BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Myanmar Garment Factory Tries to Mend Trafficking | Womens eNews

My latest story for Women's eNews:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Despite the improved mood on the streets of Yangon since the end of military rule, the country's girls and women are still heavily trafficked. One businesswoman is raising awareness and using her factory to offer employment.


A garment factory employs many female workers to help them avoid being trafficked to other countries.
A garment factory employs many female workers to help them avoid being trafficked to other countries.

Credit: Iris C. Gonzales.
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YANGON, Myanmar (WOMENSENEWS)--Gold-plated pagodas with monks in reddish brown robes glisten under the August sun as hawkers selling foreign investment guides now fill streets once closed by military roadblocks, a metaphor for the end of a dark era in this Southeast Asian country.
Yet a closer look at Myanmar, formerly called Burma and ruled for half a century by a military junta until 2011, reveals that behind the smiles of young women with painted cheeks and the overall euphoria now lining its road to democracy, cracks remain; and the scars are deep and fresh.
Human trafficking of young women to China and nearby countries is one such problem that is still hounding the country.
The United States State Department   on human trafficking showed that in 2012 alone,Myanmar's Department of Social Welfare received 195 repatriated victims, 131 from China and 64 fromThailand. The unofficial count could be higher, with UNICEF placing the estimated number of Burmese girls trafficked to Thailand brothels at 10,000 every year.
At the Shwe Pyi Thar Township here in the country's most populous city, a Burmese businesswoman is doing what she can to curb the problem.
While garment factories have become notorious for exploitive and dangerous working conditions, this one is supposed to be safeguarding female workers from getting trafficked.
"Human trafficking happens when there are no decent jobs. We need to create decent jobs for them here in the country," said Khine Khine Nwemanaging director of Best Industrial Company Ltd.which produces jeans, shirts and other apparel for companies in Japan, and in the past to Europe and the United States.
Nwe employs 400 workers--most of them women--in her factory.
"They feel safe here," she said in an interview in her factory earlier this month.
Workers in Nwe's factory earn $110 to $120 a month, depending on their skills. The minimum monthly wage for salaried employees set by the government's Ministry of Finance and Revenue is $110. She said she also provides free lodging to those who live in far-flung rural areas.
"They cannot afford the transportation from the rural areas to here," she said.

'I Feel Safe Here'

The factory used to employ 1,200 workers but when the Myanmar garment industry grappled with a crisis due to trade sanctions slapped by the United States and the European Union in 2003, many workers left. The sanctions have been lifted just recently.
Aye Aye Khaing40 years oldhas been working in Nwe's factory for 18 years now. She opted to stay even during the crisis because she said she felt safe working there.
"It was a little difficult when the work stopped but I feel safe here so I stayed," she said.
The whole garment industry suffered at the time, to the detriment of mostly female workers. From a peak of 400,000 workers in Myanmar's garment sector, the number dived to 60,000 by 2005.
"Some of them were forced into the entertainment industry or were trafficked and sold to Chinese men. This has happened and it's still happening," Nwe said.
To provide a preventive solution to the problem, Nwe organizes free and regular half-day seminars that raise awareness on human trafficking, along with basic sewing sessions, to people who want to work in her factory.
"We warn them that many perpetrators of human trafficking are close to their victims. They may be relatives or their neighbors," Nwe said.
She said many victims fall prey to human traffickers because of the lack of education and awareness of the problem.
Human Rights Watch, based in New York City, said the ongoing sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and local Buddhists in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, which erupted last year, has also worsened the human trafficking situation in the country.
The rights group said Thai and Rohingya human traffickers have been luring Rohingya women and children.
"For instance, in June, traffickers who promised to reunite Narunisa, a 25-year-old Rohingya in a shelter in Phang Nga province (in the southern part of Thailand) with her husband in Malaysia for a $1,660 fee, instead raped her repeatedly," said Human Rights Watch in an Aug. 20 statement.
For years, thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine State have been sailing to Thailand to flee persecution by the government. The situation worsened significantly last year when violence erupted between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Arakanese, Human Rights Watch said.
More than 35,000 Rohingyans are believed to have fled the country since 2012.
"However, many thousands more have been intercepted at sea by Thai officials and either redirected toMalaysia or allegedly handed over to people smugglers and human traffickers who demand payment to release them and send them onwards," Human Rights Watch said.

Efforts to Curb Trafficking

The civilian-led Myanmar government acknowledges the problem. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said efforts to curb human trafficking include improving education and working with neighboring countries.
"To prevent human trafficking, we are cooperating with neighboring countries," Htut said.
Myanmar is also working with the United States to combat human trafficking. Officials from both countries held the very first dialogue on Aug. 1 on ways to deal with the problem and issued a joint statement in support of the United States-Myanmar Joint Plant on Trafficking in Persons," according to an  by the U.S. Department of State.
Trafficking has left a gaping wound on the family of Thi Thi Moe, a young Burmese girl; one of the estimated 10,000 victims trafficked to neighboring countries every year for sexual slavery or forced labor.
Moe's family lives in Hinthada Townshipin the rice producing Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar, some four hours away from Yangon.
Coming from a family who struggles to survive with only $2 a day, Moe decided to work in China last year, hoping to earn for her parents and one sibling. A female neighbor persuaded her to go to China to find a job. Moe wanted to support her family so she gave in to her neighbor's prodding without telling her parents.
"But after a few days, she called us and said she was sold for nearly $5,000 to a Chinese garment factory owner," her mother, Soe Soe Tint, told Women's eNews in an email interview.
Her family was told they must pay the factory owner $5,000 before Moe can go home, her mother said, but this is impossible given their meager earnings. The family informed the Hinthada Township's police department but authorities have yet to catch the person who sold Moe, said Tint.
"We think the authorities are weak and that the implementation of the rules and regulations is not effective," her mother said. She thinks there should be more prosecution and conviction of traffickers to send a strong message to would-be perpetrators.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mt. Cloud Bookshop

BAGUIO CITY - We stumbled upon this cozy bookshop here in the land of strawberries and ube jam, in what seemed like a basement of a wooden casa from forgotten times. There's a quaint sign outside.

Mt. Cloud is small and homey and best of all, there are some great titles inside. It's a happy place and I wish we had more time to stay and browse but we did not.  Such is our life on the road, always moving, always moving. Nevertheless, we managed to get some titles.

    Photo by Jes Aznar

    Some of the books I bought 

   Araw had her picks too.

Mt. Cloud Bookshop is located at Casa Vallejo
Upper Session Road, Baguio City. Photo of Mt. Cloud 
signage is from Discover Baguio website.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Notes from the Golden Land (part four)

YANGON - There is no ruby in every mountain but there is beauty in everything here.

    The view on the way back to My Hotel

    At the office of the National League for Democracy 

    Myanmar Beer and grilled veggies at Yangon's Chinatown

    With Jes and his camera at Yangon's Chinatown

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Notes from the Golden Land (part three)

YANGON, Myanmar - Buddha never sleeps, kept awake by the whispered prayers of this predominantly Buddhist nation. Tonight, it is splattering wet here at the Shwedagon Pagoda but nobody seems to mind the rain. There they are -- monks in robes, elderlies, young boys and girls, foreigners and locals  -- sinners we all are -- in the quiet corners of the golden pagoda, under 3,154 gold bells and more than 70,000 diamonds.

Time seems to stop here, a place where people walk barefoot and in utmost silence. The shutter of a camera is louder than any voice.

But the silence may be deceiving. Hearts seem to wail in pain here as people cry out to Prince Siddhartha. Pain is everywhere -- ancient ghosts drift with tortured souls in the vastness of the universe. The first visit will bring nightmares, in between the sound of dogs howling in the dead of night.

But pain never stays, wherever it may come from. And the soul will always find its way back home.

Top photo by Jes Aznar. The rest by me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Notes from The Golden Land (part two)

YANGON, Myanmar – Golden pagodas glisten under the yellow afternoon sun and only Buddha’s hands cast shadows on the streets, a fitting metaphor to the end of a dark era in this Southeast Asian country.

Myanmar, which is in the midst of sweeping changes, is now embracing the journey to democracy after half a century of military dictatorship.

For the first time in 25 years, thousands gathered for a public commemoration of a huge people’s uprising against the military junta, marking a new era in the history of Myanmar, dubbed as The Golden Land.

Thousands crammed at the Myanmar Convention Center here on Thursday to commemorate the August 8, 1988 uprising where student activists took to the streets calling for an end to the military junta. The popular uprising, joined by men, women and even children, came to a brutal end and killed more than 3,000 people.

Members of the opposition and ruling parties, returning exiled students, diplomats, local and foreign journalists and Buddhist monks attended the event, which comes amid Myanmar’s transition to a democracy.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi urged further progress on reconciliation and reforms in a speech to some 5,000 people who gathered in the huge public commemoration, held for the first time since the end of the dictatorship two years ago.

“National reconciliation is very important,” said Suu Kyi, clad in a long bright red Burmese longyi, a traditional skirt, and top, as she addressed the crowd inside the two-story center and the thousands who watched from a large television screen outside.

“We must not take revenge. Everyone has the responsibility to control his or her anger,” said Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, who is now a Member of the Parliament as part of the new era in Myanmar, now under a new quasi-civilian regime that came to power in 2011.

Toe Zaw Latt, who joined the 1988 uprising and who fled to exile in the Thailand-Burmese border and eventually in Australia until only last year, is overwhelmed with the sweeping changes in Myanmar.

“I am very excited to see lots of exiled students here. It’s like a reunion,” said 43-year old Latt, who is now Bureau Chief of the Democratic Voice of Burma Multimedia Group.

He was only 18 years old when he left Myanmar and joined the armed struggle for five years at the Thai-Burmese border.

Now, Latt carries a Sony camera as he chose to continue waging the fight for democracy through his work as a journalist.

“I think it is important to keep people informed,” he said.

He is optimistic that genuine reforms would finally happen in Myanmar but also acknowledged that the changes are only the beginning.

“A lot of things are still unchanged but we are on the right track. This is just the very beginning of the beginning of a new era in Myanmar,” he said.

Earlier during the day, democracy campaigners also march through downtown Yangon and laid wreaths at the Sule Pagoda in the center of Yangon, which was at the heart of the August 8 crackdown, according to a report by Agence France Press.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Myanmar Pins Hopes on Philippine Investments

YANGON, Myanmar – The time difference between Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines is one and a half hours but business leader Dr. Maung Maung Lay said visitors must set their clocks 50 years back.

After half a century of military rule, Myanmar has dramatically fallen behind its peers in the region. Lay, vice-president of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry (UMFCCI), which groups 26,000 members and 69 affiliate organizations, said Myanmar needs foreign investors including Filipinos to move the economy forward and help prepare it for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

“We hope to learn many things from the Philippines,” Lay, a respected business leader and medical doctor, said in a press briefing here with Southeast Asian journalists.
Lay noted for instance that the Philippines has one of the cheapest mobile phone systems in the region and welcomed potential investments in the telecommunications sector.
The Philippines, which posted the highest first quarter economic growth in the region of 7.8 percent, has been dubbed by Standard & Poors, a credit rating agency, as the new leader of ASEAN.

In June, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said after the World Economic Forum for East Asia held here that three Philippine companies, chaired by corporate tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan, are eyeing to invest in the telecommunications, water and sanitation and energy sectors of Myanmar.
Pangilinan, owner of Philippine telecommunications giant Smart Communications, announced in April that he is considering teaming up with local partners in Myanmar for a shot at a potentially lucrative market.
“If we want to enter Myanmar telecommunications market we have to partner with any of the qualified bidders because we can’t do it on our own,” Pangilinan said, referring to bidders that are vying for the telecommunications market in Myanmar.
Pangilinan’s other businesses, power utility firm Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) and Maynilad Water Services Inc., a water concessionaire, are also open to partnering with Myanmar businessmen for possible joint venture deals.
“All these businesses, we welcome them,” said Lay.
“We welcome them, indeed. It’s a very warm welcome. We share common goals, common faith and common aspirations. We wish to share together and it will be a win-win for all our countries,” he said.
Myanmar President Thein Sein issued the same message back in June when he said his country is seeking the assistance of the Philippine government in the energy and agriculture sectors.
“President Thein Sein was asking us to help in, mostly in agriculture and also in energy,” President Aquino said after the Forum held from June 5 to 7 in the capitol city of Nay Pyi Taw.
Last year, the two countries had agreed to improve bilateral relations in business following a meeting between Philippine vice-president Jejomar Binay and Myanmar President Sein on the sidelines of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. In the area of agriculture, the Philippines agreed to help Myanmar by sharing banana and rice technologies. 
Pyae Sone Oo, a rice trader, said that Myanmar, which exported 600,000 tonnes of rice last year (double check), could benefit from better technology, post-harvest facilities and training of farmers.
“We need to educate the farmers,” he said.

AEC 2015

UMFCCI’s Lay said all the investments they can get from regional peers would help them prepare for the AEC 2015, just one a half years away.
Lay said that compared to its peers in the region, Myanmar still has a long way to go to catch up.
“We are lightweight compared to the heavyweights in the region. Our fundamentals are not strong. Our banking system is weak,” he said.
He said they need all the help they can get to prepare for the AEC.
“It (the AEC) has made us a bit jittery. We are not ready for the big event there is fear but we can learn from you guys. We look forward to working together,” he said.
The AEC is envisioned to be the goal of regional economic integration by 2015. It hopes to create a single market and production base and a competitive region that is fully integrated into the global economy.
Lay said Myanmar’s transition to an open economy is happening fast.
“We are struggling with transition. It’s so swift that we’re not ready. That’s the problem, we’re not ready,” he said. 
He is optimistic that the people of Myanmar will benefit from the new development because of its resilience and eventually find its place in the Southeast Asian region.
“After nearly 60 years of internal conflict and the sounds of artillery and gunfire, we will not hear them anymore. The will of the people is there. We will try to be the best that we can be,” Lay said. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Notes from the Golden Land

YANGON, Myanmar - The chaos begins even before I actually set foot on this Southeast Asian country, the Golden Land, as the plane's rough touchdown jolts me out of my sleep. When I finally step out of the airport, the humid afternoon weather and the deafening honking of cabs pierce through my senses. Airport policemen blow their whistles endlessly as cabbies stubbornly wait for passengers and cause a gridlock.

I turn on my phones but no roaming services are available from the two biggest mobile companies in the Philippines. I reach the hotel which boasts of "unrivaled views of the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda." I waste no time and rush to my room to enjoy the beautiful view but even the pagoda's shadow was nowhere to be found. Instead, I see a huge slab of concrete as I open the brown curtains.

"Where I can see the view that the website promised," I tell the receptionist as I pleaded for another room.

I am moved to the eight floor and I am blown away. There she is -- enigmatic and breathtaking -- the Golden Pagoda, glistening even under the dark clouds. I rush to take a shower but as I savor the warm water on my flaky face dried by recycled air, I am greeted by a blackout -- one after another.

After the blackout, I turn on my computer but the Internet signal is intermittent. I turn on the a/c but this, too doesn't work.

I look outside again to forget the chaos. The Pagoda smiles at me and I smile back. I forget for a moment that I will be here for the next two weeks, chaos and all.