Australian Border Force (ABF) and Torres Strait Island councillors have, in recent years, asserted more control over the border.

By not issuing passes, the councillors limit the numbers of days for visitors and even issue total bans to entire villages. They do so to protect their limited resources during times of water shortages, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases or viruses (like COVID-19), or as punishment for overstaying on previous visits, fighting or other breaches.

The Australian government relies on the councillors to be informal frontline defenders of the border. ABF officers have also imposed harsh restrictions on those who do manage to cross, including limits on access to ATMs for PNG visitors trying to collect remittances from extended families.

PNG visitors are no longer able to sell their goods or avail themselves of medical services to the extent that they once did, either.

Border management trumping aid assistance

This system has some kind of logic for border control, but it makes no sense when it comes to other issues, like health.

Australian aid assistance in the South Fly District is largely limited to the capital Daru and the 14 treaty villages. In these regions, Australia has funded a world-class response to tuberculosis, including a hospital in Daru and health centre in Mabuduan, a treaty village.

The primary health system in the rest of the district, meanwhile, is grossly understaffed and under-resourced. People from South Fly villages often travel to health clinics on the outer Torres Strait Islands, where clinicians adopt a humanitarian position for medical emergencies.




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If patients have TB, they are sent back for treatment at the Daru hospital. But the health system’s transport is extremely limited, and most PNG residents can’t afford the exorbitant cost of fuel for private dinghies.

When they can raise the money to travel to Daru, they are often accompanied by family members and stay in squalid, overcrowded housing, where they run the risk of further spreading or catching TB.

One of the Daru settlements where many visitors from South Fly Villages stay.
Author provided

Normalise aid spending for greater impact

Despite the long history of reciprocal relationships between the South Fly and Torres Strait, a hardening border is worsening destitution and on the PNG side and exacerbating the security threat to Australia.

And as the Australian border hardens, the Indonesian border beckons, where trade in mostly dried fish products has been long established. Compared to the Australian border, the PNG-Indonesia border is relatively porous, and illegal border crossings and overfishing are pervasive.

Allowing commercial trade across the PNG–Australian border would certainly help. For example, the crab trade has been dominated by Chinese store owners in Daru, who buy up everything until stocks are depleted to sell onward to Singapore.




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Building a crab fishery in the South Fly could be a profitable enterprise for Torres Strait Island businesses, with live exports sold to restaurants in Australia, and better prices paid to the PNG women who traditionally catch them. Australian quarantine officers in the Torres Strait Islands could control catch size.

Expanding the bilateral aid program to benefit all the villages in the district, not just treaty villages would also help.

The current money needs to be dispersed more evenly for greater impact, according to the principles of aid effectiveness and population health, and not play “second fiddle” to border management.The Conversation

Mark Moran, Professor of Development Effectiveness, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the aid community responds in Syria will dictate its role in future crises



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The conflict in Syria has left more than 6 million people internally displaced.
EPA/Mohammed Badra

Denis Dragovic, University of Melbourne

The latest military strikes by the US, France and Britain in Syria highlight the Trump administration’s uncertainty on its role in the conflict. With a near triumphant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad firmly under the control of Moscow and Tehran, the strikes against military bases suspected of facilitating the chemical weapons attacks will be nothing more than a footnote in the wider battle for influence in the region.

Trump must look towards the future and focus on influencing the reconstruction of Syria.

Without an active United States, Turkey, Iran and Russia will push international aid agencies and influential Western donor governments onto the sidelines. Instead, they will take the lead in rebuilding Syria in their images, an outcome that will hurt the Syrian people and further destabilise the region.




Read more:
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The size of the challenge

It is hard to find parallels in history with the extent of destruction in Syria.

Not since Dresden has devastation been so extensive. The four-year siege of Sarajevo, where regular bombardment from the surrounding mountains ravaged the city and reduced many areas to rubble, is a comparable yardstick repeated across Syria in Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama.

And then there is the human cost. More than 6 million people are internally displaced. Another 5 million are living as refugees.

Each person fled a home, a job and a community that will have to be re-established. This won’t be easy, given those who have migrated to Europe are estimated to represent between one-third and one-half of all Syrians with university-level education.

Even if it is theoretically possible to overcome these challenges, the most basic level of reconstruction has been estimated at US$100 billion, and possibly as high as US$350 billion. This far exceeds the estimated US$60 billion reconstruction cost of rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

What to expect

Some reconstruction experts have advocated sidelining Assad’s Syria, and only providing support to rump areas under the control of US allies. NGOs are advocating conditioning international support on a political solution being agreed, respect for human rights, and protection of an independent civil society.

The Western-led international aid community faces a conundrum as it sits on the sidelines watching others prepare for the post-conflict reconstruction. Should the international aid community adapt and compromise or stand firm with their demands and principles?

Without the West driving the development agenda, Syrian authorities will eschew aid focused on human rights, gender equality, market liberalisation, and democracy. They will have little patience for the Western allegory of aid as salvation, in which the original sin of colonialism drives an effort to save people from poverty by recreating their societies in our image.

Instead, akin to Chinese aid to African countries, major infrastructure projects that serve government interests will top the agenda at the expense of assistance to the other pillars of successful modern countries.

These projects will be funded, managed and implemented on a quid-pro-quo basis. Syrian elites and foreign governments will secure most of the benefits.




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For an aid industry weaned on Western donors and their gender mainstreaming, community consultation, and pro-poor development, adjusting to taking direction from a Syrian government dismissive of the Western conscience and liberal democratic values will pose a substantial challenge. It will lead to serious ethical questions being asked.

Such questions will revolve around whether:

  • aid agencies participate in donor co-ordination led by an illiberal Russia, an ostracised Iran, or an Islamist Turkey;

  • collaboration with the Assad government irrevocably compromises NGOs’ work; and

  • aid agencies can contribute to sustainable development if they are prevented from strengthening civil society.

There is no right answer to these questions. Some will take the pragmatic path; others, the high road.

For many aid workers – particularly those associated with advocacy NGOs – staying true to their worldview will mean being sidelined. They will be forced to operate in neighbouring countries, as Syrian authorities refuse to tolerate what they will perceive as social engineering disguised as humanitarian assistance.

This will leave UN agencies flying the flag of the development consensus in word only; they will be bereft of many of their implementing partners. Without these partners, they too will have to reconsider their modus operandi: partner with local sectarian NGOs with questionable affiliations, or undertake more direct implementation.

The benefits of a new approach

Under these circumstances, new approaches to implementing humanitarian and development programs will be need to be sought.

One opportunity is to harness Syria’s rich tradition of religious institutions playing a leading role in society. But even such a pivot will pose a conundrum: engaging with these groups will require the international aid community to reconsider its secular agenda.

How the international aid community responds to these challenges will shape outcomes not only in Syria but for future humanitarian crises.

Trying to force the Western development agenda onto Syrians will be counterproductive, leading to the strengthening of non-Western aid organisations that operate outside the decades-old development consensus.

With new-found experience and cashed-up from the largest reconstruction effort since the second world war, these agencies will begin to set the agenda not only for Syria, but in other countries whose leadership will prefer respectful collaboration over what’s seen as Western condescension.

Alternatively, Western aid organisations can acknowledge this emerging dynamic and find ways to work with the regime, its sponsors in Russia and Turkey, and the young, emerging aid organisations.

The ConversationThis will require compromising some of the ideals that have been at the heart of the sector and adopting new ways of working. But doing so will lead in the long run to a wider buy-in to the development consensus by the next generation of global aid actors.

Denis Dragovic, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s what happens to aid projects when the money dries up and the spotlight fades



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Aid projects in Iraq had more money than ideas.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

Denis Dragovic, University of Melbourne

As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?

Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.

I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.

Government problems hobble South Sudan

These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.




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My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.

The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.

A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.

It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.

State officials in South Sudan refused to give former refugees property rights.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

Did aid make a difference in Iraq?

After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.

Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.

I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.

We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.

Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.

The same aid work in northern Iraq could have been undertaken by local authorities.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

East Timor didn’t lack money – just sense

From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.

A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.

We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.

The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.

Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.

The culture of the international bureaucracy won out over the culture of the East Timorese people.
Denis Dragovic, Author provided

The lessons learned

Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.

Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.

The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.

It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.


The ConversationDenis Dragovic’s new book No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is published by Odyssey Books.

Denis Dragovic, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to borrow tools from the startup world for aid and development


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New funding vehicles could finance large scale agricultural programs.
Shutterstock

Danielle Logue, University of Technology Sydney; Gillian McAllister, University of Technology Sydney, and Jochen Schweitzer, University of Technology Sydney

Ideas borrowed from the startup world – crowdfunding, incubators, accelerators and online marketplaces – could help close the US$2.5 trillion shortfall in funding for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Our research with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows these methods can increase aid by attracting funding from private investors and diaspora communities.

But several barriers need to be overcome first. Education is the biggest challenge – all stakeholders, both investors and entrepreneurs, need to understand the potential of these methods as well as how (and when) to use them. We need to ensure programs are available in local languages and in rural areas. Lastly, we should not overburden entrepreneurs and grantees with complicated impact measurements.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding platforms, where entrepreneurs post a project and members of the public contribute small amounts, can be a very successful method not only to deliver funds, but to test how much interest there is in a product or project. The micro-lending platform Kiva is an example of this in action. Kiva claims to have provided over US$1 billion in loans to 2.5 million people since launching in 2005. Its funded projects range from small businesses to village development.

But crowdfunding faces a range of challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. These include a lack of access to bank accounts, large commissions charged on withdrawing funds, and a lack of education for entrepreneurs in how to run crowdfunding campaigns.

So while crowdfunding has been shown to work in funding development projects, it needs to be tailored to specific contexts. The platforms should be set up with local intermediaries. Funding is needed to provide initial educational support for social entrepreneurs in online campaigning. And campaigns should be run to reach potential funders in the developed world, including diaspora communities.

Incubators and accelerators

Incubators and accelerator programs help very early stage or startup businesses. These often provide co-working spaces, education, mentoring and connections to investors, often in return for a fee or a share of the business.

Our analysis of over 90 incubators and accelerator programs across the region found that entrepreneurial training and coaching opportunities were still limited. It is not simply a question of providing more incubator programs. Programs are needed in local languages and in locations outside major cities.

For example, programs in Myanmar and Vietnam are building up a startup ecosystem. Yet, more local language incubator programs are required to increase accessibility for other young entrepreneurs.

Marketplaces

Online marketplaces, sometimes referred to as “social stock exchanges”, have recently emerged to help connect enterprises and investors and to standardise measures of financial and social return.

Just like mainstream stock exchanges, these platforms allow entrepreneurs to raise funds and investors to trade shares. But, on top of maximising monetary returns, the companies listed on these exchanges generally have social goals such as increasing clean energy or affordable housing stocks.

Social stock exchanges have taken off in the developed world – over CA$100 million has been raised on the SVX platform in Canada, and more than £400 million through the London Social Stock Exchange.

Existing platforms use different impact measures for enterprises wishing to list, such as B Corporation certification. While such platforms are a valuable part of market infrastructure, more needs to be done to educate enterprises and investors on business models for financial and social impact, and expectations of returns.

All up, the research shows that there is great potential in borrowing ideas from the startup world for economic development. These methods have been shown to effectively direct funds to projects that have community support, and to help entrepreneurs and organisations accomplish their goals. They can complement our existing approaches to aid and development.

The ConversationIn building a startup system for social impact, we also need to support those who do the intermediary work, who bring together these diverse groups, and who can understand the needs of aid, entrepreneurship and finance. We also need to try new types of collaboration and partnerships between public, private and non-profit actors.

Danielle Logue, Associate Professor in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy, University of Technology Sydney; Gillian McAllister, Senior Research Analyst, Centre for Business and Social Innovation, University of Technology Sydney, and Jochen Schweitzer, Director MBA Entrepreneurship and Senior Lecturer Strategy and Innovation, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Christians Fear Civilian Casualties in Burma


Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.

“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.

Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.

There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.

The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.

“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”

Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.

“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”

David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.

 

Saber-Rattling

To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.

In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.

Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.

“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.

One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”

Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.

Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.

 

Kachin State

“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).

The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.

In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.

The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”

Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”

KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.

Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.

“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”

 

Emulate Sri Lanka?

Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”

“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News