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Lions and peacocks: Symbols lure Myanmar as election kicks off

YANGON: Fighting peacocks, bamboo hats and lions are just some of the colourful symbols Myanmar’s political parties are using to woo voters in what is, for many, their first free election.

Decades of military rule have smothered debate and left the public disconnected from the dozens of parties who want to represent them as the country makes its chaotic transition to democracy.

So as campaigning officially begins Tuesday for the November 8 polls, politicians are turning to pictures, buzzwords and personalities to mark themselves out.

“A picture means more than 100 words,” said Sai Sam Phoon Seng, a campaign officer for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

The SNLD is one of around 90 parties registered to take part in the landmark election.

Like political strategists all over the world, Sai Sam Phoon Seng knows the importance of brand-building for a party whose leader was jailed under junta rule and is now preparing to contest its first general election in 25 years.

A symbol can catch “the eyes of the public”, he told AFP at a four-storey house in Yangon, as volunteers cut out stickers emblazoned with a roaring tiger head.

The SNLD is hoping the symbol will mark it out in the cluttered electoral landscape, which includes Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition grouping.

Despite relatively high levels of literacy in the 51-million-strong population, the run-up to the vote has been notable for the absence of any debate on hard policy or detail.

Critical thinking could not flourish under the toxic atmosphere of paranoia and repression encouraged by the former junta.

“It’s a transitional election. Big issues are at stake — democracy or not, reform or not. It’s not the type of election you’d expect to see deep policy discussion,” said Yangon-based Jorge Valladares from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

But for some observers, the focus on symbols at the expense of substantive debate in this campaign risks leaving voters short-changed.

Maung Zarni, a Myanmar analyst based in Britain, is concerned the elections could prove a wasted opportunity to educate a public long-starved of electoral debate.

“In some places people won’t even know the name of the candidate [when they vote] but this is also driving unhappiness among more informed voters who want to know about policy,” he said.

For the country’s main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), symbols do not come more powerful than its leader Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for her political beliefs.

Images of the democracy icon adorn everything from badges to fans at the fundraising shop outside the party headquarters in northeast Yangon.

But with around double the number of political parties registering for this election compared to the last, symbols are crowding for space on the campaign trail.

While the SNLD, locally known as the Tiger Head Party, is confident its distinctive logo would never be confused with that of its main rival — the prowling white tiger of the Shan Nationalities for Democratic Party (SNDP) — others have expressed concerns that voters could end up bamboozled.

“At least half a dozen parties are using the fighting peacock symbol,” said Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based political think-tank, referring to the emblem adopted by the NLD ahead of the 2012 by-elections which swept Suu Kyi into parliament.

“They’re entitled to use it and some may want the link (to the NLD). (But) that means a lot of confusion,” he added.

The peacock symbol harks back to student protests of 1988 which gave rise to the NLD, but the bird has also been adopted by rivals from the other end of the political spectrum.

Symbols have even caused spats.

The most famous was in 2010 when NLD members accused breakaway party the National Democratic Force (NDF) of stealing their bamboo hat — an emblem used by Suu Kyi’s party during its landslide victory in the 1990 elections, which were later annulled by the ruling junta.

Five years on NDF chairman Khin Maung Swe still defends his use of the hat, a motif used to connect with farmers in Myanmar’s largely agrarian economy.

“It was not stealing as others said. The NLD used it only once in the 1990 election and it’s not related to them since that,” he said.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 8 September 2015 including here


Malaysia turns away boats as death stalks weary migrants

OFF KOH LIPE, Thailand: Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants while one boat turned up in Thai waters, as critics accused Southeast Asian governments Thursday of playing “human ping pong” with desperate boatpeople.

Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships bearing migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh from entering Southeast Asia waters, triggering warnings from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and rights groups that the hardline approach could endanger thousands at sea and falls short of their international obligations.

On Thursday, a boat crammed with scores of Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar — was found drifting in Thai waters.

As dusk fell several visibly emaciated men jumped into the sea to retrieve food packages dropped by a Thai navy helicopter.

An AFP reporter saw one of the men eat handfuls of raw instant noodles in the water before swimming back to the boat.

“About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water,” one of the migrants shouted in Rohingya to a boat full of journalists.

“We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet.”

Many young children were among the weak-looking passengers on the wooden boat, which was found near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea.

– ‘Children are sick’ –

Sajida, who was travelling with her four young children, said she was also trying to reach Malaysia, but the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

“We haven’t had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep… my children are sick,” the 27-year-old told AFP.

A Thai naval officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine “so they can go to their destination”.

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed to be stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.

But Malaysian patrol ships intercepted two migrant vessels beginning late Wednesday off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

They carried a combined 600 people, the official added.

“Last night, one boat was pushed back after it entered Malaysian waters off Penang and one more boat was prevented from entering Langkawi waters,” the official said.

The boat off Langkawi may have been the same one that later turned up in Thai waters. Both carried a makeshift banner declaring the passengers as Rohingya.

Rights groups say Thailand — which has called a May 29 regional meeting on the issue — also has a policy of not allowing such boats to berth.

– ‘Vulnerable people’ –

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday urged Southeast Asian countries not to turn back the migrants, telling them that rescue at sea was an international obligation.

In a statement, Ban voiced alarm that “some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants”.

He urged governments to “ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld” and to “keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.

Washington, meanwhile, urged “countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

International human rights watchdogs were also critical.

“The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

More than 1.3 million Rohingya — viewed by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Malaysia refused to budge Thursday, with the deputy home minister putting blame for the problem squarely on the migrants’ home countries.

“Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people,” Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP.

“So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive.”

He said Bangladesh also needed to do more to prevent illegal immigrants leaving its shores.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 14 May 2014 including here