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The US Embassy in Yangon.  (Photo: diplomacy.state.gov)

The US relaxed a ban on Thursday which previously suspended entry of Myanmar officials to the United States in an effort to "strengthen and encourage reform" in Myanmar. 

Originally implemented in 1996, the travel restriction was imposed on those “who formulate, implement, or benefit from policies that impede Burma’s [Myanmar's] transition to democracy, and the immediate family members of such persons” and was deemed "no longer necessary" by the US Secretary of State. 

The termination coincides with a report by Associated Press that the US will continue to impose some remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar for another year. The EU controversially lifted the majority of their remaining trade sanctions last week in support of Myanmar's democratic reforms. 

AFP reported on Friday that later this month President Thein Sein will become the first Myanmar leader to visit Washington in more than 50 years where he will meet with President Obama.

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Photo: Myanmar President Office
To mark World Press Freedom Day 2013 on Friday, Reporters Without Borders has released a new list of “perpetrators of freedom of information” in which President Thein Sein no longer qualifies. 

“These predators of freedom of information are responsible for the worst abuses against the news media and journalists,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement on May 3. “They are becoming more and more effective. In 2012, the level of violence against news providers was unprecedented and a record number of journalists were killed.”

Reporters Without Borders removed Thein Sein from the list taking into account the abolishment of prior media censorship in Myanmar last year; the release of journalists and cyber dissidents from prison; the allowance of daily newspapers from April 1; and the return of many exile media to operate inside Myanmar. 

Myanmar is currently 151st on the World Press Freedom Index, a drop of 18 places from its position in last year's list. Previously, the country had been in the bottom 15 every year since 2002.

The second annual Myanmar National Journalism Awards will take place in Yangon on May 3. 

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Burma's President Thein Sein answers questions at the Asia Society in New York.  Photo: Asia Society
Myanmar's leader plans a landmark visit to Washington this month, a source said Thursday, as the United States eased visa restrictions in a sign of support despite a surge in anti-Muslim violence.

President Thein Sein, who would be the first leader of the country to visit in half a century, is planning to be in the American capital around May 20 or May 21, a staff member at the US Congress told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The trip would include a summit with President Barack Obama at the White House. Administration officials said they had no announcement to make but have previously said that they were studying a visit by Thein Sein.

In another step towards thawing relations, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday ended a 1996 ban on US visas to Myanmar nationals accused of hindering democracy during the country's decades of harsh military rule.

Separate restrictions remain on visas for nationals accused of human rights violations. A State Department official said the 1996 ban was overly broad by including government workers, officers and even some pensioners.

"Clearly many people in those categories are now contributing to the reform process and need to engage" through visits to the United States, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The US decisions recognize "the important changes the government of Burma has made and encourage and empower the government and the people of Burma to continue on the path of political and economic reform," he said.

The congressional source said the administration was considering further steps during Thein Sein's visit, such as starting to call the nation Myanmar, the leadership's preferred usage, and not the earlier name of Burma favored by exile groups.

The United States is also looking at whether to include Myanmar in the Generalized System of Preferences, through which it offers duty-free access for up to 5,000 products from developing countries that meet labor standards.

Obama paid his own visit to Myanmar in November, when he praised the nation for its transition but called for progress on reforms, particularly in the treatment of ethnic minorities.

But Thein Sein's visit is expected to be controversial due to a surge in violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim people who are not considered citizens by Myanmar.

A recent Human Rights Watch study accused Myanmar of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, saying that at least 211 have been killed since June 2012 and tens of thousands more forcibly displaced.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based pressure group, accused the Obama administration of only responding to positive developments and not to setbacks.

"To invite him at this point of time would really just reinforce the message of a positive relationship when there really has been no move by the US government to tie this to the Burmese government taking necessary steps" to curb the violence, she said.

It would be the first visit to Washington by a head of the country since military leader Ne Win was invited in 1966 by president Lyndon Johnson.

Thein Sein has previously visited the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, but only held meetings in New York.

A former general, Thein Sein surprised even many skeptics by launching a raft of reforms after taking office in 2011 as a nominal civilian, including freeing political prisoners and relaxing censorship.

He has allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament, a once unthinkable gesture as the Nobel Peace laureate spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest.

While Obama has suspended most sanctions, he issued a declaration on Thursday that keeps measures on the books, allowing the United States to reimpose them in response to setbacks.

The European Union last week dropped virtually all of its sanctions against Myanmar with the exception of a military embargo.

Asian nations already conducted business with Myanmar, which became a close partner of neighboring China while under Western sanctions.

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Opus for The Lady
British composer Jonathan Dove has been commissioned by BBC Radio to create a musical piece inspired by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

BBC said that it invited listeners to suggest 21st-century public figures who could inspire Dove. Other names suggested included the actress Meryl Streep and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

“I am delighted to be able to portray someone so influential and admirable, who shows such steadfastness in the face of opposition,” Dove told the BBC. “Her peaceful and powerful demeanor has already allowed me to imagine how a musical form might portray her.”

Jonathan Dove has previously composed operas, choral works, plays, films and orchestral and chamber music. He was Artistic Director of a popular British charity event, Spitalfields Festival, from 2001 to 2006.

Suu Kyi, for her part, has a well-known connection to the BBC and music. It is frequently quoted that during her long years of isolation under house arrest, she found companionship in her piano, which she played every day, and her shortwave radio, which she set regularly to the BBC where she could listen to old favorites from her Oxford days, such as the program Desert Island Discs.

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The Dalai Lama has called for Buddhist monks to stop spearheading the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

Speaking from Dharamsala, his exiled base in northern India, in an exclusive interview with ABC News, the Tibetan spiritual leader condemned the violence and called for the radical monks to practice forgiveness, tolerance and compassion.

“It's very sad,” the Dalai Lama said. “All the major religions teach us the practice of love, compassion and forgiveness. So a genuine practitioner among these different religious traditions would not indulge in such violence and bullying of other people.”
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ASEAN leaders join hands for a photo-op at a summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012. (Photo: The ASEAN Secretariat)
Sixteen Asia-Pacific countries are set to start talks next month on a free trade zone that would cover over half the world's population, according to a document obtained by AFP Tuesday.

The start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are planned despite deep rifts among potential members, including China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations, over rival territorial claims.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who will meet in Brunei on Wednesday and Thursday, are expected to focus on kick-starting the talks after launching the process last year at a regional summit in Phnom Penh.

The leaders will note that "the negotiations will commence in May" in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, according to a draft of the chairman's end-of-meeting statement obtained by AFP.

"We looked forward to the broadening and deepening of existing [free trade agreements] and envisioned the RCEP to be a platform for future trade and investment integration in Asia and the rest of the world," the draft stated, which is prepared by senior officials and could be changed.

RCEP covers ASEAN's 10 member countries—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

It aims to tie together ASEAN's bilateral free trade agreements with each trading partner, but excludes the United States which is leading talks for a rival trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP currently involves 12 countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

"The RCEP provides an important platform for building trade liberalisation within the Asia-Pacific, which is the world's fastest growing region," Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight, told AFP.

"The initiative is very important as it includes the three major drivers of emerging markets growth—China, India and ASEAN."

Potential members have said previously they are keen to make progress towards an RCEP, despite being engaged in diplomatic rows over various rival territorial claims in the region.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and tensions have escalated in recent years amid complaints of increased Chinese aggression.

Meanwhile, China and Japan are locked in an even more tense dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

In another territorial row, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been strained by a dispute over a Seoul-controlled chain of islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

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