Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Burmese-English dictionary

I have been busy working with the visual input system for our dictionaries. Check out the beta version for Burmese at

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Those who dare

The lights had gone down, the film was about to begin, and the young Thai couple were cosily ensconced in the big Bangkok cinema when the popcorn started flying. Most of it landed on the woman, hurled by a man to her right. Soon he was slapping her with a rolled-up film flyer, and screaming at her and her boyfriend to get out of the cinema.

As the rest of the audience joined in, jeering, throwing water bottles and urging on the assailant, the two made their retreat. The incident reached its climax this week when the boyfriend, Chotisak Onsoong, was charged with an offence that could land him in jail for 15 years. His alleged crime was simple: during the playing of the royal anthem which precedes all films in Thai cinemas, he had remained in his seat.

Mr Chotisak, a 27-year old businessman and political activist, is the latest person to be prosecuted under Thailands stringent lèse majesté laws, which make it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the King, Queen or heir to the throne.

Unquestionably, many Thais revere 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose image is seen in almost every office, many homes and on giant billboards hung every few hundred yards above Thailands roads. But others see the law as a tool of oppression and a means of intimidating those who peacefully question the status quo.

"Not standing up is not an offence against anyone --- that's what I think," Mr Chotisak said in yesterdays Bangkok Post, after being charged on Tuesday. "The public have the right to make a choice whether to rise or not . . . I would like to stress that what I did was not intended to insult or express vengeance to the King. I was simply enjoying my right to freedom of expression." In Thailand academics struggle for the right even to discuss the monarchy, let alone criticise it. And in recent years there has been an increase in accusations of lèse majesté.

Mr Chotisak is that rare thing in Thailand --- an overt Republican. His girlfriend is a Muslim, and objects to the idolisation of a human. But their ordeal was mild, compared with those of some dissenters.

I have to respect Chotisak, who is brave enough to challenge and question status quo. He also said the following:

"In a country where the majority of the people eat rice and I
choose to eat noodles, it is my right to choose. It's legal."

Parry, R.L. (2008, April 24). Filmgoer faces jail in Thailand for sitting during the national anthem. Times Online. Retrieved April 24, 2008 from

Thai activist challenges royalist ritual at nation's cinemas (2008, April 25). The International Herald Tribune. Retrieved April 25, 2008 from

Thursday, April 24, 2008

People as tourist magnets By Christiane Oelrich

The residents of the village of long-necked women in northern Thailand say they feel like prisoners in a human zoo. The government says that is absurd.

Kayan Tayar, Mae Hong Son (dpa) - When Mu La talks, her voice sounds muffled because of the 27 heavy brass rings that the 44-year-old wears around her neck.

But the message from the refugee from Burma - who lives in northern Mae Hong Son province in a mock village purpose-built for tourists - is crystal-clear: "We want to leave here, never mind where to, only away from here. We feel like prisoners."

Visitors call the village a "human zoo," but Thailand's government rejects the term as "absurd."

Mu La is a member of an ethnic group whose women wear brass rings around their necks as status symbols. For them, the longer the neck, the more beautiful the woman.

Their rings can weigh 10 kilogrammes or more, and over the years, the weight pushes down the collar bones and shoulders, making necks appear longer and giving the women their nicknames of "long-necked" or "giraffe" women.

They are part of an ethnic group called the Padung in Thailand, but they reject that term as denigrating and call themselves Kayan and their village Kayan Tayar.

An Italian tourist couple has paid an entrance fee of 250 baht ($8) each to visit Kayan Tayar, which lies at the end of an unpaved road north-west of the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son.

The young woman shoots photos while repeatedly muttering, "Incredible," and getting as close to her subjects as her lens permits.

The village's oldest female resident, Ma Le, 80, was undisturbed. She is used to such intrusions.

"Sometimes we receive three or four, sometimes up to 20 tour groups a day," says Mu La, sitting on her wooden hut's veranda and weaving a scarf.

The village's huts are built on stilts because the dirt track in front of them is regularly flooded in the wet season. There is no electricity.

"The tourists think we are primitive people," 23-year-old Zember says. "The guides say they don't want to see good roads or clean villages or anything modern, so we have to live like this to please the tourists."

When business is good and enough tour groups arrive, each of the 60 women wearing neck rings receives 1,500 baht a month from the village's Thai operators. The children and men get nothing at all, so the money has to support all 260 villagers.

During the off season, they get nothing, the villagers say. They rely heavily on donations from charities to survive.

Like most of her fellow villagers, Mu La fled her home country in the late 1980s to escape its brutal military regime.

"The soldiers came all the time," she says.

They forced the men to become porters on the front lines of the government's war against rebel armies and drove the women ahead of their ranks in case land mines were laid in their path.

She and many like her fled. Initially, she was sent to one of the many refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border.

But when Thai business people recognized the money-earning potential of the exotic-looking women, they suggested they move to three artificial villages near Mae Hong Son.

Some of the families aren't bothered that they have become "tourism magnets."

The village of Huay Sua Thao is populated mainly by economic migrants who were enticed to settle there to create a tourist attraction. Most of the villagers agree that their current lives are better than in Burma.

There also are people in the village of Huay Pu Keng who don't complain about their lot.

"We hope that more and more tourists will come," 52-year-old Mu Nan says.

She weaves shawls and sells souvenirs in front of her hut. She has worn her neck rings since she was a small child and says she has gotten used to tourists gawking.

She intends to sit it out until "better times arrive" and then return to Burma once peace returns, but Mu La in Kayan Tayar has given up hope after almost 20 years as a refugee.

In 2005, she applied with 20 other people from the three tourist villages for resettlement to New Zealand. The country accepted them and the United Nations agreed to cover the air fare, but her plan to start a new life was shattered when the Thai authorities refused to issue an exit visa.

"Those who don't live in the temporary shelters are not considered as refugees," says Tharit Charungvat, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry in Bangkok. To grant the exit visas "would be unfair to those in the camps who are waiting in line for resettlement," he says.

"Apart from that, they voluntarily went to live outside of their camps," he adds. "They are free and earn money."

But the term "free" leaves a bitter taste in the villagers' mouths.

If they are caught outside their villages, they are arrested, they say, because they are not permitted to seek jobs elsewhere.

Kayan Tayar's women are particularly upset. They think the Thai authorities might deny them exit visas so their country doesn't lose a lucrative tourist attraction.

Disillusioned and angry, some of them decided to protest by removing their neck rings. They say they hope this makes it easier to get exit visas.

One of them, Zember, recalls: "After I had learned English, I was shocked when I finally understood the tourists' comments. They said they were disgusted that we displayed ourselves for a little money like animals in a zoo."

That was never the case, she insists. She remembers that she once was proud of her neck rings and that she even wanted to wear more.

"I wanted to be a proud Kayan woman," she says.

Today, Zember looks like any other young woman. "I just want to lead a normal life," she says defiantly.

Only her sloping shoulders belie her past years of wearing the heavy rings.

Mu La, a mother of eight, also contemplates taking off her 27 rings, which give her the longest neck in the village.

"I am proud of our tradition," she says but concedes that she is willing to sacrifice for a ticket to freedom.

"If that is the only way for me to leave here, I will take them all off," she asserts.

Ma Lo, another young woman, is equally frustrated and fed up with living in the village. She took her rings off, too.

There is a picture postcard in circulation that shows her breastfeeding her baby. Nobody asked her permission to publish the photo.

"I was so ashamed when I saw the postcard for the first time, but I couldn't do anything against it," she says. "I don't want to be treated like an exhibit anymore. I want some respect."

Oelrich, C. (2008, April 28). People as tourist magnets. Bangkok Post.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Illegal Burmese Labor Fuels Thailand Economy by William Boot

The deaths of more than 50 Burmese migrants last week in a sealed container truck transporting them to illicit jobs in southern Thailand starkly illustrates the growing reliance Thailand places on unofficial labor to help run its economy.

The Thai authorities acknowledge that there may be 1 million Burmese migrant workers living in Thailand, yet Thailands Migrant Assistance Program recently recorded that only 367,834 were registered with work permits in 2007.

Various NGOs campaigning for the rights of abused minorities and refugees say the number of illegal Burmese in Thailand is closer to 1.5 million. Many of them are children.

The Migrant Worker Group, a coalition of NGOs pressing for human rights, documents many instances of abuse by employers.

The MWG estimates that illegal Burmese laborers, especially in the booming construction industry, are paid up to 50 percent less than Thai unskilled labor and have no rights.

Migrant workers are very badly regarded and very badly treated by Thai society, wrote academic and former Thai Senator Jon Ungphakorn in the Bangkok Post. Yet it is hard to imagine how our economy would manage without them.

Ungphakorn says that since illegal laborers are not taking jobs away from Thais they should all be given legal status and employment rights.

Boot, W. (2008, April 19). Weekly Business Roundup. The Irrawaddy. Retrieved April 23, 2008 from

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A boom at the border By William Sparrow

I went to a "mom and pop" store for cigarettes. A very young woman was handling the transaction; thin, long hair, long legs, pretty face with no makeup. I wondered if she was 18.

As she turned and descended into the dark shop, an elderly women, presumably a relative, emerged from the shadows. She lunged from her seat, sensing opportunity. "You want she?" the woman asked, meaning "her" - the young woman.

I was shocked and caught off-guard and couldn't respond. In the silence, the
elder woman continued "You want daughter? You take," she said, pointing. "Have
hotel. Fifteen dollar."

"No," I said firmly. With that, the old woman scowled and slunk back to her seat.

The shop girl never met my eyes as she handed over the cigarettes. Still, I perceived a small smile.

A sex slave working as a shop girl; a young woman being sold by her own mother. It was a sad situation that I won't soon forget. Sadly, scenes like this will likely continue until the Myanmar government can improve the lives of its 55 million people. I was overcome by this realization as I settled the bill in that tiny shop on the Myanmar-Thai border.

As I turned to leave, I heard the shop girl whisper "thank you".

Read more at Asia Times

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Politicizing Olympics

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

George Orwell said those words in his 1946 essay "Why I write."

Pro-Chinese governments, including Burma, and the Chinese government have been saying that olympics should not be politicized.

[Chinese] Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang says the Beijing Olympics is a grand event both for China and for the whole world, and that the Games should not be politicized.

The statement by Qin Gang is in itself a political one, describing a "grand event"
showcasing the "rich and powerful" China. Olympics have long been used by various governments to promote their ideology. Hitler used the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany as a tool to promote Nazi ideology by allowing only members of the "Aryan race" to compete for Germany.

Looking as far back as ancient Olympics events, winning athletes were heroes who put their home towns on the map. Winning medals at the Olympics signify the wealth and power of a town. A young Athenian nobleman used the number of his entries in chariot-race in the Olympics to defend his political reputation.
[From Tufts]

Therefore, as far as I am concerned, olympics is a sporting as well as political
event. As much as the Chinese government has the right to make the "grand" event successful, activists around the world should also have the right to express their anger towards the Chinese government and its policy.