A hard tusk

Thai politicians and companies are on the move abroad…as illegal ivory is on the move to Thailand

On Monday, the World Wide Fund for Nature published its ‘Wildlife Crime Scorecard’, showing the worst global offenders in the illegal trade in animals. Thailand didn’t exactly record a chart-topping performance. Nor did its Asian neighbours. The WWF said “tens of thousands of African elephants are being killed by poachers each year for their tusks, and China and Thailand are top destinations for illegal African ivory.” The Fund said the main Thai problem was a unique law that allowed the legal trade in ivory from domesticated elephants. This internal issue complicates the problems over buying illegal African elephant and rhino tusks and horns for the domestic markets.

Bangkok has a long-standing interest in African products. Thai state-controlled company PTT wants to get involved in continent’s resources market and looks set to buy Cove Energy, which has a stake in Mozambique’s huge Rovuma gas field. This is a new move, but the overall picture has already been established; PTT’s likely purchase of Cove just reinforces the links that Thailand has already built across Africa. From Liberia to Kenya, Thailand and African nations are working together, in industries as varied as poultry businesses (such as Charoen Pokphard Foods) to web ventures (such as sanook.com).

China recently pledged $20bn in loans for nations across Africa, to support infrastructural and agricultural development. Thailand is keen to follow Beijing into the resources market in the African forests and cities, whipping out the chequebook in return for shiploads of oil and other resources back across the Indian Ocean. But the export of illegal ivory is a real problem and one which is a sure way to make enemies back in Africa – as well as in other regions of the world. Getting oil out of Africa is all well and good but the amount of ivory that follows it – destined for the markets of Bangkok and Beijing – must be dealt with at home swiftly if Thailand is to continue to be a regional leader.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has just got back from her first official visit to Europe as her country’s premier. She was in Germany from 18-19 July and then went across the French border for a visit to the other major EU nation at the end of last week. There were quite a few dishes on the menu for discussion with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president. But among the nudges about the uneasy political situation back home in South East Asia, the Thais were keen to get chatting about the economy.

There is much to boast about on a trip to the embattled eurozone. The World Bank estimates Thailand’s GDP at around $345bn and the IMF has forecast a tasty 7.5% rate of growth for 2013 in the Asian state. 73 business leaders were on Ms Shinawatra’s European tour, hoping to cash in on any hints of investment from Berlin and Paris.

PM Shinawatra was back in her home country yesterday (Monday 23) in time for a meeting with Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, whose awakening nation will also witness a $3bn investment from PTT, as sanctions begin to ease. Thailand is a major player at home in the Association of South East Asian Nations as well, and, along with its African ambitions and recent European promotion, is showing itself to be one of the focus countries for the immediate future. But, as the WWF report demonstrates, there are still problems at home which can translate out onto the world stage and draw frowns from abroad where open hands might have been expected.


BURMA ELECTION X – ‘I would die for Aung San Suu Kyi’

The NLD has won by a landslide in the by-election in Myanmar, securing 43 of the 44 seats it contested. This blog has been covering the election live from Yangon.

After the mania surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech died down and The Lady went home to rest, what were the feelings of party officials and members inside the National League for Democracy’s Yangon HQ?

1. Ye Naung

The 23-year-old member of the NLD’s Youth Generation reveals a scar on the right-side of his head. It is a permanent reminder of the violent treatment he suffered at the hands of the police when he was just 18 and taking part in pro-democracy protests. Amongst mouthfuls of rice and green pepper curry he went on to speak movingly of his love for his ‘Mother Suu’.

“I fully believe in Aung San Suu Kyi. I would give everything for her. I would die for her”

2. Daw Lai Lai

For party official Daw Lai Lai, 64, the possible hurdles the NLD may face in parliament from the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party are dismissed with a laugh and a swish of hand. She confirms that the NLD policy of hoping to change the constitution will be pursued in parliament but underlines the momentum that comes with the landslide win “this is no time to stop and party”. Daw Lai Lai also reiterates that “the people do not want a military government and points out how she feels the country should be restructured in two upheavals:

“The military under the government. And the government under the people.”

3. Dr Myo Aung

Former physician Myo Aung is one of the new MPs who will be representing the NLD in parliament. The doctor had been jailed for twelve-month sentences on two separate occasions for speaking out against the government.

He cited five main concerns in his Seik Kan township, 25 miles outside Yangon, that he wanted to raise in the capital, Naypyidaw. They were, firstly: lack of infrastructure; access to running water; and efficient electricity supply. And also the problems of water-borne diseases prevalent in the rainy season when open sewers spill out onto the streets and the issue of compensation for local farmers who had been subjected to compulsory purchase yet had not been rewarded for the move.

BURMA ELECTION IX – ‘We are with you, Mother’

The NLD has won by a landslide in the by-election in Myanmar, securing 43 of the 44 seats it contested. This blog is covering the election live from Yangon.

As we approached the city headquarters of the National League for Democracy this morning, traffic slowed to a standstill. People had massed on a hill opposite the office, climbed nearby trees and were leaning over roofs. A crowd of this size could only mean one thing: The Lady was in town.

She had returned to Yangon last night after spending most of the election day in her village, Wat Thien Kha. She addressed the thrilled public, made up of ecstatic supporters and journalists jumping about for space. Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately known as ‘Amay Suu’, or ‘Mother Suu’, amongst her people and the red-clad NLD voters certainly treat her with an untouchable matriarchal reverence.

She made her way from party HQ to her house on the gentle shores of Inya Lake to have some down-time after an exhausting campaign. But the Mother has been elected to the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) in an historic vote and will be back on her feet before too long.

BURMA ELECTION VIII – As-Live Report from Yangon

The people of Myanmar have voted in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog is covering the election live from Yangon

Residents of Myangone township in north of Yangon hold community meetings in open houses to air their frustrations to the Association of South East Asian Nations observers at not being able to vote in the election

BURMA ELECTION VII – A chance for freedom

The people of Myanmar are going to the polls to vote in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog is covering the vote live from Yangon

Millions of people across the country are heading to the ballot boxes to cast their votes in this historic election. Some people have been turning up in family groups, others on their own, clutching their pink registration cards.

Feelings of excitement have been running through the city since polls opened at 0600 local time. In Mingalar Thaung Nyaunt township, in downtown Yangon, 64-year-old U Dan Suu said he was “very happy for this opportunity”. A young woman who voted shortly after him was also pleased to have had “a chance for freedom”.

A 72-year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous, said “I want to be [living] under a democracy. We had democracy here, before 1962. I want it again.” He believed that Pyu Pyu Din, the local NLD candidate, would win easily, although he himself was not voting because his township is not holding a by-election.

The elation has been tempered elsewhere by reports of fraud and intimidation by the ruling, government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Last night, in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Kawmhu constituency, government party campaigners turned up in 15-20 vehicles to speak to the residents. One local woman told Burmese media that the USDP were trying to trick the pro-NLD villagers into putting a tick next to Suu Kyi’s name on the ballot paper if they liked her and a cross next to USDP if they were against the ruling party. Such a move would spoil the sheet. There were also reports that people were being bribed to turn up to a USDP open-air campaigning event.

The international observers have a real job on their hands and there are simply too many polling stations in each township to be able to attend them all. Local officials are trying to monitor the voting but some members of the NLD have already been running around totting up the votes they have received hour-by-hour. Some results should be out within a few hours of the vote; the scores from other townships may take up to a week to verify and release.

BURMA ELECTION VI – On the road to Kawmhu

The people of Myanmar are going to the polls to vote in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon

On the eve of the election, Aung San Suu Kyi made the two-hour drive from Yangon to her constituency home in the Kawmhu township. The route was dusty and humid but village after village came out onto the track to cheer and greet the convoy as it followed the NLD leader to her house.

Awaiting her arrival

The USDP (party with a government majority) cruise through in an eleventh-hour attempt to whip up support. A losing battle in such a fanatically NLD district

Riding in the convoy en route to Aung San Suu Kyi’s township home

BURMA ELECTION V – Watching and waiting

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 April, Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon.

Monitors from across the world have descended on the country to observe the voting process. They are in place noting the run-up to tomorrow, how the voting actually goes in practice and checking any irregularities that emerge afterwards.

Speaking to a UN observer about the vote, he reiterated the simple desire, first and foremost, to see a free and fair election. Aung San Suu Kyi is not so sure that this aim can be achieved. But even as recently as yesterday the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, once again reassured readers that the voting process would not fall down and would be found by the observers to have complied with all the international recommendations.

The monitor admitted that not all the scientific tools used in other electoral missions will be at hand here. He also said that the global observers had been in a bit of rush to organise the monitoring as the government in Naypyidaw only published the guest-list last week.

The observers will try to make it to all the townships where votes are taking place, for although there are several constituencies in Yangon, the voting will reach across the country, up to Mandalay and down to the Irrawaddy delta area. The UN, EU, US and ASEAN will not accept electoral fraud from any angle and the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Force, have to ensure they play by the rules as well.

BURMA ELECTION III – From tiny acorns

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the third preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here

There are many ways to rig an election. Falsified ballots, stuffed boxes, lost votes, added votes, removing opponents…the blacklist is long and Burma has experienced most of the tricks in the past. In 1990, the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly voted for the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly for the voters, this was not exactly the result that the government had expected. And so the officials declared the election null and void, slotted themselves into the Amyotha Hluttaw, the upper house and the Pytithu Hluttaw, the lower house, and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for twenty years.

Millions of people believe that this time will be different. This is not 1990 again – that was a general election and this is a vote for just 45 parliamentary seats – but a democratic oak could spring from this by-election acorn.

There are three major reasons why there is a more optimistic aroma in the air this time round. Firstly, the democratic activists have been allowed to campaign at a level of freedom not previously experienced. Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading the charge and drawing large sympathetic crowds. Despite this she has been taken ill with exhaustion and is, at the moment, having a few days off to recover before the big push at the end of the week. Secondly, the government seems to have changed for the better. The military still has around 160 reserved seats in both houses of parliament but this is now a country where the civilians are starting to wield the power. Finally, there has been welcome international engagement with the vote.

The government has done the right thing by agreeing to have the vote monitored. There is a long list of outsiders making their way to Burma at the moment with sharpened pencils and clipboards. The presence of the EU and US should not be dismissed but it is more important that observers from the regional bloc attend. Myanmar is in line to assume the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 and the support and advice from its neighbours is of greatest use at the moment.

Where the officials from Washington and Brussels come in is that they have still got punitive sanctions slapped on Naypyidaw. They will be anxious for the Burmese to run a smooth vote that can be lauded loudly so that they can get rid of some of the restrictions. But most of all, and most significantly, there is agreement amongst journalists that the Burmese must monitor themselves. The public must be able to feel that they can walk proudly to the ballot boxes. The government must keep order and must respect the result.

President Thein Sein has recently come back from an official trip to Vietnam, a long-time investor in Myanmar. His country is opening up and reforming itself and will be looking for foreign investors to help re-build its economy and re-establish its place in the region and world. But there is a by-election to hold first and nothing will be certain until that passes positively and the parliament has democratic voices resounding inside.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

BURMA ELECTION II – A step on the bridge

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the second preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here

The EU, amongst many other world observers, has its eyes peeled. As we saw earlier in the year, the US and the UK both sent their foreign secretaries to laud the reforms process and signal a probable end to the long-running sanctions and the long-standing isolation of the beautiful South East Asia nation. The European Union has already eased travel bans and pumped in a new €150m health and education development package. The bloc is ready to roll back some more restrictions provided the 1 April by-election is “free and fair”.

However, the EU would also like to see all ceasefires in the country upheld and peace deals signed if there has, as yet, been no end to violence. The current situation report is not perfect. On Monday 12 March, officials admitted that a fresh round of talks between the government and rebels in Kachin state to try to reach a peace agreement had failed. The Kachin Independence Organisation leader said:

“The reason we couldn’t sign an agreement was because mutual trust still needs to be built up and has not reached a solid level yet but we hope we will have a peace deal one day.”

In response, the government chief negotiator said:

“We are determined to have eternal peace with all ethnic groups.”

The government has clashed repeatedly with many rebels for many decades but has managed to sign ceasefires with the Karen, Shan, Chin and Mon groups recently, all of whom would like some form of devolution. Outsiders will remain nervous if the unrest in the north of the country is not resolved.

China is one of the world observers that is not in as wild a celebratory mood as Western nations. It has called for work to restart on a dam in the north of the country. Construction is well underway but the government in Naypyidaw ordered a postponement recently due to complaints from local and environmental pressure groups. They argue that the lake that would be formed would cause people in five villages to relocate and that 90% of the electricity produced by the project would skip out needy villagers and whizz straight over the border to China for consumption there.

So do you stop the dam, save the villages and anger a rich next-door neighbour or do you leave them with dodgy utilities, ship the power to China but land yourself a multi-million dollar cheque at the same time? This is part of the complicated and difficult reforms the country has embarked upon. Foreign businesses will be looking to invest in a more open and democratic Myanmar if the political situation stabilises. The country is rich in oil, gas and timber and is at the Indo-China geo-political crossroads.

If the by-election is indeed ‘free and fair’ then the process will continue and outsiders will be pleased. But the internal wrangling will not be solved on 1 April. Burma is a nation of 60m people, speaking many different languages and of different ethnicities. It has been through colonialism, the isolation imposed by the military junta and is gently breaking free from the ties. These changes must not be rushed, but they must be not be halted. The 1 April by-election is crucial, but it will be a stepping-stone on the bridge, not an end in itself.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April