Asia in Review Archive (2019)


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5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to

facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]



5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]


5 November 2019

Myanmar: 1-year jail sentence for making fun of Myanmar’s military

(nj) Five members of a group of satirical actors have been sentenced to one year jail by a Myanmar court for making fun of the country’s military during a traditional satirical dance performance. The actors posted a Facebook live-stream of the performance to reach the masses and approached the wide-spread discontent concerning the dominant involvement of the military in economy. A total of seven people were arrested in April this year during Myanmar ́s New Year Festival and have been held in Yangon ́s prison since then after being denied bail. [The Washington Post]

“Thangyat“ – the performance- is a Burmese traditional dance and music performance, often used to voice opinions on social and political issues. The tradition had been banned for over twenty years by the military. [Aljazeera]


29 October 2019

Myanmar: Intensified fights in Rakhine state

(ls/nj) In intense fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the ethnic armed group Arakan Army took more than 50 people as prisoners, most belonging to the security forces. 14 people have been rescued in the meantime. Arakan Army rebels reported many dead in military attacks on boats carrying soldiers. The rebels draw on deep-seated historical resentment felt by some in Rakhine toward the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the central government. The Rohingya situation is not directly linked to the Arakan Army’s fight to win greater autonomy. [Reuters]


29 October 2019

Bangladesh: doubt on Rohingya relocation 

(jk) The relocation of thousands of Rohingya refugees that was apparently agreed upon [Asia in Review, No. 43, October/2019, 4has been heavily doubted by human rights NGO Fortify Rights who, based on on-the-ground research, claim that they were hard-pressed to identify a single refugee who had even been consulted – let alone agreed to – relocating to the island. [Straits Times]


22 October 2019

How the PRC pushes its agenda in Myanmar’s media

(jk) [Myanmar now] provides an interesting deep dive into some of the People’s Republic of China’s strategies to push for media outlets in Myanmar to peddle pro-Beijing narratives.

22 October 2019

Bangladesh: Some Rohingyas to be relocated to island as situation in refugee camps further deteriorates 

(ls/nj) About 6,000 to 7,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh refugee camps have apparently agreed to being relocated to Bhashan Charan, an island in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh has been planning since last year to relocate Rohingya to the flood-prone site, which is an hour by boat from the mainland. In the past half a century, powerful cyclones have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Meghna river estuary where the island is located. [Straits Times]

Latest attempts to persuade Rohingya refugees to return to their home country by Bangladesh authorities failed. Authorities, therefore, have imposed more restrictions on Rohingya, such as confiscating mobile phones and banning Rohingya children from local schools, to speed up the return process. [Al Jazeera]

Following the incident of the killing of a ruling-party politician for which Rohingya refugees are held responsible for, security status in the camps in Cox´s Bazar remains critical. On Monday a young Rohingya was murdered by another fellow. Investigations revealed that an earlier dispute between the victim and the offender could have led to the killing. [The Daily Star]

15 October 2019

Bangladesh forces kill more than a dozen Rohingya refugees over a few weeks 

(jk) The recent murder of a ruling party politician in Bangladesh led to violent actions against some Rohingya refugees inside of the refugee camps who were alleged to have been involved in the murder. In addition to this particular incident, refugees are often accused of being involved in other illegal activities such as drug smuggling or robberies. Human Rights groups say that over the past few weeks more than a dozen Rohingya were killed by Bangladeshi security forces, with local law enforcement not intervening to protect the refugees. [Al Jazeera]

1 October 2019

Mahatir calls for global support in Rohingya refugee crisis

(ls) At the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized the U.N. for its “deafening silence” on the Rohingya crisis. He pointed to Myanmar’s failure to punish the perpetrators of the genocidal acts and said that it was unrealistic to expect Rohingya people to return to Myanmar without the guarantee of a safe environment for repatriation and without offering them full citizenship. “It is clear that the Myanmar government is unwilling to take any action to resolve the crisis”, Mahatir said.

He called on the United Nations member states to support Bangladesh which is hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees. Though ASEAN countries pursue a policy of non-interference with internal affairs, Mahatir has repeatedly referred to Myanmar’s military campaign against the Rohingya as a genocide and called for criminal prosecution. [MalayMail]

Myanmar, for its part, insisted that it wants Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh repatriated to their former homes so they can live in a “more conducive environment” than the one they left, according to Myanmar’s minister for the office of the state counsellor in his nation’s address at the United Nations General Assembly. [Straits Times]

24 September 2019

Myanmar: Origins of the longest civil war in the world

(jk) This is the first of a three part series on the longest civil war in the world. Part one explores the history of Myanmar’s conflicts going back hundreds of years when ancient kingdom were struggling for dominance, eventually resulting in domination by the Burmans. An audio version of the article is available. [Global Ground Media]

24 September 2019

Myanmar: NLD sues two Facebook users for making fun of Mandalay Chief Minister 

(jk) In line with the trend of increasing online defamation charges under the 2013 Telecommunications Law since the New League for Democracy (NLD) took over the government in 2016, this case yet again exemplifies the growing intolerance for political criticism in Myanmar. Purposefully vaguely worded article 66(d) of the law punishes online defamation with a fine and up to three years in prison. The NLD has last week made a new claim under the article against two Facebook users who shared memes on a page making fun of the Mandalay Chief Minister. [Myanmar Times]

24 September 2019

Myanmar’s ASSK could face prosecution over Myanmar military’s actions

(jk) UN investigators said last week that Myanmar’s civil leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could face prosecution for ongoing crimes against humanity because of the military’s attacks on Rohingya Muslims in the country.

The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar [United Nations Human Rights Council] released a report last week finding that the over half a million remaining Rohingya in Myanmar today are facing systematic prosecution and that “Myanmar is failing in its obligation to prevent genocide, to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide”. The conditions of grave human rights violations and persecution are prevailing in Myanmar today.

For this, the investigators state,  Aung San Suu Kyi has extensive responsibility. While had “no control over the actions of the Tatmadaw”, she as head of a party “that controlled 60 percent of the seats in Myanmar’s Parliament […] led a government that had the power to change every law except the Constitution.” [New York Times]

10 September 2019

Myanmar and South Korea sign MOUs, including for infrastructure projects 

(jk) Myanmar and South Korea signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding and at least one agreement on financial, trade and investment cooperation and infrastructure projects during a three-day visit by the South Korean President last week who was in the country advancing South Korea’s New Southern Policy. [The Irrawady]

A framework agreement has been signed under which South Korea will provide US$1 billion to Myanmar which has said will focus the investment on infrastructure projects. [Myanmar Times]

However, a series of coordinated attacks as reported previously [AiR 34, August/2019, 3] in Mandalay and Shan State has not only brought about disruption in trade between Myanmar and China in particular, but also pointed to the difficulties with foreign investment in a country where a peace deal between the government and several rebel groups seems as far out of reach as ever. 

3 September 2019

Myanmar navy takes part in US-ASEAN exercises despite existing US sanctions

(ls) Myanmar’s navy takes part in the five-day maritime exercise led by the United States with seven ASEAN navies this week. Joint naval drills between the US and Myanmar are controversial as the US placed travel bans earlier this year on top Myanmar military figures for what a UN fact-finding mission called the military’s “crimes against humanity” carried out against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine with “genocidal intent” in 2017. [The Irrawaddy]

However, there are growing calls to further isolate the military, expand sanctions and prosecute senior leadership for genocide against the stateless minority. “The U.S. should be working with members of the international community to push for accountability in Myanmar, not joining its military in exercises,” a statement from Fortify Rights said. [Defense Post]

Over the weekend, the website of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing said a military court that visited the state of Rakhine found soldiers had shown “weakness in following instructions in some incidents” at a village said to have been a Rohingya massacre site. Though the investigation’s findings were kept secret, Myanmar’s army said it will court-martial respective soldiers. [Reuters]

3 September 2019

Myanmar: Filmmaker sentenced to prison over critical remarks

(ls) A Myanmar court has sentenced the prominent filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi to one year in prison with hard labor for Facebook posts that criticized the military. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners human rights group, 161 people are in jail or on trial in Myanmar on what the group says are politically motivated charges. [Reuters]

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2 July 2019

Myanmar internet shutdown: Rising voices of criticism

(ls) As reported last week, Myanmar has shut down internet services in parts of Rakhine and Chin state. The US State Department has now joined the criticism, stating that a resumption of service would help facilitate transparency in and accountability for what the government claims are law enforcement actions. Myanmar has deployed thousands of troops to the western region. [Al Jazeera]

U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said that Myanmar’s army may be committing gross human rights violations under cover of the mobile phone blackout. She said that she had been informed that the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army) was conducting a ‘clearance operation’. [Reuters] According to a directive under article 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, the suspension of a telecommunications service is permitted “when an emergency situation arises.”

Human Rights Watch issued a statement according to which the disruption to internet services has exacerbated an information blackout and increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and human rights groups to assist vulnerable populations in the face of increased fighting in the area. [Human Rights Watch]

11 June 2019

The Significance of Everyday Access to Justice in Myanmar’s Transition to Democracy

(jk) In Myanmar, “ordinary people distrust and fear the official system and perceive courts as expensive, slow, distant, intrusive, and therefore the least preferred option in efforts to seek justice”. Consequently, many “legal issues” are resolved by alternative providers of justice, such as elders, religious leaders or administrative officials. These pathways however, are informal and often not sufficiently recognized by outside observers. Their murkiness complicates any possible justice reform. This piece argues that alternative justice systems can contribute to stability when the official system has limited reach and is mistrusted. First though, the systems need to be properly understood. [ISEAS]

4 June 2019

Myanmar: Amnesty issues new report on Myanmar military’s continued killing of Rohingya civilians, which the military denies

(jyk) According to a recent Amnesty International’s report, Myanmar’s military has been confirmed to have unlawfully tortured and executed at least six Rohingya rebels detained in a village located at the northern Rakhine state where thousands of Myanmar’s armed forces have been deployed to subdue the Rohingya rebels. Although the conflict area is highly inaccessible, scores of interviews with various ethnic groups, photographs, videos and satellite imageries have revealed Myanmar forces’ perpetration of war crimes including “extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearances” [Dhaka Tribune]. In response to the report, the spokesperson of Myanmar’s military denied the accusation as baseless, and said the military has “(conducted) the operation by following the rules of engagement and regulations” with transparent procedures [Myanmar Times].

4 June 2019

Myanmar seeks to pass a constitutional amendment bill that will decentralize presidential power

(jyk) The Myanmar military and opposition party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has submitted a constitutional amendment bill that will give the regional and state legislatures the power to appoint their own state and regional chief ministers, instead of the president. The MP of the USDP responsible for the initiative said the purpose of the amendment is “to strengthen the Union system and the (state or regional) chief ministers”. The bill, in order to pass, requires at least 75 percent of assembly’s MPs to vote in favor, and it is about to be scrutinized by a joint committee and discussed in the assembly. [Myanmar Times]

4 June 2019

Myanmar: Arrest warrant issued for Myanmar hard-line monk Wirathu

(jyk) The western district court in Yangon has issued an arrest warrant for the nationalist Buddhist monk, Wirathu, under the charge of sedition according to the Myanmar police. In recent rallies, Wirathu has publicly accused the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi of corruption and has long spoken negatively of the Rohingya refugees. The police bureau in Mandalay, where Wirathu is based, has not yet received the warrant according to its spokesperson. But if it does and puts Wirathu on trial, he faces possible prison sentence of up to three years. [Dhaka Tribune]

28 May 2019

Myanmar: Soldiers jailed for Rohingya killings released after less than a year

(ls) Already last November, Myanmar has granted early releases to seven soldiers jailed for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys during a 2017 military crackdown in the western state of Rakhine, according to a Reuters report. They thus served less than one year of their 10-year prison terms for the killings. In comparison, the two Reuters reporters who uncovered the killings spent more than 16 months behind bars on charges of obtaining state secrets. [Reuters]

19 March 2019

Myanmar: Yangon Stock Exchange set to expand

(ls) The Yangon Stock Exchange stock exchange is expected to liberalize stock trading within this year. Currently, it is Asia’s tiniest bourse. Home to only five companies, it updates prices just four times a day. Until now, only domestic investors were allowed to trade. But soon, it should be possible for foreigners to participate too. Last year, parliament passed a new Companies Law that says foreign investors can own as much as 35 percent of local firms. In two stages, possibly within this year, the bourse will welcome foreigners based in Myanmar, followed by overseas institutional investors. [Bloomberg]

11 March 2019

Myanmar: New report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights/World Justice Project – Global Rule of Law Index

(cc/jk) The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar published her latest report on Tuesday on the situation in Myanmar despite being barred from entering the country for her research. The UN official warned against “institutionalized” hate speech, especially in the education system, “[f]or example, there is a fourth-grade lesson on ‘Wunthanu Spirit’, meaning nationalistic and patriotic spirit. The lesson says ‘we loathe those of mixed blood, for they prohibit the progression of a race”. She also expressed concerns over the repatriation process of the Rohingya refugee, currently living in camps in Bangladesh and criticized the “safe zones” wanted by Bangladesh inside Rakhine State as the country says it cannot welcome more refugees. The report also highlights the high number of cases of people in jail for their political activities. She recommended sanctions against two military-owned and military-affiliated companies, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). [Al Jazeera][The Irrawaddy]

The report comes amid the recent publication of the global rule of law index of the World for 2019 Justice Project in which Myanmar ranks 110 out of 126 countries. [Myanmar Times] It is the second- lowest ranking member of eight ranked ASEAN states (Brunei and Lao are not ranked) ahead of Cambodia, with Singapore at the opposite end of the ASEAN table. After Singapore and before the last two is Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in that order. [World Justice Project]

4 March 2019

Myanmar: Rally in support of changing the military-drafted constitution

(cc/ls) On last week’s Wednesday, at least a thousand people gathered in Yangon to support the move of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to amend the military-drafted constitution. While the Myanmar Times refers to “hundreds of people”, Reuters speaks of “thousands”. Numbers of well-known democracy activists participated at the event, including U Mya Aye one of the leaders of 88 Generation for who “[t]he amendments should be based on democracy and the federal system in line with the Union”. The NLD, however, has not said what provisions of the constitution it might seek to reform. [Reuters] [The Myanmar Times]

4 March 2019

Myanmar: Northern Alliance offers ceasefire with Tatmadaw

(cc) Last week, representatives of the Northern Alliance, a group of four Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), met for the first time with the government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) in China. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), offered a bilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw. There was no agreement. Both sides agreed to meet again next month. In December, the military announced a unilateral ceasefire, Rakhine State, however, was not included, and fighting with the AA displaced over 5000 persons in the conflict-affected areas. [The Irrawaddy] [The Myanmar Times]