TIME russia

At Least 56 Dead as Trawler Sinks Off Eastern Coast of Russia

The vessel is believed to have hit ice

A Russian trawler capsized in the waters just off the country’s Kamchatka peninsula on Thursday, leaving at least 56 dead, AP reports.

A total of 63 people from the Dalniy Vostok have been rescued by other fishing vessels, Russian news agency TASS reported.

Of the 132 on board, 78 were Russian nationals, while the rest were from Myanmar, Ukraine, Lithuania and Vanuatu.

A source from the regional emergencies ministry told TASS that the trawler might have hit drifting ice in the Sea of Okhotsk where it sank, around 150 miles south of the city of Magadan.

“The ship did not send a distress signal,” the source said.

TIME Burma

Burma Army Commander Pledges Successful Elections

Burma's Commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaks during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Burma, March 27, 2015.
Khin Maung Win—AP Burma's Commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaks during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Burma, March 27, 2015.

"Any disturbance to stability of the state and prevalence of law, any armed pressure or any threats for voting won't be allowed in the general election"

(NAYPYITAW, Burma) — Burma’s powerful military commander pledged Friday to work to support successful elections in November, calling it “an important landmark for democracy implementation,” and warned that the army will not tolerate instability or armed threats.

This year’s elections will be the first to be held by the semi-civilian government that swept to power after a 2010 vote widely seen as rigged in favor of the military-backed rulers.

“The general election which is going to be held in the early days of November 2015 represents an important landmark of democracy implementation of our country,” Commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech to more than 10,000 troops at a big ceremony marking Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the day the army rose up against Japanese occupiers during World War II some 70 years ago.

“Any disturbance to stability of the state and prevalence of law, any armed pressure or any threats for voting won’t be allowed in the general election,” he said.

But critics say that even under the best circumstances it will be difficult to view the upcoming polls as free or fair. The constitution guarantees the army 25 percent of all parliamentary seats and other special political powers. And the most popular politician, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is barred from running for presidency because her late husband and sons are foreign citizens.

Meanwhile, the government has been unable to reach a conclusive peace agreement with armed ethnic minority groups fighting in border regions. And members of the long persecuted Rohingya population — labeled by the government as illegal migrants — will most likely not be allowed to vote.

Army chief also said the Burmese army is “risking the lives and limbs” of its military officers and troops to achieve stability in border areas.

Ongoing clashes with ethnic Kokang rebels in Burma’s northeast, close to China, has killed hundreds of government troops and caused tension with neighboring China after stray shells reportedly fell into China and killed 5 people.

TIME Burma

Seventy Burmese Students, Activists Charged for Taking Part in ‘Illegal’ Rally

Burmese activist on March 21, 2015, at the bank of Innya Lake in Yangon, Burma.
Khin Maung Win—AP Burmese activist on March 21, 2015, at the bank of Innya Lake in Rangoon, Burma

They face up to six years in prison for protesting an education bill they saw as regressive

Dozens of protesting Burmese activists and students are facing jail time on charges of insulting civil servants and refusing to disperse at an illicit demonstration.

The 70 protesters face up to six years in jail after violence broke out during a march from Mandalay to Rangoon calling for educational reforms, reports the BBC.

Although it was technically illegal, authorities had let the rally pass until they reached the town of Letpadan. There, incensed by the presence of a police line, the group attempted to break through.

Scores of students were injured in the ensuing confrontation. In one photo, four police prepare to strike an unarmed, prone man with their batons.

The quasi-civilian government of Burma, officially now known as Myanmar, insists it is legitimately prosecuting participants in the mid-March protests. However, critics see the case as proof of the Southeast Asian nation’s lingering authoritarianism despite the much-lauded transition from junta rule.

“People’s expectations are high because we’re a country in transition, but you can’t fulfill everything in one term,” said Burmese President Thein Sein told the BBC.

More charges relating to the protests are expected in coming weeks.

[BBC]

TIME Burma

Are Slaves Catching the Fish You Buy?

In this Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 image from video, slaves from Burma lean over the deck of their trawler at the port in Benjina, Indonesia.
AP Slaves from Burma lean over the deck of their trawler at the port in Benjina, Indonesia, on Nov. 26, 2014

"These situations would be called modern slavery by any measure"

(BENJINA, Indonesia) — The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.

Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.

But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks — laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.

“All I did was tell my captain I couldn’t take it anymore, that I wanted to go home,” said Kyaw Naing, his dark eyes pleading into an Associated Press video camera sneaked in by a sympathetic worker. “The next time we docked,” he said nervously out of earshot of a nearby guard, “I was locked up.”

Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.

The men the AP interviewed on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was then shipped back to Thailand, where it entered the global stream of commerce.

Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.

In a year-long investigation, the AP talked to more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina. The AP documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village, tracking it by satellite to a gritty Thai harbor. Upon its arrival, AP journalists followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country’s biggest fish market.

The tainted seafood mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants. U.S. Customs records show that several of those Thai factories ship to America. They also sell to Europe and Asia, but the AP traced shipments to the U.S., where trade records are public.

By this time, it is nearly impossible to tell where a specific fish caught by a slave ends up. However, entire supply chains are muddied, and money is trickling down the line to companies that benefit from slave labor.

The major corporations contacted would not speak on the record but issued statements that strongly condemned labor abuses. All said they were taking steps to prevent forced labor, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.

Several independent seafood distributors who did comment described the costly and exhaustive steps taken to ensure their supplies are clean. They said the discovery of slaves underscores how hard it is to monitor what goes on halfway around the world.

Santa Monica Seafood, a large independent importer that sells to restaurants, markets and direct from its store, has been a leader in improving international fisheries, and sends buyers around the world to inspect vendors.

“The supply chain is quite cloudy, especially when it comes from offshore,” said Logan Kock, vice president for responsible sourcing, who acknowledged that the industry recognizes and is working to address the problem. “Is it possible a little of this stuff is leaking through? Yeah, it is possible. We are all aware of it.”

The slaves interviewed by the AP had no idea where the fish they caught was headed. They knew only that it was so valuable, they were not allowed to eat it.

They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.

Some shouted for help over the deck of their trawler in the port to reporters, as bright fluorescent lights silhouetted their faces in the darkness.

“I want to go home. We all do,” one man called out in Burmese, a cry repeated by others. The AP is not using the names of some men for their safety. “Our parents haven’t heard from us for a long time. I’m sure they think we are dead.”

Another glanced fearfully over his shoulder toward the captain’s quarters, and then yelled: “It’s torture. When we get beaten, we can’t do anything back. … I think our lives are in the hands of the Lord of Death.”

In the worst cases, numerous men reported maimings or even deaths on their boats.

“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” said Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from Benjina. “There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. … The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”

_______

For Burmese slaves, Benjina is the end of the world.

Roughly 3,500 people live in the town that straddles two small islands separated by a five-minute boat ride. Part of the Maluku chain, formerly known as the Spice Islands, the area is about 400 miles north of Australia, and hosts small kangaroos and rare birds of paradise with dazzling bright feathers.

Benjina is impossible to reach by boat for several months of the year, when monsoon rains churn the Arafura Sea. It is further cut off by a lack of Internet access. Before a cell tower was finally installed last month, villagers would climb nearby hills each evening in the hope of finding a signal strong enough to send a text. An old landing strip has not been used in years.

The small harbor is occupied by Pusaka Benjina Resources, whose five-story office compound stands out and includes the cage with the slaves. The company is the only fishing operation on Benjina officially registered in Indonesia, and is listed as the owner of more than 90 trawlers. However, the captains are Thai, and the Indonesian government is reviewing to see if the boats are really Thai-owned. Pusaka Benjina did not respond to phone calls and a letter, and did not speak to a reporter who waited for two hours in the company’s Jakarta office.

On the dock in Benjina, former slaves unload boats for food and pocket money. Many are men who were abandoned by their captains — sometimes five, 10 or even 20 years ago — and remain stranded.

In the deeply forested island interiors, new runaways forage for food and collect rainwater, living in constant fear of being found by hired slave catchers.

And just off a beach covered in sharp coral, a graveyard swallowed by the jungle entombs dozens of fishermen. They are buried under fake Thai names given to them when they were tricked or sold onto their ships, forever covering up evidence of their captors’ abuse, their friends say.

“I always thought if there was an entrance there had to be an exit,” said Tun Lin Maung, a slave abandoned on Benjina, as other men nodded or looked at the ground. “Now I know that’s not true.”

The Arafura Sea provides some of the world’s richest and most diverse fishing grounds, teeming with mackerel, tuna, squid and many other species.

Although it is Indonesian territory, it draws many illegal fishing fleets, including from Thailand. The trade that results affects the United States and other countries.

The U.S. counts Thailand as one of its top seafood suppliers, and buys about 20 percent of the country’s $7 billion annual exports in the industry. Last year, the State Department blacklisted Thailand for failing to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, placing the country in the ranks of North Korea, Syria and Iran. However, there were no additional sanctions.

Thailand’s seafood industry is largely run off the backs of migrant laborers, said Kendra Krieder, a State Department analyst who focuses on supply chains. The treatment of some of these workers falls under the U.S. government’s definition of slavery, which includes forcing people to keep working even if they once signed up for the jobs, or trafficking them into situations where they are exploited.

“In the most extreme cases, you’re talking about someone kidnapped or tricked into working on a boat, physically beaten, chained,” said Krieder. “These situations would be called modern slavery by any measure.”

The Thai government says it is cleaning up the problem. On the bustling floor of North America’s largest seafood show in Boston earlier this month, an official for the Department of Fisheries laid out a plan to address labor abuse, including new laws that mandate wages, sick leave and shifts of no more than 14 hours. However, Kamonpan Awaiwanont stopped short when presented details about the men in Benjina.

“This is still happening now?” he asked. He paused. “We are trying to solve it. This is ongoing.”

The Thai government also promises a new national registry of illegal migrant workers, including more than 100,000 flooding the seafood industry. However, policing has now become even harder because decades of illegal fishing have depleted stocks close to home, pushing the boats farther and deeper into foreign waters.

The Indonesian government has called a temporary ban on most fishing, aiming to clear out foreign poachers who take billions of dollars of seafood from the country’s waters. As a result, more than 50 boats are now docked in Benjina, leaving up to 1,000 more slaves stranded onshore and waiting to see what will happen next.

Indonesian officials are trying to enforce laws that ban cargo ships from picking up fish from boats at sea. This practice forces men to stay on the water for months or sometimes years at a time, essentially creating floating prisons.

Susi Pudjiastuti, the new Fisheries Minister, said she has heard of different fishing companies putting men in cells. She added that she believes the trawlers on Benjina may really have Thai owners, despite the Indonesian paperwork, reflecting a common practice of faking or duplicating licenses.

She said she is deeply disturbed about the abuse on Benjina and other islands.

“I’m very sad. I lose my eating appetite. I lose my sleep,” she said. “They are building up an empire on slavery, on stealing, on fish(ing) out, on massive environmental destruction for a plate of seafood.”

_________

The story of slavery in the Thai seafood industry started decades ago with the same push-and-pull that shapes economic immigration worldwide — the hope of escaping grinding poverty to find a better life somewhere else.

In recent years, as the export business has expanded, it has become more difficult to convince young Burmese or Cambodian migrants and impoverished Thais — all of whom were found on Benjina — to accept the dangerous jobs. Agents have become more desperate and ruthless, recruiting children and the disabled, lying about wages and even drugging and kidnapping migrants, according to a former broker who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.

The broker said agents then sell the slaves, usually to Thai captains of fishing boats or the companies that own them. Each slave typically costs around $1,000, according to Patima Tungpuchayakul, manager of the Thai-based nonprofit Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation. The men are later told they have to work off the “debt” with wages that don’t come for months or years, or at all.

“The employers are probably more worried about the fish than the workers’ lives,” she said. “They get a lot of money from this type of business.”

Illegal Thai boats are falsely registered to fish in Indonesia through graft, sometimes with the help of government authorities. Praporn Ekouru, a Thai former member of Parliament, admitted to the AP that he had bribed Indonesian officials to go into their waters, and complained that the Indonesian government’s crackdown is hurting business.

“In the past, we sent Thai boats to fish in Indonesian waters by changing their flags,” said Praporn, who is also chairman of the Songkhla Fisheries Association in southern Thailand. “We had to pay bribes of millions of baht per year, or about 200,000 baht ($6,100) per month. … The officials are not receiving money anymore because this order came from the government.”

Illegal workers are given false documents, because Thai boats cannot hire undocumented crew. One of the slaves in Benjina, Maung Soe, said he was given a fake seafarer book belonging to a Thai national, accepted in Indonesia as an informal travel permit. He rushed back to his boat to dig up a crinkled copy.

“That’s not my name, not my signature,” he said angrily, pointing at the worn piece of paper. “The only thing on here that is real is my photograph.”

Soe said he had agreed to work on a fishing boat only if it stayed in Thai waters, because he had heard Indonesia was a place from which workers never came back.

“They tricked me,” he said. “They lied to me. … They created fake papers and put me on the boat, and now here I am in Indonesia.”

The slaves said the level of abuse on the fishing boats depends on individual captains and assistants. Aung Naing Win, who left a wife and two children behind in Myanmar two years ago, said some fishermen were so depressed that they simply threw themselves into the water. Win, 40, said his most painful task was working without proper clothing in the ship’s giant freezer, where temperatures drop to 39 degrees below zero.

“It was so cold, our hands were burning,” he said. “No one really cared if anyone died.”

________

The shipment the AP tracked from the port of Benjina carried fish from smaller trawlers; AP journalists talked to slaves on more than a dozen of them.

A crane hoisted the seafood onto a refrigerated cargo ship called the Silver Sea Line, with an immense hold as big as 50 semi-trucks. At this point, by United Nations and U.S. standards, every fish in that hold is considered associated with slavery.

The ship belongs to the Silver Sea Reefer Co., which is registered in Thailand and has at least nine refrigerated cargo boats. The company said it is not involved with the fishermen.

“We only carry the shipment and we are hired in general by clients,” said owner Panya Luangsomboon. “We’re separated from the fishing boats.”

The AP followed the Silver Sea Line by satellite over 15 days to Samut Sakhon. When it arrived, workers on the dock packed the seafood over four nights onto more than 150 trucks, which then delivered their loads around the city.

One truck bore the name and bird logo of Kingfisher Holdings Ltd., which supplies frozen and canned seafood around the world. Another truck went to Mahachai Marine Foods Co., a cold storage business that also supplies to Kingfisher and other exporters, according to Kawin Ngernanek, whose family runs it.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said Kawin, who also serves as spokesman for the Thai Overseas Fisheries Association. “Kingfisher buys several types of products.”

When asked about abusive labor practices, Kingfisher did not answer repeated requests for comment. Mahachai manager Narongdet Prasertsri responded, “I have no idea about it at all.”

Every month, Kingfisher and its subsidiary KF Foods Ltd. sends about 100 metric tons of seafood from Thailand to America, according to U.S. Customs Bills of Lading. These shipments have gone to Santa Monica Seafood, Stavis Seafoods — located on Boston’s historic Fish Pier — and other distributors.

Richard Stavis, whose grandfather started the dealership in 1929, shook his head when told about the slaves whose catch may end up at businesses he buys from. He said his company visits processors and fisheries, requires notarized certification of legal practices and uses third-party audits.

“The truth is, these are the kind of things that keep you up at night,” he said. “That’s the sort of thing I want to stop. … There are companies like ours that care and are working as hard as they can.”

Wholesalers like Stavis sell packages of fish, branded and unbranded, that can end up on supermarket shelves with a private label or house brand. Stavis’ customers also include Sysco, the largest food distributor in the U.S.; there is no clear way to know which particular fish was sold to them.

Sysco declined an interview, but the company’s code of conduct says it “will not knowingly work with any supplier that uses forced, bonded, indentured or slave labor.”

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 75 percent of the U.S. seafood industry, said the reports of abuse were “disturbing” and “disheartening.” ”But these type of things flourish in the shadows,” he said.

A similar pattern repeats itself with other shipments and other companies, as the supply chain splinters off in many directions in Samut Sakhon. It is in this Thai port that slave-caught seafood starts to lose its history.

The AP followed another truck to Niwat Co., which sells to Thai Union Manufacturing Co., according to part owner Prasert Luangsomboon. Weeks later, when confronted about forced labor in their supply chain, Niwat referred several requests for comment to Luangsomboon, who could not be reached for further comment.

Thai Union Manufacturing is a subsidiary of Thai Union Frozen Products PCL., the country’s largest seafood corporation, with $3.5 billion in annual sales. This parent company, known simply as Thai Union, owns Chicken of the Sea and is buying Bumble Bee, although the AP did not observe any tuna fisheries. In September, it became the country’s first business to be certified by Dow Jones for sustainable practices, after meeting environmental and social reviews.

Thai Union said it condemns human rights violations, but multiple stakeholders must be part of the solution. “We all have to admit that it is difficult to ensure the Thai seafood industry’s supply chain is 100 percent clean,” CEO Thiraphong Chansiri said in an emailed statement.

Thai Union ships thousands of cans of cat food to the U.S., including household brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. These end up on shelves of major grocery chains, such as Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, as well as pet stores; again, however, it’s impossible to tell if a particular can of cat food might have slave-caught fish.

Thai Union says its direct clients include Wal-Mart, which declined an interview but said in an email statement: “We care about the men and women in our supply chain, and we are concerned about the ethical recruitment of workers.”

Wal-Mart described its work with several non-profits to end forced labor in Thailand, including Project Issara, and referred the AP to Lisa Rende Taylor, its director. She noted that slave-caught seafood can slip into supply chains undetected at several points, such as when it is traded between boats or mingles with clean fish at processing plants. She also confirmed that seafood sold at the Talay Thai market — to where the AP followed several trucks — can enter international supply chains.

“Transactions throughout Thai seafood supply chains are often not well-documented, making it difficult to estimate exactly how much seafood available on supermarket shelves around the world is tainted by human trafficking and forced labor,” she said.

Poj Aramwattananont, president of an industry group that represents Thai Union, Kingfisher and others, said Thais are not “jungle people” and know that human trafficking is wrong. However, he acknowledged that Thai companies cannot always track down the origins of their fish.

“We don’t know where the fish come from when we buy from Indonesia,” said Poj of the Thai Frozen Foods Association. “We have no record. We don’t know if that fish is good or bad.”

______

The seafood the slaves on Benjina catch may travel around the world, but their own lives often end right here, in this island village.

A crude cemetery holds more than graves strangled by tall grasses and jungle vines, where small wooden markers are neatly labelled, some with the falsified names of slaves and boats. Only their friends remember where they were laid to rest.

In the past, former slave Hla Phyo said, supervisors on ships simply tossed bodies into the sea to be devoured by sharks. But after authorities and companies started demanding that every man be accounted for on the roster upon return, captains began stowing corpses alongside the fish in ship freezers until they arrived back in Benjina, the slaves said.

Lifting his knees as he stepped over the thick brush, Phyo searched for two grave markers overrun by weeds — friends he helped bury.

It’s been five years since he himself escaped the sea and struggled to survive on the island. Every night, his mind drifts back to his mother in Myanmar. He knows she must be getting old now, and he desperately wants to return to her. Standing among so many anonymous tombs stacked on top of each other, hopelessness overwhelms him.

“I’m starting to feel like I will be in Indonesia forever,” he said, wiping a tear away. “I remember thinking when I was digging, the only thing that awaits us here is death.”

TIME Burma

China Accuses Burmese Military of Fatal Bombing Across Border

Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) patrol near a military base in Kokang region
Reuters Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army patrol near a military base in Kokang region, in Burma, on March 10, 2015

Fighting between Burma's border-dwelling ethnic rebels and the central government is making Beijing increasingly tetchy

A sugarcane field in southwestern China became an unlikely battle zone on March 13 when five Chinese were killed by a bomb that fell out of the sky. Two days later, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang blamed the deaths on a Burmese military aircraft that had strayed over Chinese soil while skirmishing with the Kokang ethnic insurgency native to the borderlands between China and Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar. “We have the responsibility and the capacity to firmly safeguard the security and stability of the Chinese-Myanmar frontier,” said Li during his annual press conference, while also calling the strike in Yunnan province’s Lincang region “deeply distressing.”

In a statement released to TIME on Monday, the Burmese government insisted it was “maintaining [military] operations within the territory of Myanmar and respecting the territorial integrity and friendly relations between Myanmar and China.” And while expressing “deep sorrow for the death and injuries of Chinese nationals living in border areas,” and noting that a joint Sino-Burmese task force would be investigating the deaths further, the Burmese government also questioned “whether the Kokang insurgent group is involved in this incident to [create] a negative impact on the friendship between Myanmar and China and to create instability along the border area.”

Beijing, which is Burma’s largest investor, is surely not pleased by the latest tensions on its southwestern flank, which is the conduit for the many natural resources — jade, natural gas, timber, to name just three — that flow northward from Burma to a voracious China. Fighting, though, is nothing new along this volatile frontier. For generations, the Burmese military has battled various ethnic rebel groups that crowd the hills rising up toward the Chinese border. Despite promises of an imminent national cease-fire from Burma’s quasi-civilian government, which took over in 2011 from a long-ruling junta, clashes continue.

Recent hostilities involve the Kokang, the Kachin, the Shan and the Ta’ang, among other ethnic groups. The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and have long maintained political ties across the border. Some in the opium-tainted region once aligned themselves with the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist government that lost to the Communists during China’s civil war and fled to Taiwan. Other Kokang residents rallied around the communists and, like many other ethnic armies in northern Burma, received financial and tactical support from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

These days, Beijing no longer openly backs rebel groups in Burma. Still, the Sino-Burmese boundary, some 2,000 km long, remains porous. When fighting occurs in Burma, ethnic refugees — not to mention their military leaders — escape to China’s Yunnan province, which is home to many of the same minorities. People flows are even more significant in the opposite direction. Tens of thousands of Chinese have crossed into Burma to access the nation’s treasure trove of natural resources. In parts of northern Burma, the Chinese currency is accepted and signs in Mandarin hang from storefronts.

The preponderance of Chinese businessmen in northern Burma has bred some ill feeling among locals, even if the Chinese are among the few investors willing to devote money to such an unstable region. One of Burmese President Thein Sein’s earliest — and most popular — directives was to suspend construction of a controversial dam in northern Kachin state that was being built by a Chinese state-owned firm. (Critics contend that construction is, in fact, ongoing.) Earlier this year, dozens of Chinese loggers were detained by Burmese authorities for working illegally in Kachin.

Chinese have long been quietly — and, on occasion, illegally — working in Burma. Last year, in a virtual no-man’s land between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which controls territory on the border with China, a crew of Chinese mine workers operated heavy machinery, tearing up the earth in search of gold. The Chinese foreman of the mine, which is being run by a state-owned enterprise from the Yunnan county of Tengchong, said there was no need for passports or visas or any such conventions of international travel to work the land in Nam San Yang. “We’re only a little bit over the border,” he said, as his men gathered for lunch in a bamboo shack overlooking a patch of earth that was the scene of fierce fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA. Today, the area is nominally controlled by the rebels, while the Burmese front-line positions are staked on a nearby hill. “Myanmar people, Kachin people, who knows, who cares about all those politics,” said a mine worker surnamed Chen, who earns $480 a month. “I’m just here to make money to take home to my family.” Such ambitions know no national boundaries.

TIME Burma

Washington Condemns Burma’s Violent Student Crackdown

Police hit a student protester during violence in Letpadan
Soe Zeya Tun — Reuters Police assault a student protester in Letpadan, Burma on March 10, 2015.

Students and monks were peacefully calling for changes to the country's education bill

The U.S. State Department condemned Monday the brutal suppression of a protest by students and monks in the Burmese city of Letpadan.

The demonstrators were calling for educational reform in the former military state.

Video captured by local journalists shows police officers and what appear to be vigilantes using batons, fists and kicks to round up dozens of activists, only hours after student leaders and officials appeared to have reached a deal that would allow the protesters to travel to the country’s largest city, Rangoon.

“Freedom of assembly is an important component of any democratic society,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “We condemn the use of force taken against peaceful protesters.”

The Letpadan protest erupted just days after President Barack Obama paid homage to an earlier student movement in Burma that was crushed by the country’s ruling junta in 1988.

“Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule,” declared Obama during a soaring address commemorating the U.S. civil rights marches in Selma on Sunday.

Students from across Burma, which is formally known as Myanmar, have been participating in widespread protests for months, calling for changes to the National Education Bill. Critics of the legislation say the law severely hampers students’ abilities to form unions, forbids institutions from lecturing in local languages and overly centralizes power in government hands.

Monday’s crackdown followed a brutal episode last week, when pro-government thugs assaulted activists rallying near Rangoon’s city hall in solidarity with the students in Letpadan.

The use of vigilante groups was common during the days of military rule in Burma, and their continued existence underscores fears for the future of Burma’s democratic reforms.

“Burma’s reforms are looking increasingly shaky day by day,” stated Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in response to the crackdown on the Letpadan protests

The heavy-handed police action is also embarrassing for the country’s European partners. Last year, the European Union sponsored a multimillion-dollar initiative to train Burma’s police force in crowd-management techniques, supposedly to help protect the “democratic rights of citizens.”

“Whilst training can be given, the E.U. cannot make decisions on the ground,” said the E.U. Delegation to Myanmar. “We have discussed recent events with the Minister of Home Affairs and the Myanmar Police Force, emphasizing the need for negotiation, mutual understanding and compromise.”

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 30 – Feb. 6

From New York’s deadly train crash and night surfing in the Mediterranean sea to China’s traditional eagle hunters and a Fifty Shades of Grey inspired “Fifty Shades of Cake” exhibition in England, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Burma

The Last Days of the Yangon River Ferry

A ferry's story reflects Burma's tumultuous journey

On a warm Friday in mid-November, the old Yangon Ferry shuddered across the riverbank in Burma for the last time.

The next morning, commuters boarded three shining new boats donated by the government of Japan. The moan of the old engines was gone, but the orange sunlight, the weary faces, and the frenzied commerce remained the same.

Since 2011, Burma’s government has worked to shed its international pariah status. Memories are short, and foreign money is washing over one of the world’s last untapped markets.

From the ferry pier, you can see the changes coming to Burma. It’s not just new boats. Tourists follow investment dollars, and children sell faded postcards in broken snatches of at least three European languages. A rickshaw driver holds a long, semi-coherent conversation in English. “I didn’t go to school,” he says. “I learned from you.” His finger points my way, but he refers to my fanny-pack saddled forbearers. The ferry has been updated, too—it still costs ten cents for locals, but four bucks a ride for tourists.

In the video above, follow the rhythm and warmth of the historic ferry crossing in its final days.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Jan. 7, 2015

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Adam Dean‘s work on opium poppy farming in the valleys of eastern Burma. The country, which used to be the world’s largest supplier of heroin until the 1980s, is experiencing a resurgence in cultivation. Conflict, corruption and poverty have driven an increasing number of farmers back to growing the plants’ opium sap, the key ingredient of the drug. The United Nations is trying to persuade them to switch their focus to other crops such as coffee, but it faces a difficult task: opium is far more profitable and an easier way for smalltime farmers to pad their incomes. Dean’s photographs offer a poignant glimpse to the boom that gives so many of Burma’s poor a hard fought livelihood, one that they know isn’t good for society but one that they aren’t eager to give up.

Adam Dean: Poppies Bloom Again in Myanmar (The New York Times)

Timothy Fadek: Rebuilding Haiti (Bloomberg Businessweek) These pictures take a different look at Haiti by showing how five years after the massive earthquake, businesses are working to rebuild the country

Muhammed Muheisen: Young Survivors of the Peshawar School Attack (TIME LightBox) Portraits and words of the students who survived

Glenna Gordon (BBC Radio 4 World at One) Gordon talks about photographing the clothes of missing Nigerian school girls.

Jane Bown obituary (The Guardian) The English photographer known for her portraits, died in December 2014 aged 89

TIME elections

These Are the Elections to Watch Around the World in 2015

From Greece to Argentina, elections could transform the international political landscape

This past year was marked by monumental elections that ushered in new political regimes in countries like the India, and Tunisia, and solidified or extended others in places like Egypt, Brazil and Japan.

The year 2015 is shaping up to be a respite from the chaos of democracy, with the electorate of some of the world’s largest countries sitting on the sidelines. But a spate of political developments has infused global importance into elections around the world and prompted two previously unexpected votes in Greece and Israel that will have major repercussions for their respective regions.

Here’s a look at what to expect:

United States

Three of the five largest cities are electing their mayors this year. In Chicago, former Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel is running for reelection in February and holds a strong lead in polls. In Houston, the biennial vote in November will select a successor to Democratic Mayor Annise Parker, who has reached her term limit. It will be a similar situation in Philadelphia, where Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter can’t run for a third term.

Meanwhile, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are electing governors in November, including replacements for Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, both of whom have reached their term limits.

Greece

The Greek Parliament’s refusal to elect Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s choice for president earlier this week triggered snap general elections set for January 25. Opinion polls have placed the radical leftist opposition party Syriza in the lead, raising the prospect of an anti-bailout government that could move to default on its massive debt and prompt a new eurozone crisis.

Nigeria

A stumbling economy and a persistent Islamist insurgency in the north have drained some public support for President Goodluck Jonathan, in office since 2010, and the vote on Feb. 14 is expected to be close. Jonathan will go up against Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler campaigning on a platform of security and anti-corruption. But the biggest determinant of who becomes the leader of Africa’s biggest economy may fall along ethnic and regional lines: Buhari is a Muslim northerner, while Jonathan is a Christian from the south.

Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded his already tenuous centrist coalition in early December and called for early general elections set for March 17, expecting to win a new mandate for himself and a more right-leaning government. But polls show that a new left-leaning coalition could beat Netanyahu’s Likud party, though the incumbent could stay in power if he successfully forms a coalition with rightist parties.

Sudan

The April 13 election is all but likely to ensure that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, will extend his 25-year rule, even as violence continues between Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur and elsewhere.

Britain

The United Kingdom is heading for what may be the closest election in a generation—and the first since a divisive vote in Scotland to remain part of the 307-year-old Union—as the Labour party seeks to unseat Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party in elections slated for early May. The rest of the European Union will be closely watching this vote, as Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017, while Ed Milibrand, head of Labour, has rejected the idea.

Argentina

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has drawn some public support for her obstinate stance against U.S. investors and U.S. courts who are demanding Argentina repay $1.3 billion in debt plus interest. But the skirmish has scared off investors and helped put longterm economic growth largely on hold until the dispute is resolved or, as is likely, a more market friendly president takes office following elections in October. As for Fernandez, her tenure is up after reaching her two-term limit.

Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has seen an uptick in support in recent days, putting it ahead of the Liberal party. But his party’s support took a hit this year and he’s far from guaranteed a win in elections in 2015, currently slated for Oct. 19. His biggest rival will likely be Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party and son of long-serving Premier Pierre Trudeau.

Burkina Faso

In the wake of longtime President Blaise Compaoré’s ouster amid mass protests, the interim leadership agreed to hold new elections in November. If that plan holds, the Burkinabé people will select a government not headed by Compaoré for the first time since he seized power in 1983.

Spain

The nascent anti-establishment party Podemos has skyrocketed in popularity and is now competitive with the two stalwarts in a country still burdened by an economic crisis (unemployment stands at around 24 percent). Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-leaning Popular Party, is already under pressure from an empowered Catalan independence movement, and the populist movement does not augur well for him in next years elections, which must take place on or before Dec. 20. But he’s hoping that economic reforms and early indications of a recovery will boost his standing.

Myanmar

The vote in late 2015 could mark a significant step in Myanmar’s heralded-but-stumbling process of political reform, but that’s not certain. Though the elections will be the first since a semi-civilian government assumed power after half-a-century of military rule, the military is still highly influential and key constitutional reforms called for by the opposition are unlikely to pass ahead of the vote. Among them is a measure to repeal a law that prevents opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running. For now, Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and a retired general, is the front-runner.

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