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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

Living with loss from the Bangladesh factory disaster

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 01:53 AM PDT

Savar (Bangladesh) (AFP) - Minu Akhter has not slept properly for a year. Every time there's a noise, she wakes up fearing the roof will cave in. She can't go to the upper floors of a building in case the staircase gives way.

Since the collapse of Rana Plaza garment factory complex just outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, the 23-year-old has struggled to control her emotions. Every time she thinks of her boyfriend, tears roll down her cheeks.

When the nine-storey building failed almost 12 months ago, Akhter was cutting clothing to make trousers at the doomed Phantom Apparels factory which had an order from an Italian retailer, she remembers.

On that morning, April 24, 2013, her boyfriend of five years Shahin was on the other side of the aisle on the fourth floor of the complex. They smiled as they started the day's gruelling 11-hour shift.

"Suddenly there was a loud noise and smoke shrouded our floor. All my colleagues were running for safety. In that moment I saw Shahin waiting for me so that we would run for safety together," she said.

Almost two weeks later, as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a fractured skull and a damaged ear, Akhter heard that Shahin's body had been pulled from the twisted wreckage.

He was one of the 1,138 people killed. Another 2,000 people were injured.

"For days I could not believe he had died. We had so many plans. We had even gone to a marriage register's office to get married, only to decide we should wait for our families' consent," she said.

She was lucky to survive. Rescuers dragged her out of the rubble by tying a rope to her legs. She spent around 50 hours lying among bodies under the pan-caked floors of the building.

- Nightmare not over -

As Bangladesh and the world marks one year since the country's worst industrial disaster, some things have changed for the better in the industry, but the psychological wounds inflicted on survivors remain fresh.

In a community room metres from the flattened building site where Rana Plaza once stood, Akhter attends a counselling group run by therapists.

She is one among 20 victims being treated for grief and insecurity by the therapists hired by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and British charity ActionAid.

"It's the fourth batch of Rana Plaza victims we're counselling. And almost every one we've talked to suffers from varying degree of trauma," said lead therapist Obaidul Islam Munna.

"Most can't sleep in the night. They can't stand small noise. One girl even passed out the moment we used a loudspeaker. Many suffer from memory loss and smell bodies or see dead workers lying next to them.

"Some simply can't enter a multi-storied building," Munna explained.

- Pledges to improve -

Outside in the garment factories, some of the cheapest and most productive in the world, the tragedy of Rana Plaza has led to a sustained focus on improving working conditions that campaigners had decried for years.

The government has hiked minimum wages for the four million mostly women workers in the sector by 77 percent to $68 dollars a month and eased laws enabling the formation of trade unions.

It has upgraded its moribund factory inspection agency and announced the hiring of at least 200 new inspectors to try to prevent another major collapse or deadly fires which regularly kill workers.

Trade union leader Baharine Sultan said the improvements were due to intense international pressure from labour groups, the global media and Western retailers that have long benefitted from Bangladesh's cheap labour.

"But we have still a long way to go. Our workers are still paid some of the lowest wages on earth. They toil 10-12 hours a day.... Union activists still face intimidation and sometimes physical assault," he said.

Western retailers, fearing more bad publicity, have launched a massive inspection drive to weed out dangerous factories. More than a dozen plants have been shut and scores of others forced to upgrade.

They have also contributed $15 million to a $40-million Donor Trust Fund backed by the ILO to compensate the injured and the dependents of the deceased.

The first batch of 580 workers received their first cheques last month and the remaining 3,100 are set to be paid from the first anniversary of the disaster.

"The injured will be paid between $700 and $25,000 depending on the gravity of their injury," said Roy Ramesh, local head of global labour group IndustriALL. "All of them will be fully paid by end of this year."

The government has also paid compensation to more than 900 families of the dead workers and scores of amputated labourers.

- Unaccounted cost -

But cases abound of victims excluded from the compensation package, others whose injuries mean they will never work again, and still more whose suffering cannot be computed in lost earnings.

Yunus Ali Sardar, 44, a poor farmer from the country's west, was near Rana Plaza at the time of the accident and ran in to pull out trapped workers.

He saved the lives of three but before he could reach the fourth, a huge beam fell on him, leaving him paralysed in all four limbs and facing a life-time in bed as a tetra-plegic.

Because he was not a worker at the factory he is not eligible for compensation.

"Most of my savings are gone and I had to pull out my eldest daughter from school," he said from his bed at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) hospital.

For her part, Akhter is desperately trying to forget the disaster while remembering her deceased partner.

"I did not marry Shahin because I wanted to contribute to my poor family. I am grateful to Allah that I've survived. Now I will stand on my own," she said. - AFP               

Veteran Myanmar pro-democracy campaigner Win Tin dies

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 01:23 AM PDT

Yangon (AFP) - Win Tin, one of the founders of Myanmar's pro-democracy opposition and the nation's longest-serving political prisoner, died Monday at the age of 84 after battling for decades to bring freedom to a nation that suffered under military rule.

The veteran campaigner, whose near two decades in jail failed to dull his commitment to the democratic cause, had suffered worsening ill health in recent weeks.

He died in hospital in Yangon early Monday, National League for Democracy party spokesman Nyan Win told AFP. A funeral service will be held on Wednesday.

A towering figure within the democracy movement, Win Tin formed the NLD with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 and was imprisoned the following year in the wake of a student-led pro-democracy uprising.

He reiterated his support for party leader Suu Kyi in the days before he died, according to his long-time assistant Yar Zar.

"We are so sad to have lost him -- it is like the world has been lost," he told AFP.

"But we have many things to do. We will continue as he asked and will follow his way to democracy," he added.

Myanmar began its emergence from nearly half a century of military rule in 2011, under a quasi-civilian government that has won international plaudits for reforms including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi, who was freed from years of house arrest in 2010, has also been welcomed into parliament at the helm of her party and has indicated her wish to become president after 2015 elections.

But the army retains a tight grip on the fledgling parliament, casting doubt over Suu Kyi's chances for the top job, and campaigners stress there is still a long way to go before the country can enjoy full democracy.

- Political prisoner -

Win Tin was freed by the former military junta from Yangon's notorious Insein prison as part of an amnesty in September 2008.

During his imprisonment he was interrogated for up to five days at a time, deprived of sleep, hooded and beaten, and said torture at the hands of the authorities was routine.

From 1996 he was also kept in solitary confinement, allowed only fleeting 15 minute visits from family every two weeks.

On the day of his release he walked out of jail still wearing his blue prison uniform because he did not believe he would really be freed.

Last year he told AFP that he continued to wear a blue shirt in solidarity with dissidents still in jail and to show the world that his country was still not truly free.

"Although I was released five years ago, I feel like I'm still in prison," he said.

Myanmar's junta once kept about 2,000 political opponents, dissidents and journalists in jail.

The country has held a series of high profile political prisoner releases under President Thein Sein, a former general-turned-reformer whose administration has claimed it has now freed all dissidents.

But rights groups say authorities have continued to lock up activists, mainly for protesting without permission.

Win Tin began his career as a journalist working as a night editor at the Agence France-Presse bureau in Yangon in the early 1950s soon after Myanmar won its independence from British colonial rule.

After three years with AFP he moved to the Netherlands, where he spent three years.

In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a coup and plunged the country into tyranny.

"The reason I became a politician is because of military governments. They put pressure on us. They seized the newspapers and publishing houses. As I have many contacts in politics, I reached into politics," he told AFP last year.

Indonesia speaks out on boatpeople amid Australia tension

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 01:15 AM PDT

Jakarta (AFP) - Jakarta called on governments Monday to stop "shifting responsibility" for asylum-seekers, in veiled criticism of Australia's hardline policy of towing boatloads of would-be refugees back to Indonesia.

The military-led operation has caused anger in Indonesia, which has been forced to take back seven boatloads of asylum-seekers turned around by the Australian navy since December.

At the opening of an international meeting on asylum-seekers in Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said countries should stand by commitments to cooperate on the issue made at a conference last year.

Those commitments "confirmed our shared responsibility -- shared responsibility, not (the) shifting of responsibility. Shared responsibility that requires coordination and cooperation," Natalegawa said at Monday's meeting.

"For Indonesia the message is crystal-clear -- the cross-border and complex nature of irregular movement of persons defies... national solution."

Asylum-seekers have for years used Indonesia as a transit point to cross to Australia, usually on rickety fishing boats. More than 1,000 asylum-seekers have died at sea in recent years attempting the perilous journey.

Tony Abbott came to power last year at the head of a conservative government in Australia on the back of a pledge to stem the flow of asylum-seekers, and has implemented the tough border protection policies.

His government says they are working, claiming that no asylum-seekers arriving by boat have set foot on Australian soil since December.

The UN refugee agency said last week the number of asylum-seekers registering in Indonesia had dropped dramatically since December, from around 100 a day to 100 a week.

The Abbott administration retained the policy of the former government of sending all asylum-seekers arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea or Nauru -- for permanent resettlement there if judged to be refugees.

Natalegawa acknowledged Monday the policies may have helped reduce the loss of life at sea between the two countries, but reiterated his opposition to them.

"We need to take the politics out of this whole endeavour," he said, adding there must be alternative ways of stopping the flow of asylum-seekers.

Australia was represented at the meeting by officials from its Jakarta embassy, but they made no comment at the opening.

The two-day International Workshop on the Protection of the Irregular Movement of Persons at Sea, attended by senior officials from 14 countries, is co-chaired by Indonesia and the United Nations refugee agency. 


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