Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)
Date of AiR edition
29 December 2020
Bangladesh: Authorities move more Rohingya refugees to remote island, despite rights concerns
(lm) Bangladesh has begun moving another 1,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal this month, in defiance of safety and security concerns from international rights advocates. Authorities earlier this month already relocated more than 1,600 Rohingya from crammed camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. [The Straits Times] [The Guardian]
29 December 2020
Myanmar: Military claims to have found over 70,000 irregularities on voter lists
(lm) The latest in a series of attempts by the military to allege irregularities in the recently concluded general election, Myanmar’s military said it found more than 70,000 voter list irregularities that could point to voter fraud, after it allegedly scrutinized voting in four townships where its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered heavy defeats [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].
Observers criticize the move as “irrelevant”, with the Union Election Commission of Myanmar (UEC) rejecting the military’s call for the agency to instruct its sub-commissions to provide copies of election-related documents, including voter lists, to facilitate its review of the vote. [The Irrawady]
29 December 2020
Indian security concerns on Myanmar border cause for delay of vital infrastructure project
(lm) India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has listed security concerns and lack of access as the reasons for the delay in the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), a mega-infrastructure project linking the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with its landlocked northeast via Sittwe seaport in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. While Sittwe port will likely be operationalized early next year [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], the route of the project around Paletwa and along the Kaladan river is troubled with Myanmar-based insurgent groups, the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Last November, the AA abducted five Indian employees working on the project. While four of them were released, one died in rebel custody. [India Today]
Taking place against the larger backdrop of increasingly dysfunctional Sino-Indian relations, India considers the Aa as China’s proxy. In this context, New Delhi accused Beijing earlier this month of supplying funds and weaponry to rebel groups that have stepped up attacks on its border with Myanmar in recent months, including Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]
22 December 2020
Myanmar: Report to uncover military ties to telecom operator Mytel
(nd) According to a recently published report by the advocacy group Justice for Myanmar (JFM), Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) entertains close ties to the latest mobile operator Mytel, and thereby to a global network of international firms that the report accuses of “fueling state corruption and abetting the international crimes of the military.”
Mytel was established in June 2018 under the civilian government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the public holds a 28 percent share, managed through Star High Co. Ltd., a privately registered company and subsidiary of the Myanmar Economic Corporation, one of two secretive military conglomerates. By now, Mytel is one of the nation’s largest telecom operators, with more than 10 million subscribers and quarterly profits around $25 million. With those revenues, the report suggests, the military was able to improve and expand its telecommunications infrastructure, and also strengthen its power grip and position.
Additionally, Mytel’s largest shareholder (49 %) is Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense, the Military Industry and Telecoms Group (Viettel), which not only presents a national security risk due to their building and maintaining towers in military bases. Viettel also functions as Mytel’s contact point to supply foreign countries, enabling economic ties with international firms despite the ongoing allegations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity with respect to the military’s treatment of Rohingyas in western Myanmar since 2017. [The Diplomat]
22 December 2020
Myanmar: Endangered peace process in Kayin state
(nd) The recent Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) demand on December 1 for the withdrawal of all Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) bases from its territory marked the culmination of rising tensions due to what the KNLA views as Tatmadaw expansionism. Fighting resumed soon after the demand was made. Technically, both sides are cooperating in a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015.
The KNLA, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic insurgents, and its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU) claims the military’s gradual buildup, while the military claims there was competition over gold mining and other extractive projects in the area. Following civilian casualties, local protests are calling for the troops to leave
Parallelly, the Tatmadaw engaged in militarized search operations against nominally Tatmadaw-controlled Border Guard Force (BGF) members, a possible reason being their involvement in illicit gaming enterprises, with parts of the Kayin borderlands having become extraterritorial enclaves run by Chinese and Myanmar gangsters. The US Treasury recently imposed sanctions on the head of the project, triad leader Wan Kuok Koi, aka “Broken Tooth”. [See also AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]
In the most recent elections, hopes for an increasing ethnic Kayin representation were dashed by the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide win. The Kayin state recorded the lowest voter turnout in the country with 53%. Despite the failings in the peace process, the World Bank is now preparing a $ 200 million loan for infrastructure projects to the government, potentially serving as a line of credit for continued counterinsurgency, despite the bank’s own project document of 2019 hinting at this possibility.
As a general trend, this highlights a significant shift away from people-centric development models to large-scale development projects, mostly infrastructural, by the large international agencies such World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which thereby avoid addressing overdue reforms and accountability, and refrain from addressing human rights and environmental issues within those financed projects. Likewise, a genuine peace process has to address those fundamental issues and not only fund certain projects. [Asia Times]
22 December 2020
China to build high-tech wall along its border to Myanmar
(nd) China is building a high-tech wall, fitted with high-voltage fences, surveillance cameras and infrared sensors along its 2,227-kilometer border with Myanmar. While officially supposed to contain the spread of Covid-19, observers contemplate also other reasons for the effort, which is rather convincing as the wall shall be finished only by October 2022.
This includes the goal to prevent Chinese dissidents from fleeing China, to contain cross-border trade of illegal items, to just display a show of power towards the neighbor. Most likely also according to a thorough analysis by Bertil Lintner in the [Asia Times], the security wall is, however, supposed to prevent the infiltration of hostile forces from Myanmar to China.
Notably, most of both countries’ border is controlled by ethnic armed groups. Some of them – the United Wa State Army (UWSA) or the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) for instance – have close relations with China’s security agencies. Others, however, especially in the Christian Kachin state, are, however, suspected by China to be used against Beijing’s security interests.
A recent unsigned article on the Chinese nationalistic website Toutiao just referred again to the traditional ties of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) with the US and its security agencies most notably the CIA. Against this background, the Chinese author claims that Kachins in Myanmar have “continuously conducted intelligence operations in China and secretly recruited troops and cadres from the Jingpo ethnic group in China.” [Asia Times]
22 December 2020
Myanmar is purchasing Airbus military transport aircraft via Jordan
(nd) Myanmar is buying two Airbus CASA C295 tactical military transport aircraft for US$38.6 million (52.29 billion kyats) from the Royal Jordanian Air Force as – due to the EU’s arms embargo against Myanmar – France-based Airbus could not deal directly with Myanmar. After the US and other Western governments imposed arms embargos following the bloody coup in 1988, Myanmar turned mainly to Russia, sometimes China for new equipment. Due to quality issues and allegations about a dependence on China, however, defense ties with India and Japan have grown closer in recent years already. [Irrawaddy]
22 December 2020
ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021
(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.
22 December 2020
Myanmar, US to enhance cooperation
(nd) In a telephone conference, the deputy US secretary of state reinforced US support for Myanmar’s democratic transition amid conflicts in Rakhine State, and the unsolved Rohingya issue and also discussed an increase of US investments in Myanmar, with the US being only the 10th-largest source of foreign direct investment in Myanmar at current with nearly US$330 million (447 billion kyats) invested since 2017. [Irrawaddy]
15 December 2020
ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects
(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]
15 December 2020
Myanmar, US to blacklist Chinese investor in “industrial zone”
(nd) The US added Chinese 14K triad leader Wan Kuok Koi aka “Broken Tooth”, to its sanctioned list of “corrupt actors”.
Wan, who was arrested in 1999 over his involvement in 14 murders in Macau, is a leading representative of the 14K Triad group which globally engages in organized crime with its estimated 20,000 members including drug trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, human trafficking and murder, in particular also in Southeast Asia. The US also added three entities owned or controlled by Wan in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palau to the list. After Wan and similar Chinese business-crime networks were very active in Cambodia in recent years, they are now expanding in particular in Myanmar after Cambodia’s Sihanoukville became less “investment friendly” to them.
Three years ago, Chinese and Cambodian police began cracking down on Chinese firms behind internet wagering, illegal casinos, gang violence and money laundering in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville. There, the Chinese investment and in particular illegal gambling fueled a massive property bubble and pushed local population and business in a gradual Sinification out of the city. Moreover, the money laundering enterprises blossoming there, contributed to Cambodia’s increasing difficulties to get access to international finance. Growing lawlessness finally led the Cambodian government ask for Beijing’s help to rectify the situation leading to a crackdown which then prompted the affected Chinese networks to look for alternatives. Concerted efforts under the label “Saixigang Industrial Zone”, which translates roughly as “Surpass Sihanoukville”, led to huge investment projects in Myanmar’s border region to Thailand with Wan launching a part project in March this year in Kuala Lumpur in a splendid ceremony. Now, Chinese firms are building huge enclaves in Karen State along the banks of the Moei River that separates southeastern Myanmar from Thailand. There, three new cities are emerging on the lands of Burma’s ethnic Karen which were devastated by heavy combat between Myanmar’s army and Karen nationalists not long ago. After reportedly partnering up with the local rebel groups, the Chinese investors created hotels, casinos and condos in unauthorized “special economic zones”, while leaders as Wan branded the project as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative and even advertised the building of smart cities.
According to the US Treasury Department Wan’s World Hongmen History and Culture Association – established in 2018 in Cambodia and linked to the global Hongmen fraternal organization and secret society established in the mid-1600s – is running a powerful business network active in the development and launching of cryptocurrencies, real estate and operating a security company specializing in protecting BRI investments.
The recent US blacklisting is highlighting the ever-developing nexus of shady investments, organized crime, political violence and geopolitics as it has been flourishing in mainland Southeast Asia since the end of World War II, when strongmen like Thailand’s police chief Phao cooperated with the CIA to operate in neighboring countries with anti-communist rebel groups who financed themselves by their involvement in the global opium trade.
Now, the danger greatly comes from Chinese triads with excellent cross-border links spanning the region, whose activities are intertwined with the failures of domestic politics and geopolitical dynamics. [Irrawaddy] [USIP]
15 December 2020
Bangladesh: UN urges safety assessment of Bangladeshi island where Rohingya were shipped
(lm) A United Nations (UN) human rights investigator urged Bangladesh on December 10 to allow a safety assessment of the remote island where the government shipped 1,600 Rohingya refugees last week [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2], and a verification process to ensure that refugees are not forced to go. [The Straits Times]
The United Nations says it has not been allowed to carry out a technical and safety assessment of Bhasan Char, a dangerous low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal prone to cyclones and floods and was not involved in the transfer of refugees there. Further, accusing Bangladeshi authorities of pressuring the Rohingya community, rights groups say refugees have been listed without their consent.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister reiterated that the government was transferring only people who are willing to go, adding that the move would ease chronic overcrowding in camps in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. He also said the UN should first assess and verify how conducive the environment in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was for repatriating the refugees, before carrying out an assessment of Bhasan Char.
8 December 2020
India accuses China of helping rebel groups at Myanmar border
(lm) Indian officials accused China of supplying funds and weaponry to rebel groups that have stepped up attacks on its border with Myanmar in recent months, opening another front in the conflict between the two giants. The armed groups – including Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – are allegedly acting as Beijing’s proxies by supplying weapons and providing hideouts to insurgent groups in India’s north-eastern states, the so-called ‘seven stars’. [South China Morning Post 1]
Moreover, multiple security agencies warned the Indian government that at least four of India’s most wanted insurgent leaders were in the southern Chinese city of Kunming to train and source weapons as recently as mid-October. [The Straits Times]
While the direct or indirect support of armed ethnic groups, including the UWSA, gives Beijing leverage in all kinds of negotiations with Myanmar authorities, it has increasingly been considered as playing with fire in relation to at least two of Myanmar’s insurgent groups. In an implicit reference to Beijing, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief alleged in July that domestic terrorist groups were being backed by ‘strong forces’ outside the country. A military spokesperson later clarified that the army chief was referring to the fact that fighters from the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had used Chinese-made weapons in a 2019 attack [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4].
Further, against the larger backdrop of the protracted border stand-off with India, China’s military has been carrying out training in the mountains of Tibet in an effort to get soldiers used to the region’s extreme conditions. In addition to high-altitude training, checkpoints along the Chinese border have been equipped with new surveillance gear, including observation cameras and drones. Latest developments come months after New Delhi had deployed its Special Frontier Force (SFF), a paramilitary unit consisting mainly of Tibetan and Gorkha paratroopers trained in mountain warfare, to the conflict zone [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2] [South China Morning Post 2]
Seeking the expansion of road width in a highway project adjacent to the Chinese border, India’s Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, told the Supreme Court (SC) that situation on the ground at the India-China border has changed significantly this year and it has become imperative that men and equipment should move swiftly from army stations to the frontier. [India Legal] [Hindustan Times]
8 December 2020
Bangladesh sends Rohingya to controversial island
(lm) Bangladesh has begun transferring several hundred Rohingya refugees from camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods. [The Straits Times]
Formed from a buildup of silt in the Bay of Bengal only 20 years ago, Bhasan Char island now hosts shelters for at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees as well as a three-meter embankment to prevent flooding. Since April, around 300 Rohingya have been living on the island, sent there after being picked up at sea. Earlier this month, Bangladesh said it planned to move another 2,500 families to the silt island in a first phase. [The Guardian]
However, the islands exposure to extreme weather and distance from the mainland in emergencies have caused concern. The United Nations office in Bangladesh issued a terse statement on December 3 saying it had not been ‘not involved’ in the relocation exercise and had not been allowed to independently assess the ‘safety, feasibility and sustainability’ of the island as a place to live. [United Nations Bangladesh]
Further, accusing Bangladeshi authorities of pressuring the Rohingya community, currently confined to crammed camps in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2], rights groups say refugees have been listed without their consent. [Amnesty International]
The Bangladesh government, meanwhile, is insisting that the Rohingya refugees are willing to shift to the island. Claiming that the remote island offers the Rohingya community a shot at a better life, Bangladesh’s foreign minister last week said that relocation process was being delayed only because of pressure from international agencies and NGOs. [Anadolu Agency] [Dhaka Tribune]
8 December 2020
Myanmar: Japanese influence on peace talks in Rakhine state
(nd) As reported now, a special Japanese envoy held meetings with local politicians in November in Rakhine state where balloting during the elections was canceled almost entirely due to clashes between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA). Just after the election, the AA called for substitute elections to be held. There was no fighting since and talks happening between the conflicting parties, agreeing on a temporary ceasefire.
With China deeply involved in investment projects in the country under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan seems to be its only rival for influence in Myanmar, with Japan’s investment and involvement in the reconciliation process expected to continue and being viewed positively by the population. [Irrawaddy]
1 December 2020
Myanmar: Cabinet pick under scrutiny
(nd) Following the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) win in the general elections November 8, it will be a critically eyed task to appoint personnel to the cabinet. Widely agreed upon and admitted to, the selection process was sped up in 2016, resulting in two thirds of the ministers disappointing the public due to weak performances and lack of capacity. No announcements have been yet, with speculations Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sein Win will become vice president, who has a high reputation among military and civilians alike, raising hopes that civil-military relations might improve in the upcoming term. [Irrawaddy 1] [Irrawaddy 2]
1 December 2020
Myanmar, China to dispute over fence at border
(nd) Following Chinese authorities building fences near border posts with Myanmar, the Military objected to this move, referring to the 1961 treaty on the China-Myanmar boundary stipulating inter alia that no structures shall be built within 10 meters of the demarcation line on either side. China put up the fences in an effort to prevent illegal border crossings to curb the spread of Covid 19. The constructions were stopped after the letter was received. Politicians commented, the unilateral move highlighted the imbalance of power between the countries. Northern Shan State and China have had on and off disputes at their 2,227-km long shared border since 2018. [Irrawaddy]
1 December 2020
Myanmar: US to require visa bond
(nd) As a temporary measure to curb costs for deporting foreigners who overstay their visas, the US will require visitors from Iran, Myanmar and a number of African nations to pay up to $15,000 in visa bonds as of December 24. The cited countries have overstay rates of more than 10%. The new rule applies to short-term business and tourism visa, not to students and travelers from countries who are exempt from visas to enter the US. [Mizzima]
24 November 2020
Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium
(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.
120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]
24 November 2020
Myanmar: Increase in female lawmakers
(lf) In both the national and regional parliaments, there has been an increase of 4% in the elected female lawmakers and regional affairs ministers, making up 17% altogether. While the increase is still resulting in the lowest percentage of female lawmakers among ASEAN, the increase has been steady and the elected parliamentarians are younger and more educated than in 2015, with many of them from civil society and activist groups in their respective regions. [Irrawaddy]
24 November 2020
Myanmar: Politician shot dead in Northern Shan State
(lf) An elected member from the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been shot dead in Northern Shan State by an unidentified shooter. The NLD has called for a quick investigation and denied any political reasons for the violence. [Reuters]
The country’s latest election has been preceded by political violence with tensions having been particularly high between the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the NLD. [AiR No. 42, October/ 2020, 3], [AiR 44, November/ 2020, 1]
17 November 2020
South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor
(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.
This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat]
17 November 2020
Myanmar, Japanese firm stops all dividend payment to firm connected to Myanmar’s military
(lf) The Japanese beverages company Kirin has stopped all dividend payment to Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL), a business conglomerate linked to the military. This follows an Amnesty International (AI) report, claiming MEHL directly funds parts of the military accused of genocidal actions. MEHL is one of Myanmar’s most powerful businesses, involved in a large variety of ventures. According to the AI report, one-third of the shares belong to active combat groups, while the other two-thirds belong to retired and serving military personnel. [The Diplomat]
17 November 2020
ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally
(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.
A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]
Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.
At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.
Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]
The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]
Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]
17 November 2020
East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response
(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.
The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]
17 November 2020
Myanmar: Former Party Leader sentenced to two years
(lf) A Mandalay court found U Kyaw Myint, the chairman of the former United Democratic Party (UDP), guilty of being a fugitive from justice and sentenced to two years in prison. He could face up to another ten years under Myanmar’s money laundering law, due to allegedly accepting money illegally from a Chinese businessman.[Myanmar Times] [AiR No. 43, October/ 2020, 4], [A iR No. 42, October/2020, 3] [AiR No. 39, September/ 2020, 5]
17 November 2020
Myanmar: Rebel group appeal for voting in Rakhine state
(lf) In Rakhine state, the Arakan Army (AA) has appealed to the government to hold “by-elections” for the constituencies, where voting had been prohibited by the Union Election Commission, due to the ongoing conflict. [AiR No. 42, October/ 2020, 3]. The Arakan National Party sees the execution of by-elections within the next month as unrealistic, as many townships in Rakhine state are still battling with Covid-19. [Radio Free Asia]
The AA is a rebel group, fighting for the self-determination for the Buddhist Rakhine population in Rakhine state. The group has been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for the last two years. [Unites States Institute for Peace]
17 November 2020
Myanmar: NLD officially declared winner of election, reaches out to minority groups
(lf) The National League for Democracy’s (NLD) win of the recent election was officially confirmed by the election authorities. Official records show that the NLD won 396 seats, an absolute majority, nine more than 2015. [South China Morning Post], [Voice of America]
However, the opposition party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and minority groups have criticised the fairness of the elections. The USDP has fallen under the 10% for elected seats, which it won in 2015. The USDP is widely seen as coinciding with the military. [Radio Free Asia], [Irrawaddy]
Despite internal criticism, the election observers (Carter Institute, PACE and the EU) have praised the high voter turnout and the conduct of the elections. The EU and the UK have congratulated Myanmar on the election and declared to continue working with the new government on the path to democratization. [Irrawaddy]
Shortly after the election, NLD reached out to the 48 ethnic parties to form a Democratic Federal Union, an unprecedented step. Many of Myanmar’s violent conflicts are rooted in issues of self-determination for ethnic minorities, which have been pushed back by the military and the central government. Ethnic minorities have urged for greater equality for a long time. [Irrawaddy]
10 November 2020
Myanmar: Representative of military party faces election fraud trial
(lf) A representative of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) faces legal action over electoral fraud, for faking a stamp used to mark ballots. Three ballots from the early voting procedure were rejected by the Union Election Commission. [Irrawaddy]
10 November 2020
Myanmar: No word heard of abducted candidates
(lf) The government has voiced great concern about the lives of the three candidates who were abducted in October. Nothing was heard from them in the past three weeks. Last year, three members of the NLD have been abducted. One of them died while being held by the Arakan Army, with the circumstances of his death remaining unclear. [Irrawaddy] [See alsoAiR No.42, October/ 2020, 3, AiR No.43, October/ 2020, 4]
10 November 2020
Myanmar: Rise in hate speech during election campaign
(lf) The Burman Human Rights Network (BHRN) has identified a rise in hate speech during the election campaign period. BHRN accounts for 39 incidents of hate speech, bigotry and misinformation spread on social media by supporters of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), inter alia accusing the National League for Democracy (NLD) of conspiring with Muslims. The posts have had considerable outreach, as they were shared over 2,000 times, and prompted the NLD to distance themselves from the Muslim population. The BHRN further states that the government has failed to improve citizen participation and has actively restrained the rights of minorities. [Radio Free Asia] [See also AiR No.42, October/2020,3, AiR No.41, October/ 2020,2]
10 November 2020
Myanmar government speaks out against military statement
(lf) Myanmar’s government has strongly condemned criticism of the military against the Union Election Commission (UEC). The criticism incites instability and raises public concern, which is counterproductive to holding free and fair elections, the government argued. The military had previously accused the UEC of incompetence, particularly with regards to the creation of voter lists and early voting procedures. [Irrawaddy]
10 November 2020
Myanmar: National League for Democracy claims victory in election
(lf) In the second election after the end of military rule, the Daw Aung Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) claims victory on Tuesday for disposing of the necessary 322 seats needed to form a majority government, referring to an unofficial vote count. Official election results by the Union Election Commission are yet to be announced, with the unofficial results likely to be confirmed.
In Sunday’s election, from the total seats of 425 of the Lower House and 217 of the Upper House, 315 respectively 161 were open for civilian candidates to obtain. The remaining 25% of seats are reserved for members of the military. In the 2015 election, the NLD had won 255 out of 333 seats in the Lower House and 135 out of 168 in the Upper house, making up for a landslide victory over the military proxy party, which had won rigged elections in 2010. The president will be chosen as soon as the counting of the votes has been finalized, in a joined session between the Upper and the Lower House.
The high voter turnout despite the pandemic showed the commitment of many citizens for greater democratic transition. While the Sunday election has been largely viewed as a referendum for the NLD’s governance over the last five years, Daw Aung Suu Kyi remains largely popular with the majority Buddhist Burman population, despite the international decline in her popularity due to the ongoing Rohingya crisis. [Irrawaddy 1]
In Mon state the NLD won 30 out of 45 majority seats, however, some seats were lost to the ethnic Mon Unity Party, which won 11 seats. In the Ayeyarwady Region, where the most populous city Yangon is located, the NLD won all but two ethnic minister seats, defeating their main opponent, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In the capital city region of Naypyitaw, the NLD is currently leading in all townships according to preliminary counting, except the military stronghold of Zeyarthi, where the USDP has won the Lower House seat. In Karen and Chin state the NLD is expected to win the majority of seats as well. [Irrawaddy 2] [Irrawaddy 3] [Irrawaddy 4]
In conflict-prone Rakhine state, the ethnic Arakan National Party (ANP) has won the majority of the constituency, even though only 25% of the population had been allowed to participate in the election due to ongoing conflicts. [Irrawaddy 5]
In comparison to the 2015 elections, which were a beacon of hope for the democratization process in Myanmar, this year’s election has been held in a situation of crisis. Due to rising insurgency and conflict between minority groups and the Tatmadaw 1,5 million people have been excluded from voting. [See also AiR No. 42, October/ 2020, 3] Human Rights Watch has called the electoral system inherently flawed and undemocratic due to a reservation of seats for the military, unequal access to state media for parties, as well as the exclusion of parts of the population from voting. However, two large observer groups, PACE and Japanese observer groups, announced that the election was conducted free and fair. [Reuters 1][Nikkei] Human Rights Watch][New York Times] [Irrawaddy 6]
Still, grave concerns remain, with the country’s ethnic groups having been largely marginalized in the political field. In order to reduce conflict, the NLD will have to implement greater recognition and political participation possibilities for ethnic minorities. [Reuters 2]
Analysts emphasized the importance of a strong NLD basis to counterbalance the influence of the military on politics, while it was criticized that the party has not achieved significant progress on the democratic transition. Although new parties have emerged, voters still perceive their vote as a choice between NLD and the military-backed opposition, USDP. While 90 parties that ran campaigns, they obviously did not manage to form a substantial opposition, with only the ethnic parties winning votes in certain states.
According to critics, Suu Kyi has organized the NLD in a strict, authoritarian way and did not challenge the military far enough, especially with regards to the Rohingya crisis, for which Myanmar is facing genocide charges at the International Criminal Court. Few of the Rohingyas, living in camps in Rakhine state, were able to cast their vote, which prompted the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rohingya political party, to comment this illustrated the “normalization” of their exclusion and an “apartheid” system.
In light of the ongoing conflicts in Rakhine state between the Burmese Army and the Arakan Army [See also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], it remains a key question whether NLD will manage to include ethnic parties into the government to ease tension. [South China Morning Post]
10 November 2020
ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen
(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]
3 November 2020
Myanmar: Fugitive ultra-nationalistic monk turns himself in
(lf) The ultra-nationalistic Monk U Wirathu turned himself in after being in hiding for nearly two years. The government had issued an arrest warrant under the sedition law for trying to create disaffection towards the government a year ago. Wirathu is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and support of the military. The monk faces up to 3 years in prison. A trial was held in his absence in 2019. [Irrawaddy] [Eleven Myanmar] [Reuters]
Wirathu is a leading figure in the Buddhist nationalistic movements, and Times Magazine referred to him as the Face of Buddhist Terror. Wirathu has become a popular figure in Burma, with large support among the lay population. It remains unclear why he turned himself, but a connection to the upcoming elections was argued. Wirathu has openly criticised the civilian government on several occasions. [See also The Diplomat]
3 November 2020
Myanmar: Boat carrying relive goods sunk by the Burmese army
(lf) A commercial ship in Northern Rakhine state was shot by the army and sunk, injuring three. The Burmese military claims that it was responding to fire from members of the Arakan Army (AA) on the board of the vessel, which was denied from the AA and crew members. The ship was transporting aid supplies by the International Committee of the Red Cross. No members of the organization were on board. [Reuters] [Irrawaddy] [Radio Free Asia]
3 November 2020
Myanmar: Election update
(lf) As early voting began Thursday, Myanmar’s President U Win Myint and National Democracy League leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have cast their votes in the nation’s capital Naypyitaw. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, voters who cannot travel to their registered constituency are allowed to cast their vote earlier in the capital. [Irrawaddy 1] The same applies to people over the age of 60, with additional mobile voting stations to reduce the risk of infections, according to the Union Election Commission. [Irrawaddy 2]
In Kachin state, it is expected that for the first time the ethnic minority Kachin State People’s Party will defeat the national majority party, National Democracy League (NDL), which won in 2015. Even with an absolute win, their chief minister, will be chosen by the party winning the national majority. [Irrawaddy 3]
Meanwhile, a supporter of the National Democracy League (NDL) died in the hospital after riots between the party and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) escalated. Last week, the Arakan Army admitted to the abduction of three candidates [See also No. 43, October/2020, 4] The NDL argues that the USDP has become more violent and hostile against them. In 2015, the USDP lost in a landslide election against the NDL, only winning 10 % of the seats. Since August this year, there have been 40 violent incidents directly related to the elections, with 28 incidents in 2015. [Irrawaddy 5]
3 November 2020
Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership
(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.
The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]
3 November 2020
Korea-Myanmar industrial complex construction expected to start
(lf) Despite Covid-19 difficulties, the large-scale infrastructure project between Myanmar and Korea to build an industrial complex is expected to start in December 2020. It is expected to be finished by 2022, and rise Myanmar’s manufacturing capacity, primarily in the production areas of textile and food and beverages. [Myanmar Times]
3 November 2020
Myanmar: Asian Development Bank approves loan for infrastructure project
(lf) The Asian Development Bank has approved a loan for $484 million for the construction of an expressway between Bago Region and Mon State. The expressway is part of a larger infrastructure project led by Japan in the Greater Mekong Region and is expected to improve trade, tourism and investment. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: More applications for New Yangon City Project
(lf) 16 proposals from nine countries for the industrial park and related infrastructure developments, the New Yangon City Project, were submitted to Myanmar’s Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, competing against the proposal of China Communications Construction Co. Ltd (CCC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The competition is supervised by a German consultancy firm, and the winner will have to reimburse CCC. Initially Myanmar and CCC signed an agreement in 2018 for an investment proposal of around $1,5 billion. Since then the project has been a source of controversy, firstly, due to the location being flood prone, and secondly, due to accussations against the CCC of bribery and corruption in other development projects. Myanmar has decided to reduce the size and budget of the project to attract different investors. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: Ethnic and religious rhetoric in election
(lf) In their party campaigns, Myanmar’s military and its party proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), have been using nationalistic rhetoric. Despite the Union Election Commission’s prohibition to use material for stressing ethnic and religious divisions, the military chief and the chairman of USDP promoted choosing candidates according to their ethnicity. They understand themselves as protectors of race and religions. For several years the party and the military have attacked the ruling party National Democracy League (NDL) and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi as being foreign-controlled.
Both the military and its proxy party, which won the rigged elections in 2010, have a history for promoting racist policies. Shortly before the 2015 election, the party passed a series of so-called Anti-Muslim laws, which monitored marriage and the number of children Muslim people in Myanmar were allowed to legally have. The laws had been previously promoted by the controversial nationalistic Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, more commonly known as MaBaTha. The NDL has since then prohibited the Buddhist monk-led organization. However, the military, the USDP and the MaBaTha have used a narrative of threat for Buddhism stemming from the Muslim population to promote their agenda, which now, with the upcoming elections seems to have been reinflamed.
Earlier this year, an increase in hate speech on Facebook targeted at the NDL and the Muslim Rohingya population was reported. [AiR No.41, Ocotber/ 2020, 2] Myanmar is deeply divided on ethnic and religious lines. The upcoming elections could reinflate conflict along those lines. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: Union Election Commission admits to undue checks on party chairmen
(lf) The Union Election Commission (UEC) admitted to having failed to scrutinize the background of Kyaw Myint, Chair of the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UEC had missed a fugitive warrant when Michael Kyaw Myint registered as chair of the UDP in 2014. Apparently, he used someone else’s citizenship ID when he registered as chairmen, and later got his citizen ID through military intelligence channels.
Michael Kyaw Myint and his party came under investigation after journalist had found out about his past. Since then, the UEC has been investigation the party as well, before abolishing the party last week for receiving illegal money through transfers from China. Michael Kyaw Myint had fled from his nine-year prison sentence for money laundering. While his party did not win any seats in the last election, the party had the second biggest candidate pool. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: Arakan Army forces rice donations
(lf) The Arakan Army (AA) has been forcing citizens in Myanmar’s Chin state to donate rice or sell it below market price. The area has suffered from the destruction of transportation networks and food supplies are scarce. The AA has reportedly been collecting two bags of rice per household. This has put a massive strain on the civilian population as access to rice was already difficult.
The AA has been engaged in ongoing conflict with the Tatmadaw in Rakhine state since 2018. The conflict has spilled over into neighboring Chin state. [Radio Free Asia]
Myanmar: Armed group admitted to abduction of candidates
(lf) An armed group in Rakhine state admitted to the abduction of three election candidates of the ruling party National Democracy League (NDL). The abducted had gone missing during an election campaign last week. The Arakan Army (AA), which has been engaged in violent conflict with the Tatmadaw published a picture of the abducted. The ethnic group accused the NDL of covering up crimes committed by the military. The AA demanded the release of the recently imprisoned student protestors in return for freeing the kidnapped trio. Several students had been arrested after protesting the ongoing conflict in Rakhine state. [Mizzima] [Aljazeera] [Reuters]
China to share Mekong river data with downstream countries
(jn) Last Thursday, China signed an agreement with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental organization of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – according to which it will share year-round and current data on water flows of the Mekong. The move was welcomed by other stakeholder nations as helpful in monitoring and forecasting floods and droughts on the important regional waterway. The MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer lauded the agreement as a “landmark in the history of China-MRC cooperation”. The US, previously urged for more transparency on the Mekong’s flow, also praised the data sharing agreement as vital to downstream countries.
The Mekong is severely impacted by 13 dams in China and Laos, and others along its tributaries, that have significantly altered the natural flow of the 3,100-mile river for more than 60 million people depending on the water source.
China’s dam constructions have come under criticism for contributing to recent droughts that have severely damaged agriculture and depleted fish stocks downstream. Eyes on Earth, a US-based research and consulting firm, reported in April 2020 a striking gap between the volume of rainfall on the Chinese part of the Mekong and the water masses arriving further south. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]
Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts
(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]
The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]
India gives submarine to Myanmar
(lf) India has given a submarine to Myanmar, as part of their strategy to counter Chinese growing influence in the Indian Ocean. Previously, neighboring Bangladesh bought two submarines from China. In addition, China has become involved in building a submarine station and deep sea port in the Bay of Bengal for Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal is a strategically important area, in which India has been trying to limit Chinese influence. [Voice of America]
Myanmar: Report on Rohingya crisis
(lf) The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have published a new report, which states that the member states have failed to adequately address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The report attributes this to a lack of leadership, structural shortcomings as well as a failure to understand the gravity and extend of the situation in Myanmar. The APHR acknowledges that while the problem had been addressed in summits, reactions were hindered through the policy of mutual non-interference, which originally was aimed at bridging the gap between the vastly different member states, but has contributed to policies being counterproductive or conducive to the crisis. [The Diplomat]
Myanmar, EU to sign Memorandum
(lf) Myanmar’s investment agency has singed a Memorandum of understanding with the European Chamber of Commerce. The Memorandum is aimed at attracting more investments, the creation of economic reform and establishing a recovery plan from Covid-19.
Last year the EU invested $7 billion in Myanmar’s economy, making up around 8,6% of Foreign Direct investment. In 2019, the EU has been Myanmar’s third biggest trading partner, accounting for 11% of trade. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: More candidates from oppositions parties disqualified
(lf) Two more candidates from opposition parties have been disqualified three weeks before the election. The Union Election Commission stated that the candidates had not met the citizenship requirements. The two candidates are from the Union and Solidarity Party, as well as the Democratic Party for a New Society. So far, thirteen candidates have been rejected based on citizenship issues, all belonging to opposition parties. Most of the dismissed candidates were from the Democracy and Human Rights Party. All five disqualified candidates are of Rohingya decent.
The disqualification of the candidates is directly linked to the highly criticized Citizen Law from 1982. It deprives Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship, granting it solely to the “national races” who are considered by the State to have settled in Myanmar prior to 1824. This law has alienated many of Myanmar’s residences and the consequences are still visible today. [Radio Free Asia]
Myanmar: Shan ethnic groups want to negotiate end of conflict
(lf) A Shan ethnic armed group, Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), wants to negotiate with the Tatmadaw to end the fighting. The fighting between the RCSS and the Tatmadaw has displaced 3500 civilians in recent weeks.
This comes after several civilian Shan groups have urged the RCSS to come to a ceasefire agreement and stop fighting. The local population, which has already suffered under food and health insecurities due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in Myanmar, is afraid to lose their voting rights in the upcoming elections. [Mizzima], [Eleven Myanmar], [Myanmar Times]
Myanmar: NLD member filed complaint against USDP supporters
(lf) A member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the current civilian government party, has filed a complaint against 26 members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). According to the complaint, supporters of the USDP targeted and attacked NLD supporters in a rally with 1,000 of participants. This is not the first report of supporters of the current governing party being attacked in recent weeks. With the elections only a few weeks away, tensions between supporters of the military and the current civilian government are expected to rise. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: Candidates of ruling party abducted
(lf) Three candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy party have been abducted by an unidentified armed group. They were abducted during a campaign tour through southern Rakhine state, close to where most of the combat between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw have been taken place since 2018. [Radio Free Asia]
Myanmar: UDP dissolved over illegal funding
(lf) The Union Democratic Party (UDP) has been dissolved over illegal funding. The Union Election Commission has found that the leader supported the party financially through transfers from China. The former chair of the UDP, Michael Kyaw Myint, who is currently detained on a fugitive warrant, spend around 10,72 million US dollars on the party, breaking the Political Party Registration Law. The UDP has the second biggest group of candidates running for the election. [Irrawaddy]
Myanmar: 1,5 million people kept from voting
(lf) The Union Election Commission (UEC) has announced that in 56 townships the situation would be to dangerous to hold elections, leaving 1,5 million people unable to cast their vote. Most of these townships are in the from ethnic minorities dominated regions of Rakhine, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Shan states. The UEC has come under fire for its decision, as several of these townships are considered as relatively safe. Ethnic parties stated that the majority of the excluded townships are regions which were won by ethnic parties in 2015. They urged the UEC to rethink their decision to ensure that ethnic minorities would receive the same voting rights as the majority population. [Irrawaddy 1] [Irrawaddy 2]
Myanmar: Decline in Freedom of the Net
(lf) Freedom House and Freedom of Expression Myanmar, local human rights groups, have observed a sharp decline in the overall Freedom and the Freedom of Net in Myanmar. This is an especially worrisome with regards to the elections in November.
Mass rallies and campaigning have been prohibited in Myanmar due to the ongoing pandemic. Therefore, almost all parties campaigning happened online. However, Freedom House identified large internet restrictions in several states, including Northern Rakhine and Chin state, where since June mobile internet access has largely been restricted after a complete internet blackout. In addition, the government blocks news and activist websites. Particularly, ethnic news websites have been affected by a block from the government.
In addition, Myanmar has seen large scale prosecution of internet users under two different laws, Telecommunication law, and the law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens.
Free Expression Myanmar states that the situation of Freedom on the Internet has deteriorated since the relatively free elections in 2015. According to Freedom House, the National League for Democracy has failed to improve the human rights situation in the country. [Freedom House 1] [Freedom House 2] [Myanmar Times]
This is particularly concerning after last weeks report on the spread of hate speech through several Facebook accounts linked to a platform called Radio Free Myanmar, and issues regarding Facebook detecting hate speech on a more general level [AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2]. Additionally worrisome are the restrictions to journalism. Foreign journalists are largely kept from entering the country and covering the new elections, while local journalism has seen large constrains since the Covid-19 lockdowns. [AiR No. 40, October/ 2020, 1] [AiR No. 39, September/ 2020, 5]
Myanmar: EU sends four election observers
(lf) The EU has sent four election experts for monitoring the upcoming election in Myanmar. This is a fraction of the 100-member team send in 2015 to observe the elections. The EU had previously canceled the entire mission due to the pandemic.
The four experts will look at all stages of the election, including the administration, the legal framework, the political context, the media and social media environment.
The elections have been under scrutiny for excluding groups from access to state media as well as the election process. Furthermore, in the Pandemic lockdown, the government declared journalism as non-essential business, further limiting the possibilities of covering. [Myanmar Times]
Myanmar: Increased support for Aung Suu Kyi before elections
(lf) As the elections come closer, polling of citizen’s trust in public figures and institutions shows increased support for Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. The poll is done yearly by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) looking into public trust for several governmental institutions including the Parliament, Ministries, the Army, as well as ethnical armed groups, in addition to single public figures. The National League for Democracy (NDL) received the highest score for the closest alignment between parties and personal views. [Irrawaddy]
This, however, stands in stark contrast with reports about violent attacks against supporters of the NDL across the country. [Myanmar Times]
Myanmar: Six Parties boycott state-broadcast of their election speeches
(lf) Five more parties have decided to boycott the broadcast of their election speeches on state media, over alleged censorship of their speeches by the Union Election Commission. Six out of ten parties that have been censored have decided to boycott the broadcast, including the Party for a New Society, the People’s Party, the United Nationalities Democratic Party, the Arakan Front Party, the Union Danu League, and the Chin National League for Democracy. [Mizzima] [AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]
Myanmar: National League for Democracy requests investigation into early voting in Kachin state
(lf) The current ruling party National League for Democracy (NDL) has requested an investigation into early voting by military personnel and their families in Kachin state. The NDL has requested the Union Election Commission to verify that those who have registered for early voting in Tanai township exist.
In the 2015 election, all 500 early votes in Tanai Township, reportedly coming from military personnel and their relatives, had been cast for the same party. The military has stated that the registration of early voting for military personnel is in line with the election laws and that no troop movement had been made to alter the election results in Tanai Township. [Irrawaddy]
In related development, the NDL expressed satisfaction with a new and updated voters list for the Meiktila township, where the voters comprise mostly military personnel and their families. [Myanmar Times]
Myanmar: Voting App removed and republished
(lf) The voting app mVoter2020 received large-scale criticism about labelling two Rohingya candidates as Bengali, which is seen as derogatory. It seems the app has been removed over the weekend from circulation. Critiques voiced that the prominence of ethnic backgrounds of the candidates would re-inflame conflict in the country.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which helped to create the app, has stated that it was removed while discussions for improvements are being made. They have been advised to remove the ethnic identification of the candidates.
At the beginning of this week, the app has been re-released without the removal of the ethnic terms, which was protested by the EU. The app still shows the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the candidates and their parents.
Donors have condemned the content and have stepped away from the app, stating that all content is coming from the Union Election Commission (UEC). Critiques state that the information of the app could lead to harassment and exclusion of candidates.
Besides, one of the two Rohingya candidates has since been disqualified from the election. The UEC states that this is due to his parents not being citizens. Whether this is connected to the app, however, remains unclear. [Reuters 1], [Reuters 2]
Myanmar: Government urged to release student protestors
(lf) 77 non-governmental organizations have gathered to urge the government to release several students who have been arrested last month for participating in protests in Sittwe against fightings in Rakhine state.
Currently, it is prohibited to participate in mass gatherings in order to minimize the spread of Covid-19. The organizations claim it to be unfair that the students had been arrested, while authorities have not taken any actions against gatherings by political parties. [Myanmar Times 1]
Two of the thirteen arrested students have been convicted for hanging up posters which called the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) fascist. The students face a year in prison, the trials for the other arrested students are still ongoing. [Myanmar Times 2]
Myanmar: United Democratic Party candidates disqualified
(lf) After last week’s arrest of the Chairman of the United Democratic Party (UDP), this week the Union Election Commission (UEC) has disqualified 11 of their candidates from the election. Several candidates had previously been members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and transferred after not making the candidate list of the USDP. Other candidates did not meet the requirements of residency needed for being elected.
Under current law, a candidate can only join a new party and run for elections after stepping down from his/her party and the resignation has been accepted by the previous party. With 11 disqualified candidates the UDP still has the second-largest candidate pool running in the coming elections. [mmtimes]
Myanmar: Casualties in clashes between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw
(lf) The Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw have met in deadly clashes in Rathedaung township. While the town itself has been abandoned, the fight between the two groups over the control of the hill area has been fierce. The Tatmadaw stated that the attacks were a reaction to the AA blocking important transportation routes. Currently, AA claims to have control of the area and that 30 Tatmadaw soldiers have been killed in the clashes. [Irrawaddy]
Since fights between started in August, 36,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine state. The AA is currently classified as a Terrorists Organisation by the Burmese state. The AA is an insurgence group fighting for independence for the primarily Buddhist ethnically Arakanese from the Burmese state. The conflict between the army and with AA has caused a high number of civilian casualties. The conflict has already spread into neighboring Chin state. Rakhine state additionally, is currently seeing some of the highest numbers of Covid-19. [Pulitzer Center]
Radio Free Myanmar accused of spreading misinformation and hate speech
(lf) In Myanmar, the platform Radio Free Myanmar (RFM) and connected Facebook accounts have been observed to increasingly spread misinformation and hate speech targeting the ruling party National League for Democracy (NLD) and the minority group Rohingya. The platform, which has been made to look like the independent news outlet Radio Free Asia, was founded in 2019, but their activities have spiked since August. Seemingly, the people behind the RFM are either supporters of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The misinformation and hate speech by RMF are primarily spread through Facebook posts by individual accounts. People are encouraged to copy and paste, rather than to share the original posts off from the core accounts posting articles from the website as a means to avoid links tracing back to original posts. This tactic might have been used to fall under the radar of the new Artificial Intelligence hate speech detectors installed by Facebook.
The website of RFM is built to represent an actual newspaper outlet, including showing pictures of university educated authors of articles. However, the digital rights group Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, MIDO, has flagged the Website as fake news and disinformation. Stating that the website was created to make the spread information seem more credible. [Frontier Myanmar]
Facebook is the most crucial source of information on the internet in Myanmar. For many it is even the only internet platform they use. It is well documented that hate speech and misinformation has been spread through Facebook in Myanmar.
While Facebook has implemented new measures, as well as increased their Burmese speaking monitoring staff, these measures are very limited. For a long time, the social media platform only allocated scarce resources to Myanmar and even with the new staff, hate speech remains a widespread problem in the platform. Reactions to warnings by human rights activist and researchers have been slow over the years. Furthermore, Facebook has been accused to limit free speech in Myanmar by favouring accounts close to the government or military, while simultaneously limiting accounts belonging separatist groups, also having declined to assist investigations in the Rohingya genocide case. [The Diplomat] [Reuters]
Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential
(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.
In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.
Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.
A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.
Indian delegation visits Myanmar, amidst ongoing border stand-off with China
(lm) Against the backdrop of China’s growing regional economic and political clout [see e.g. AiR No. 3, January/2020, 3, AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2], India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla along with the country’s army chief visited Myanmar on October 4 and 5 to meet with State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. In light of the ongoing border stand-off between its soldiers and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh, New Delhi expressed its concern over the possibility of Chinese military move through the India-Myanmar-China trijunction around Diphu Pass. Beyond the issue of border security, both sides also discussed the possibility of building a petroleum refinery in Myanmar that would involve an investment by India worth 6$ billion. [Times of India] [The Diplomat] [Hindustan Times] [Deccan Herald]
Previously, on October 1, both countries held the 19th round of Foreign Office Consultations through video link. During the meeting, the foreign secretary reiterated New Delhi’s commitment to infrastructure projects in Myanmar, must significantly the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the 2008-launched Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP), which is supposed to link India’s Calcutta port to the Sittwe deep-water port in Myanmar, as well as facilitate land connectivity. Initially scheduled to be completed by 2016, Harsh Shringla said that both sides were working to operationalize Sittwe port by the first quarter of 2021. Further, India will provide debt service relief under the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative to Myanmar from between May and December to mitigate the economic knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. [The Hindu]
Students arrested over protesting conflict in Western Rakhine
(lf) Myanmar has arrested 14 students for participating in protests against the violent conflict in Western Rakhine. 30 more students have gone into hiding to avoid being arrested by authorities. For the last month, students have gathered across the country protesting in small groups. In addition, students have spread leaflets calling for democratic reform. The students have been arrested for breaching Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Possession Act.
For the past year, the ethnic Arakan Army and Myanmar’s army have been engaged in violent conflict, subsequently killing up to 300 civilians and displacing 220,000 civilians from Rakhine and neighbouring Chin state. Students are protesting the conflict and are calling for a peace process in the conflict-battled country. [The Diplomat]
Myanmar: Clashes between the Tatmadaw and ethnic army
(lf) The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) has shelled a battalion of Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) in Shan state. While no one was hurt in the attack, it is the first attack on a military outpost by the TNLA in some time. The TNLA operated together with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). According to the TNLA the attacks on the outpost were in retaliation for attacks by Myanmar’s Army in mountains in Shan State (Manbon Mountains) earlier last week. The second ceasefire extension until 31 October, in order to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and increase trust with the ethnically armed groups for the current peace negotiations, excludes Rakhine state and the townships of Paletwa in Chin state, defying calls from humanitarian groups for a ceasefire in the two regions. [MMTimes]
The TNLA, the MNDAA and the Arakan Army in Rakhine state have allied, a so-called Brotherhood alliance, which has executed several attacks on army troops in recent time. China’s mediation in peace negotiations between the brotherhood and the Tatmadaw have so far been unsuccessful. [Irrawaddy]
Oversea voting for Myanmar’s election
(lf) As oversea early voting starts, several Myanmar nationals have not received a ballot, despite being on the list of the Union Election Commission (UEC). In Singapore, where 32% of all oversea voters are located 32,000 voters will cast an early vote from October 1st until October 18th, however 2,000 have not received their ballots. 8,000 Myanmar nationals located in Singapore did not make it on the list of the UEC for several early voting requests have gone missing or were sent to wrong addresses. In addition, around 8,000 applications for early voting have been denied from voting. The missing ballots have cause great uncertainty with the oversea voters.
In Bangkok, oversea voting started October 3rd and lasts until October 13th, in Northern Thailand voting will start October 10th and lasts until October 13th. In Thailand, 40,000 people are expected to cast their vote for the November 9th election. [Irrawaddy]
Chief Minister of Kayah State removed from office
(lf) President U Win Myint has removed Chief Minister of Kayah state L Phaung Sho through an impeachment by parliament. The minister was accused of misappropriating funds and having leased out land plots to business despite their previous assignment to public use. The minister is the first chief minister impeached by a state parliament under constitutional procedure. The process requires two thirds of the regional parliament to vote in favor of the motion. [Irrawaddy]
New UN special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar
(lf) Myanmar has received a new special Rapporteur on Human Rights, former member of the US House of Representatives Thomas Andrews. The American follows the South Korean Yanghee Lee, who in 2017 had been banned from entering Myanmar under the accusation of lacking impartiality. It is unclear if Andrews will receive a visa to enter the country for his position as senior advisor to the organisation Fortify Rights is seen problematic.
Fortify Rights, in conjunction with the New York Times, published a statement on September 9, of two soldiers from Myanmar claiming they carried out murders of Rohingyas under military order. The video, which was released by the organisation shows private details of the soldiers and had been made by the Arakan Army (AA). Critiques accuse that the publication could endanger the soldiers, who are currently suspected to be in The Hague, as well as their family members. More importantly, however, it raises questions about the connections between Fortify Rights and the AA.
Fortify Rights has been accused by foreigners and independent critics who have been working on issues of human rights in Myanmar, to alter information for the plight of refugees. For example, in 2017, footage of soldiers in civilian clothing beating up men was published, stating the video had been taken during the recent events. However, the footage turned out to be two years old. This connection might proof the relationship between the new Special Rapporteur and Myanmar to start on a rocky ground. [Irrawaddy] [Asia Times]
Myanmar: Foreign reporters likely excluded from reporting on the elections
(lf) Due to government regulations, it currently seems that foreign reporters will be excluded from reporting about the election coming November. Since March, all international flights have been banned, the visa application and logistics for entering has become more complicated hindering many foreigners, including aid workers and cooperate executives from entering the country. Reporters are not the only ones affected by the regulations. The Carter Institute had to hire national teams to monitor the elections, while the EU has completely abandoned their monitoring campaign.
Journalists and reporters play an important role in ensuring the integrity of an election. The recent difficulties for the monitoring teams have made that process become more difficult. Activists have accused the current government of using the pandemic to limit press freedom. For that, they allude to travel restrictions not only applying to international journalist, but to non-state media journalists as well. Currently, the only journalist allowed to freely travel are reporters from the state-owned media. [MMTimes]
Myanmar’s Election app launched and under criticism
(lf) The Union Election Commission (UEC) has launched an app, which provides data on candidates and the electoral procedures. The app, called mVoter2020, runs in Burmese. Users can search by constituency for political parties, as well as access information about voting guidelines. The information and data displayed is fed by the UEC.
The app was developed in cooperation between the UEC, the Asia Foundation, as well as the EU funded Democracy and Electoral Assistance Organization. The 2015 version received 12 million enquires during the pre-election period. The app is expected to have even more enquires this election season, due to a rise of internet users from 7 million in 2015 to 22 million in 2020. [Irrawaddy]
However, activists, including the Justice for Myanmar organization have criticized the app for incited and entrenching religious and ethnic divides. The group states that the app predominately features the ethnicity and religion of the candidates, as well as their parents. Rather than providing much needed information to the public, during the difficult circumstances of running an election during a Pandemic, the app risks re-inflaming ethnic and religious nationalism. [The Diplomat]
29 September 2020
ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation
(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.
At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]
29 September 2020
Bangladesh fears escalation of conflict in Myanmar
(lf) The permanent mission of Bangladesh to the UN implores the UN security council because of increased military movement on the Burmese side of Bangladesh’s border. Bangladesh seeks immediate action from the security council in order to prevent further escalation of the situation in Rakhine state. Bangladesh hopes to prevent an increase of refugees into Bangladesh.
According to Myanmar security sources Bangladesh has deployed troops at its most Southeastern border with Myanmar. Bangladesh wants to prevent an influx of refugees as happened in 2017.
In recent weeks, Myanmar’s army has increased troop activities in Rakhine state, claiming rising activities of the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. [Irrawaddy], [The Daily Star.net] [Dhaka Tribune]
29 September 2020
Myanmar: Chinese state media accuses Western NGOs of China bashing
(lf) The Chinese state media Global Times has accused Western NGOs operating in Southeast Asia to fuel public resentment against Chinese development projects. According to the media statement especially in Myanmar NGOs have been breaching their political neutrality and engaged in fueling anti-China investment projects through environmental concerns. The article accuses NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy to fund Burmese NGOs to oppose Chinese investment projects. Local NGOs such as the in Rakhine located Shwe Gas Project (SGP) which opposed the China’s Trans-Burma pipeline strongly oppose this statement. [Irrawaddy] [Global Times]
29 September 2020
Myanmar put on money laundering watchdog list
(lf) Myanmar has been placed on the blacklist for money laundering of an international watchdog. The decision was made as Myanmar is the heart of Asia’s illegitimate drug trafficking. Myanmar is encouraged to work with its neighboring countries in order to combat money laundering in its country.
Myanmar has long been a center of drug production and trafficking within Asia and it has struggled to control the production. Drug Syndicates operate in area’s controlled by ethnic armed groups, primarily close to the Golden Triangle between Myanmar and Laos. [Reuters]
29 September 2020
Myanmar: Election Update
(lf) As the numbers of Covid-19 exceed 10,000, the Ministry of Health and Sports claims that battling the pandemic is of greater importance than election campaigns. The Ministry encourages people to avoid any type of gathering, including the balloting of the election itself. [Irrawaddy 1]
Simultaneously, Myanmar’s Party for a New Society (DPNS) has cancelled their scheduled broadcast on state-owned media, due to censorship. During the election campaign parties are allowed to broadcast explanations of their policies, however, the parties have to hand in the content previously to the Union Election Commission (UEC). The DPNS party, which focuses on children’s rights, has been asked to refrain from mentioning child mortality, in addition of being prohibited to use the word “oppressed” and discussing topics of controversial infrastructure projects. The party has therefore decided to cancel their broadcast. The campaign broadcast rules prohibit any defamation of the state and the military, as well as speaking about any content which could lead to instability or unrest. Human Rights Watch criticized the rigidness of the campaign rules and urged the UEC to loosen them. [Irrawaddy 2]
DPNS is not the only party accusing the UEC of censorship, several other parties have protested the removal of the words “oppressed”, “ignored” and “civil war”. [Irrawaddy 3]
Meanwhile, the chairmen and co-founder of the biggest ethnic party – the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy – has suddenly resigned from his position. [Irrawaddy 4]
At the same time, U Kyaw Myint, leader of the United Democratic Party, which has the second highest number of candidates, has been implicated in large scale money laundering in the 1990s. According to the government, he escaped his ten-year prison time to Canada while U Kyaw Myint claims to have been imprisoned for political reasons. By Canada, he has been fined illegal insider trading though. [Irrawaddy 5]
Meanwhile, the race for the position of the Karen ethnic affairs minister, which is the only directly elected position for the coming parliament, has kicked off with this year’s candidates first online debate. With the Karen constituting one of the biggest minority groups, this position is of special political importance. [Irrawaddy 6]
29 September 2020
Newspaper under Lockdown in Myanmar
(lf) In Yangon, the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown has caused several Newspapers to stop printing, including the Myanmar Times. The stay at home order by the government, in place since September 22, excludes essential business such as telecommunication services and airlines but not print media which seems even more critical with regard of upcoming elections. At current, there is only one remaining non-state newspaper offering printed versions. While, the lockdown order is set for only 14 days, the infection rate of Covid-19 is still on the rise and it is expected that the lockdown order will be extended. Print media hopes that they will be included in the exceptions, if there is an extension. [MMTimes]
22 September 2020
Bangladesh increasingly worried over troops at its border with Myanmar
(lf) As Burmese troops gather along the border to Bangladesh, in its most eastern state Rakhine, Bangladesh has become increasingly concerned about the situation. The Burmese army increased their troops in the regions, due to an alleged increase action from both the Arakan Army (AA) (which consist of ethnic Rakhine) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Bangladesh has voiced its concerns and called for a de-escalation of the situation towards Myanmar’s ambassador. The AA and the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) are in an ongoing military conflict.
Both AA and ARSA have been declared terrorist organisations by the government. A deadly attack of ARSA against Burmese security outpost in 2017, fuelled in the clearance operation led by the Tatmadaw, which forced 730,000 Rohingya Refugees into Bangladesh, which currently host more than 1 million Rohingya refugees. [Dhaka Tribune] [Irrawaddy]
22 September 2020
Myanmar, South Korea to strengthen economic ties
(lf) Korea and Myanmar have agreed to strengthen economic cooperation in order to help Myanmar economic fallout because of the Pandemic situation in the country. The two countries agreed to strengthen ties primarily in the sectors of trade, investments and energy.
South Korea is one of Myanmar’s most important trading partners. Currently, Korea is building a friendship bridge connecting the city center of Yangon with its townships across the Yangon river [The Irrawaddy]
22 September 2020
Myanmar: Election season update
(lf) The Election Sub-Commission has announced that there will be no postponement of the election on November 9, this year. This comes despite the request of several political parties to postpone the election due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the country. [The Irrawaddy]
24 of the 93 political parties has requested for the polls to be pushed back, of which the majority did not win any seats in the 2015 elections and support the military. Most notably, it included the former ruling and military part Union Solidarity and Development Party USDP. Current ruling party National League for Democracy (NDL) holds against it, stating that a postponement would lead to political chaos in the country. [The Irrawaddy ]
Simultaneously, this week the Carter Center has launched an international election supervision campaign. Due to the Covid-19 circumstances many of the teams cannot enter the country due to restrictions for foreigners, forcing the center to hire more national teams. In August a major watchdog, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and the voluntary elections observers had been denied monitoring the elections. The observation through the Carter will allow for an element of scrutiny over the election after the denial of PACE and the exclusion of Muslim Rohingya candidates previously. The EU however, has cancelled their observation plans of the election due to the state of Covid-19. [Mizzima] [Myanmar Times] [AiR No. 33, August/ 2020, 3].
In Myanmar’s Mon State all election campaigns have been banned by the New ethnic Mon State Party, due to a spike in Covid-19 cases. [Myanmar Times]
22 September 2020
Myanmar: Ethnic military opens Military Academy
(lf) The United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, has opened a military academy within its controlled areas. This comes after last year’s celebration of 30 years of signing the ceasefire agreement between the government and the UWSA. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) condemns the opening and calls for the UWSA to rather focus on the path to peacemaking in Myanmar. Since the ceasefire agreement in 1989, there has been no clash between the Tatmadaw and the UWSA. In recent years, however, the relationship has deteriorated, notably, due to a lack of communication channels between the two groups.
The UWSA is Myanmar’s biggest and best armed ethnic group, including over 30,000 troops. Since 2008, the Burmese constitution recognizes the UWSA controlled parts of Shan state as self-administrated regions. [The Irrawaddy] [Eleven Myanmar]
22 September 2020
Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic
(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”
The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]
22 September 2020
Asia: Rise in discrimination due to Covid-19
(nd) A recent survey conducted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) highlights that the spread of Covid-19 gave rise to discrimination towards vulnerable communities in Asia. The survey asked 5,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Pakistan, with half of the asked people blaming Chinese people, immigrants and foreigners for the spread of the virus. Also, “illegal foreigners” were blamed, linking it to the arrests of undocumented migrants and refugees made by Malaysian authorities. United Nations warned this policy might deter vulnerable groups from seeking treatment.
Higher education obtained by the interviewees made it only slightly less likely for them to hold the above-mentioned groups responsible in all of the surveyed countries. [Reuters]
15 September 2020
ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis
(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]
China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.
In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]
In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]
In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]
Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”
Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]
15 September 2020
In extraordinary testimony, Myanmar soldiers confess atrocious crimes
(jn) Tapes with confessions of two deserted soldiers of the Myanmar military have been published by a human rights group in which they admit to their involvement in large-scale and state-sponsored massacres, rapes and other severe crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In the recording, they explicitly recount the orders of their superiors to “[s]hoot all you see and all you hear”, including children. One of the privates said that “we indiscriminately shot at everybody, […] Muslim men in the foreheads and kicked the bodies into the hole.” They also said they marauded and wiped out about 20 villages and dumped numerous bodies in mass graves.
The two soldiers’ video testimony, recorded by a rebel militia, is the first time that members of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, have openly confessed to taking part in what United Nations officials say was a genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The two men were transported to The Hague last week, where the International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened a case to determine whether Tatmadaw leaders possibly committed crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya. The soldiers are not under arrest, but in the custody of the ICC where they have been questioned extensively, before possibly being charged as well. Usually the ICC prosecutes high-ranking figures accused of committing crimes under the Rome Statute. The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor said it would not comment on its ongoing investigations.
The confessions could also be used in a separate genocide case that was brought by Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the beginning of this year. According to investigations by the New York Times, details in their accounts fit descriptions of witnesses and observers, including Rohingya refugees, Rakhine residents, Tatmadaw soldiers and local politicians. The crimes involving the two soldiers led to the murder of some 150 civilians and the destruction of dozens of villages and were part of widespread military campaign against the Rohingya that expelled at least 730.000 people in the late summer of 2017. At least 6.700 Rohingya were killed only between August and September of that year, about 200 of their settlements were completely erased from 2017 to 2019.
Up to now, the Myanmar government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has denied any such concerted crackdown against the Rohingya, labeling it counter-terrorism measures and even blaming the Rohingya themselves for burning down their villages, and only a few soldiers have been punished for what were officially called isolated missteps.
Matthew Smith, the chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, the group that published the confessions, said in a statement that this was a “monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice.” He also said that the confessions demonstrate that the Tatmadaw operated with a well-functioning, specific and centralized command structure. This is of relevance under the legal doctrine of command responsibility, that makes it possible to establish criminal responsibility of higher-ranking officers for heinous acts carried out by those serving under them.
The videos were filmed in July while the soldiers were in the custody of the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization in Rakhine State that is fighting the Myanmar government. According to several news outlets, it was not possible to verify the soldiers’ accounts or to ascertain whether they made their statements under duress. [New York Times] [AP] [CNN]
15 September 2020
Myanmar election season kicked off amid undefeated pandemic
(jn) Myanmar’s leader and state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi officially started the election campaign for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), last Tuesday amid rising Covid-19 cases in Yangon and Rakhine State. Her party is widely expected to again win the most seats in the November 8 general election and Suu Kyi herself is likely to remain as state counsellor, the de facto head of state. The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the NLD’s main opponent.
The health ministry reported more than 3000 cases as of Monday and 32 deaths, a sudden spike after Myanmar registered months of relatively low numbers. The government imposed a lockdown order on Rakhine and parts of the capital Yangon and grounded all domestic flights.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) has not yet decided on a postponement of the election but has not allowed in-person campaign activities in areas where shutdown measures and other restrictions have been imposed. [AP] [VOA] [Department of Public Health Myanmar]
It has also been reported that Thailand’s security forces on the border to Myanmar are on high alert to prevent an influx of migrants who are reportedly seeking to escape the soaring Covid-19 infections in their country. [Asia Times]
8 September 2020
Myanmar poet convicted
(nd) In a decision rendered by the Kyauktada Township Court, Maung Saungkha was convicted under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. On June 21, Saunggkha set up a banner criticizing the restrictions on mobile internet communications in parts of Rakhine and Chin States, which was put in place in June 2019 as response to the escalating conflict between Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. [Amnesty International] Since the NLD took office in 2015, more than 90 people have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
Meanwhile, a group of digital right organizations urged the government to restore 3G and 4G internet services, for the limited 2G service made available on August 2 undermines the efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. It does not give access to public services, voting information or political party campaigns, having an impact on this year’s election process. Since June 2019, eight townships in Rakhine and Chin state were cut off from the internet, being the longest recorded internet blackout in the world. [Myanmar Times] The clashes between AA and the military are ongoing, with a fire set by the military in a village in Rakhine State’s Kyauktaw Township and AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing asserting the military is deliberately spreading Covid-19 in Rakhine state. [Irrawaddy]
On the situation of the two ethnic Rakhine news outlets — Development Media Group (DMG) and Narinjara News — Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying the authorities should stop using website blocks and criminal laws to obstruct their work. Asia legal adviser Linda Lakhdhir called it an assault on media freedom and the right to information and said the charges should immediately be dropped. [Mizzima] Since March this year, all four mobile operators in Myanmar have blocked the media outlet’s webpages following a government directive issued by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Aung Marm Oo, chief editor of DMG, suspects the reason for the charges to be the media groups reporting on the conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, which was designated a terrorist organization on March 23, 2020 under section 15 (2) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. The reporting on this conflict has been a topic of controversy before. After after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act in 2018. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. [Human Rights Watch]
8 September 2020
Myanmar: Election Commission to comply with Covid-19 situation, governing party promises military reform
(nd) Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) is further adjusting the means for the upcoming election to the recent surge in Covid-19 cases. The decision on the delay of the general election on November 8 will be announced later this month. To date, 8,120 domestic observers to monitor the election were approved, while civil society groups report on a lower number of observers than in the 2015 election. [Irrawaddy 1]
Meanwhile, the National League for Democracy (NLD) vowed in its election manifesto the first duty will be a military reform to ensure the protection citizen’s rights, following year-long tensions between the military and the NLD. [Irrawaddy 2]
8 September 2020
Myanmar: Activists launch website to circumvent ban
(nd) The anonymous group of activists ‘Justice for Myanmar’ has launched a website to make their findings, including investigations about business activities of Myanmar’s military, accessible again. On August 27, the Post and Telecommunications Department ordered to block the group’s website and associated IP addresses. Myanmar is facing a national and international backlash from civil society groups of using Covid-19 measures to restrict media and freedom of expression. [Myanmar Times]
8 September 2020
More country’s to join Gambia’s ICJ case against Myanmar
(nd) Canada and the Netherlands announced their intent to join Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Myanmar is accused of breaching the 1948 UN genocide convention. Following a military crackdown on the Rohingya in August 2017, over a million Rohingya fled, mostly to Bangladesh, but also to India, Thailand, Malaysia and other parts in the region making it the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam war. It has been labelled as ethnic cleansing by UN officials and Human Rights Watch. [BBC] At the initial ICJ hearing, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, rejected the claims and warned, hearing the case “undermine reconciliation.” [Mizzima]
8 September 2020
Myanmar among China’s likely additions to overseas facilities; China pushes on implementation of CMEC
(nd) In an annual report titled “Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 2020” submitted to the US congress, China highly considered several locations for addition overseas facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan, US Department of Defense said. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Myanmar and China agreed on constructing the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep seaport project, granting China direct access to the Indian Ocean and thereby bypassing the Strait of Malacca. [Irrawaddy 1] Due to the importance of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as part of the BRI, Beijing pushes Myanmar to implement the plans. In a recent visit, diplomat Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s Central Committee and director of the committee’s Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission urged Myanmar to move faster and announced a 200 million yuan (39.33 billion kyat) grant for helping the western Rakhine State. [Irrawaddy 2] Since 2017, China played a mediating role between Myanmar and Bangladesh with respect to the Rohingya conflict.
Yang and State Counselor discussed China’s debt service suspension to ease Covid-19 consequences and he later met with the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, neither discussion content was made public.
1 September 2020
Top Chinese diplomat to visit Myanmar
(lm) Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, is scheduled to visit Myanmar this week, as China continues to challenge India`s dominance. [ISEAS] [South China Morning Post]
China is currently regarded as playing with fire in relation to two of Myanmar’s insurgent groups. In an implicit reference to Beijing, the Myanmar commander-in-chief alleged in July that domestic terrorist groups were being backed by ‘strong forces’. A military spokesperson later clarified that the army chief was referring to the fact that fighters from the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had used Chinese-made weapons in a 2019 attack. [AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]
1 September 2020
China, Southeast Asian leaders meet to discuss the Mekong`s plight
(lm) At a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits, leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform. During the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqian promised that Beijing would henceforth share the Lancang River’s hydrological data with the Lower Mekong countries. [The Diplomat]
Established in 2016, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism that brings together the riparian countries of the vital waterway, which begins in China as the Lancang then traverses Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, with water levels across the Lower Mekong Basin down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current monsoon also down by about 70 percent.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Beijing has since constructed 11 giant dams along the mountainous territory of the Upper Mekong to sustain its ever-increasing energy needs. In April this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – refuted a previously published US-funded report that had accused China of deliberately holding back water, significantly contributing to the major drought impacting the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Despite denying the allegations, however, the MRC did call on China for greater transparency in its water data.
In March this year, five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region had declared a state of emergency in face of continued extreme drought and salinity. A result of lobbying from international NGOs and internal reporting, shortly thereafter, the Cambodian government announced a decade-long dam moratorium on the mainstream of the river. The Cambodian moratorium leaves Laos, which commissioned two major dams in 2019, as the only Lower Mekong country pursuing hydropower on the mainstream of the river. [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4] [AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]
Beyond the Lancang/Mekong River`s plight, leaders on Monday also talked about strengthening their cooperation on public health, food supply chains, and a post-COVID-19 recovery of the region’s tourism industry. [TTR Weekly]
25 August 2020
Japanese Foreign Minister visits Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia
(jn) Japanese foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited Laos from August 22-24 to mark the 65th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and Japan. Among several topics, both sides discussed whether to allow long-term residents of each other’s nations, and investors and businesspeople, to travel between the two countries while maintaining the requirement of a fourteen-day quarantine at home or at another designated area. Such travelers would be monitored throughout their stay, but it would make commerce possible, with the Lao side keen to see more Japanese businesses move their operations to Laos. [Laotian Times]
Mr. Motegi also visited Cambodia and Myanmar, where he met with his respective counterparts, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and agreed to reopen borders for expatriates as soon as early September, relaxing travel restrictions that were imposed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the deal between Laos and Japan, expatriates and other long-term residents will be allowed to travel reciprocally provided they self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving and take other precautionary measures. [Nikkei Asian Review 1] [Nikkei Asian Review 2]
25 August 2020
India is working on balancing against Chinese influence in Myanmar
(dql) For Delhi, China’s rise forms a constant challenge to India’s dominance of its backyard currently tested in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. After India’s foreign minister visited Bangladesh last week to work on bilateral ties, Myanmar is the next country on India’s wooing list, a country where India and China compete for dominance.
Timing seems well for the Indian chief diplomat though. First, from a Myanmar perspective, India has handled its role in mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Rohingya issue rather well. Second, China is currently regarded as playing a dangerous role in relation to two of Myanmar’s insurgent groups. On July 2, the Myanmar commander-in-chief referring to the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) alleged that terrorist groups in the country were being backed by ‘strong forces’ implying China. A military spokesperson then clarified the army chief was referring to the fact that AA and ARSA fighters had used Chinese made weapons when attacking the armed forces in a 2019 attack.
Another pain point Delhi could press has been revealed by Myanmar’s auditor general who had raised alarm over loans from China: “The truth is the loans from China come at higher interest rates compared to loans from financial institutions like the World Bank or the IMF” he was quoted, adding: “So, I would like to remind the government ministries to be more restrained in using Chinese loans.” Other criticism came up with regard to Chinese investment projects like the Muse-Mandalay Electric Railway built by a Chinese company or plans to erect a new Yangon city in cooperation with China.
These disturbances notwithstanding, China is present in the country as well and has also been working on deepening its ties with Myanmar with President Xi Jinping having visited the country at the beginning of the year.
To make things even more complicated, geostrategy and domestic politics are increasingly intertwined with Myanmar’s generals inclined to quest the Chinese card which becomes more attractive for Aung San Suu Kyi after having been put under pressure by the West over the Rohingya issue. [The Week]
25 August 2020
Myanmar: Civilians arrested over suspicion of ties to Arakan Army
(dql) Government forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state detained six civilians suspected of having ties to the rebel ethnic Arakan Army (AA) after they refused to answer questions whether AA soldiers were present in their village, out of fear that AA soldiers might actually be there. Four of theme were later released. [Radio Free Asia]
The case draws attention to the dangerous situation of civilians living in combat zones.
Meanwhile, two senior members of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and three civilian medics, abducted earlier this month by the Rakhine ethnic armed group Arakan Army (AA), have been released last week. Since 2017, twelve members of the ALP, a signatory to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and participant in the peace conference, have been detained by the AA. [Irrawaddy]
25 August 2020
Myanmar: Buddhist monk granted bail in military critic case
(dql) A Buddhist Monk, sued by a military officer for a post on Facebook criticizing military leaders for abusing their power for personal gains, has been granted bail.
The monk, known as an outspoken military critic, is scheduled to stand trial in September over charges of Sect. 66 of the country’s Telecommunications Act (“extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network”) as well as of various articles of the penal code on intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace and statements conducing to public mischief. [Irrawaddy]
25 August 2020
Myanmar: HRW on stifling free-speech and internet shutdowns
(dql) HRW commented on the ongoing case against free-speech activist and poet Maung Saungkh who had to appear in court on August 21 to face accusations of organizing a protest by demanding an end to internet restrictions in the conflict-affected Rakhine and Chin states. For hanging a banner reading “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine and killing people?” at an overpass in Yangon, he was charged under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which criminalizes unauthorized protests and carries a maximum three-month prison sentence, a fine, or both.
June 21, the day when he spread the banner, was the one-year anniversary of internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin states. On this and other cases revealing Myanmar’s authorities’ inclination to increasingly stifle civil protest and dissent, while restricting access to information critical on the government see the detailed HRW report here: [HRW]
25 August 2020
Myanmar: Election observers finally accredited – Rohingya candidates likely to be rejected
(jn/ls) In an about-face, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) eventually gave permission to the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) to monitor the conduct of the upcoming November 8 elections. After having applied to serve as an official election observer the group had received a letter from the UEC in which the accreditation was rejected causing an outcry among rights groups [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. PACE plans to deploy up to 2,900 observers in the elections. [Myanmar Times]
At the same time, however, at least a dozen Myanmar citizens from the Rohingya Muslim minority who have applied to be candidates in the election are likely to be rejected due to a lack of proof that their parents were Myanmar citizens. Successive military governments have stripped the Rohingya of identity documents, leaving many with no proof of their origins. In 2015, President Thein Sein announced that so called white cards were nullified as well, preventing Rohingya from voting in the 2015 election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power. [Reuters]
25 August 2020
Myanmar: Peace conference wrapped up
(jn) The fourth session of Myanmar’s peace conference was concluded on Friday with 230 representatives of the government, military, ten ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and political parties agreeing on key principles to advance the stagnating peace process and to achieve a democratic federal union of Myanmar. The signing of the so-called Union Accord Part III that tops the fourth round of the Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong was envisaged to breathe new life into the peace process that has stalled since the last year.
The agreement clears up misunderstandings on the already existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and on its implementation, and details steps for a union-building process after 2020. It also assures equal rights without discrimination based on race, religion, culture or gender. One key principle calls for a “union identity”, namely a national identity that recognizes the histories and cultures of the many nationalities of Myanmar. Other provisions govern military issues like troop deployments, the demarcation of territory and the handling of skirmishes between the military and EAOs.
The negotiators could not agree, however, on the issue of granting the power of (regional) constitution-making to ethnic groups. Still, it is regarded as remarkable that the Tatmadaw, the military, reversed its 70-year old stance of rejecting federalism as a constitutional principle on which the country’s political future should rest.
Finding a consensus on what shape the peace process and NCA will take in the future was important for the participating signatories of the NCA before the looming November elections, even though the current administration of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to win another term. Given the boycott of seven EAOs in protest of the government excluding the Arakan Army (AA) of Rakhine state, the whole NCA process remains fragile and its viability in doubt.
Aung San Suu Kyi hailed the agreement as “a new plan for building a Democratic federal union beyond 2020” and urged the present stakeholders to continue participating in the peace process, now that it stood on firmer footing. In what was seen as rebuke to the military and as a sign of a personal rift between her and army chief Min Aung Hlaing, Aung San Suu Kyi said that peacebuilding was “aimed at rooting out the underlying attitude that caused the ‘bad politics’ which focused on the power of weapons to gain impact, get respect and achieve success”. She also pointed out that an amendment of the military-drafted constitution was necessary. The relationship with the army chief had become severely strained after the brutal military crackdown against the Rohingya minority, and after he had refused to talk to her about amending the military-authored 2008 constitution.
A representative of the Tatmadaw said he now saw better prospects for the peace process and the agreements reached were proof of the collective longing for peace in the country. The military explicitly did not call on EAOs to disarm, which they took as a positive sign. [The Irrawaddy] [Myanmar Times 1] [Myanmar Times 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Nikkei Asian Review]
For insights to the role China is playing for the tribal factions in the North of Myanmar, in particular the Wa – ethnic Chinese living on both sides of the Chinese-Burmese border – see [StrategyPage].
18 August 2020
Myanmar: Complications in run-up to peace conference and election
(jn) A major election watchdog group in Myanmar, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) has been banned from monitoring the November 8 general election, along thousands of observers. The Union Election Commission denied accreditation on the basis that the group had received foreign assistance but was not officially registered. In response, more than 450 civil society groups issued a joint statement demanding that the decision be overturned in the name of free and fair elections. Experts see the coming election as a crucial test of the transition to democracy and away from direct military rule, but preparations have been complicated by the pandemic and escalating ethnic conflict. [Reuters] [Bangkok Post]
In another instance, a Muslim Rohingya candidate for parliament has been disqualified from running by a local election commission that questioned whether he fulfilled the citizenship requirement. The candidate and rights groups decried the rejection as discriminatory and generally reflective of the hostile treatment of the Rohingya minority that has suffered from persecution and a brutal military crackdown since 2017 and that has prompted accusations of genocide against the Myanmar government. [Radio Free Asia 1] [The Straits Times]
The so-called 21st-Century Panglong Conference, the formal frame for the national peace process between the Myanmar government and armed ethnic groups, saw a setback on Thursday when an alliance of ethnic armed groups announced that they would not participate in the fourth round of talks on August 19-21. The main reason why six of the members declined was that the seventh member of the group, the Arakan Army (AA), was not invited by the government that it has been actively fighting since 2018 in Rakhine state. The absence of some of the most powerful ethnic armies in the country diminishes the already low expectations for the peace process, the success of which the national leadership under Aung San Suu Kyi needs in face of the November elections. [Radio Free Asia 2]
For a critical account on the problem of malapportionment in Myanmar’s election and its impact on the country’s democratization and broader political development, see Kai Ostwald and Constant Courtin at [ISEAS].
11 August 2020
Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi officially files for November election amid ongoing violence
(jn) State Counsellor and de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi has submitted her candidacy papers to run for reelection in her constituency in Yangon confirming she is seeking a second term in parliament and at the helm of the national government for another five years. It is widely expected that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will emerge victorious from the November 8 elections and will have the mandate to form a new government.
This time around, however, she faces international and – again and more important for the electoral dynamics – domestic criticism of her leadership. Correspondingly, newly founded parties will compete with the NLD [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. One of many complicating factors concerns erroneous voter rolls that election officials are scrambling to fix ahead of the general election.
Moreover, the election commission of the government has already said that elections in war-stricken Rakhine state will be postponed, depending on a safety assessment by military-controlled ministries – a move that has already triggered a backlash in the concerned region. A peace conference next week on the further implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and the many ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) from around the country could yield some indications how the security situation and the stagnating peace process will look like in November and beyond.
The fact that the national government has excluded the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) from Rakhine state, however, might turn out to be an omen for unabated escalation, at least in Rakhine. The AA has been fighting for 20 months against government forces in a struggle for greater autonomy, leaving more than 270 civilians dead and nearly 200.000 forcibly displaced since 2018. In March, the government had declared the AA an illegal association and terrorist organization. Groups allied with the AA have already declared they would side with the AA and not attend the peace conference unless the government invited AA. Confirmations of participation of several other EAOs that are not signatories of the NCA are still pending as well. [Reuters] [The Irrawaddy] [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]
As another sign of ongoing violence in Myanmar’s western regions, rebel groups ambushed and killed three soldiers of an Indian paramilitary unit in the Indian Chandel district by the end of July. Several Myanmar-based separatist groups operate from across the border to attack Indian troops, sometimes also engaging Myanmar forces. [The Diplomat]
11 August 2020
Myanmar: Facebook not providing information to U.N. investigative body
(ls) The head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (IIMM), an investigative body set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council, said that Facebook has not yet released evidence related to crimes committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority by Myanmar’s military, despite expressing its intention to work with investigators. U.N investigators had previously found that Facebook had played a major role in spreading hate speech that fueled violence. Since the incidents, Facebook has deleted accounts linked to the military including senior army officials and preserved the data. [Reuters]
4 August 2020
Myanmar: Killing by soldiers triggers anti-military protests in Karen state
(jn) Two weeks of peaceful protests culminated last Tuesday when an estimated 5000 people of the Karen ethnic group marched in the streets of the capital of Karen state to demand justice for the murder of an unarmed Karen woman in mid-July at the hands of two soldiers in a failed robbery. They also called for the closure of the outpost where the two soldiers were stationed. The protesters also raised the fate of five other civilians that were killed by the military in Karen state this year.
As some sort of rare admission of guilt on part of the military, it said that the two soldiers suspected of the murder would be tried at a court-martial. At the same time, the military suggested that the protest might be instigated by rebel groups like the Karen National Union (KNU) and that security reasons did not allow for a withdrawal from the district in question. The KNU denied the allegations.
The KNU and the national military are maintaining a fragile peaceful coexistence ever since a ceasefire was signed after more than 60 years of fighting in 2012, with the KNU even exercising some sovereign rights like running local governments. Tensions between both sides have risen though recently because of infrastructure projects by the military in the region. [The Irrawaddy] [The Irrawaddy 2] [Asia Times]
28 July 2020
Aung San Suu Kyi to seek another term as State Counsellor, facing several challenges
(jn) Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will run in the parliamentary elections on 8 November, her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) announced last Tuesday. Despite being barred from becoming president after having won the 2015 election in a landslide, her party in parliament created the post of State Counsellor for her, an office akin to those of a Prime Minister.
Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to win the mandate for another term in government, even though her standing and popularity have suffered over her failure to solve armed conflicts and the refugee crisis plaguing the country as well as to curb the military’s political influence [see AiR No. 27, July/2020, 1]. Minority and ethnic groups who had been oppressed by the preceding military junta are disappointed with her, making them more likely to back their own parties in the election.
As a sign of the State Counsellor’s – if only partially – diminished clout, some former NLD-lawmakers have united under new, smaller parties that will compete with the NLD in the general election.
More than 37 million people are eligible to vote, facing a choice of 97 competing parties. More than 1170 seats are at stake at national, state and regional levels. [The Diplomat] [Asian Nikkei Review] [The Irrawaddy]
The elections will take place amid a tense security environment, given almost weekly reports of clashes between government forces and insurgent ethnic militants that trigger ever new refugee movements. Last Wednesday, more than 200 residents were forced to flee their village in northern Shan State due to skirmishes between the military and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). Fighting between armed groups also takes its toll; only last week it was reported that the Arakan Army (AA) killed three captive members of the competing Arakan Liberation Army (ALP). [The Irrawaddy 2] [The Irrawaddy 3]
Following the November election, a new administration – in all likelihood similar to the current one and headed by Aung San Suu Kyi – will have to navigate between China’s ever-growing influence in the region and a US determined to counter these ambitions. National security calculations will remain critical for the country’s leadership when deciding on its participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially whether to go forward with large-scale infrastructure projects. [The Diplomat 2]
28 July 2020
Malaysia: Missing Rohingya boat people have survived
(cm) Malaysian authorities have safely spotted 26 Rohingya refugees on Rebak Besar island on the country’s Andaman coast. Coastguards were concerned the refugees had drowned from attempting to enter Langkawi island before. The initial fear of migrants drowning was due to Malaysian authorities prohibiting Rohingya refugees from disembarking their boats onto their shores. [Reuters] [Amnesty International]
Malaysia does not recognize Rohingya people’s refugee status under international law. Furthermore, the government recently considered sending migrants back to sea. Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin voiced concerns with regard to the influx of migrants fleeing the conflict in Myanmar and demanded shared assistance from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]
21 July 2020
Chinese embassy in Myanmar attacks US for its criticism of China’s regional striving for power
(jn) China’s embassy in Myanmar claimed on Sunday that the US was “outrageously smearing” the country and of driving a wedge between China and other Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea dispute and Hong Kong. The US showed a “selfish, hypocritical, contemptible, and ugly face” in an attempt to “shift the attention on domestic problems and seek selfish political gains”.
The US embassy in Yangon had decried China’s “unprecedented campaign to undermine the sovereignty of ASEAN countries in the South China Sea” as part of a “larger pattern to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors”. Further, it compared China’s behavior in the South China Sea and Hong Kong to large-scale Chinese investments projects in Myanmar that mostly benefit China and could become debt-traps, but also pointed to Chinese responsibility for drug and human trafficking as well as environmental destruction in Myanmar: “This is how modern sovereignty is often lost – not through dramatic, overt action, but through a cascade of smaller ones that lead to its slow erosion over time,” the embassy asserted.
Despite its relative economic insignificance, Myanmar has become another strategic theater where China is eyeing access to the Bay of Bengal and is flexing its mighty economic muscles (see e.g. AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5). [Reuters in Channel News Asia][US Embassy Op-Ed]
21 July 2020
Myanmar: Thousands of villagers fleeing violence in Rakhine state
(jn) After days of heavy fighting between the Myanmar military and the insurgent Arakan Army (AA), at least 3000 civilians have fled their villages in the north of Rakhine state. As about 200.000 refugees before them, they are seeking shelter in Buddhist monasteries and crowded and poorly run refugee camps in coastal areas. The military blamed AA fighters for “using villagers as human shields” that required a counter-terrorism operation to reopen communication lines and to rescue the villagers. However, during that operation at least one civilian was killed, and residents said they feared torture and wanton destruction from government forces that were driving them out of their villages. [Radio Free Asia]
Exemplifying political persecution against people suspected of ties to the AA, Myanmar authorities released the body of a 37-year old man that showed clear signs of torture, according to his family. Civilian detentions are on the rise again with one NGO counting more than 300 citizens arrested on the mere suspicion of connections to the AA. Hundreds of more civilians are said to be on the run to escape arrest by the government. [Radio Free Asia 2]
21 July 2020
Malaysian court’s hand down sentences on Rohingya refugees
(cm) After many Rohingyas have disembarked on Malaysian shores, 31 men were sentenced to prison for seven months, and approximately 20 of them additionally received three strokes of the cane for having committed offences under the Immigration Act 1959/63 in June. Others, children and women, were given similar jail sentences for entering the nation without a valid work permit.
The Immigration Act in Malaysia imposes up to five years of imprisonment, fines and six strokes of the cane for individuals who are seen as ‘irregular’, thus persons who enter the country without the government’s permission. Amnesty International questions that Malaysia’s treatment of refugees and undocumented migrants complies with international standards while PM Muhyiddin Yassin sought assistance from other neighbouring countries during the ASEAN meeting this month. [AiR No. 26, June/2020, 5] [Amnesty International] [Refworld]
14 July 2020
UN report on repressive COVID-19 responses: China, India, Cambodia, and Myanmar singled out as Asian examples for crackdown on free speech
(jn) The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, voiced serious concerns over new state measures restricting and punishing the free flow of information globally while presenting his latest report on freedom of expression and disease pandemics to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Many states had used the pandemic as a front to crack down on journalism and silence criticism.
According to the Special Rapporteur states should address the following five challenges:
- “Reinforce access to information and share as much as possible about the course of the disease and the tools people should use to protect themselves and their communities.
- End the practice of internet shutdowns and other limitations on access to the internet.
- Refrain from all attacks on the media and release all journalists detained, […].
- Do not treat the so-called infodemic as a problem that criminalisation will solve. […].
- Ensure that any public health surveillance measures are consistent with fundamental legal standards of necessity and proportionality and are transparent, non-discriminatory, limited in duration and scope, subject to oversight, and never be used to criminalise individuals.”
Cambodia’s mission to the UN in Geneva immediately denounced the Kingdom’s mention as misleading and faulty. It said that Kaye failed to recognize that the government was simply intensifying its efforts in containing disinformation and fake news amid the pandemic. [Phnom Penh Post]
The Special Rapporteurs are the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system and part of the Special Procedures off the Human Rights Council which is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
For an interview with David Kaye on “COVID-19 and freedom of expression” see [Just Security].
7 July 2020
Myanmar: Over 200 dead due to landslide triggered mud wave
(jn) At least 200 people were killed by tsunami-like waves of mud and water after a landslide had rushed into a lake at a jade mine in Hpakant township, Kachin state, northern Myanmar close to the Chinese border.
Both work accidents and landslides are common in an area that draws poor migrant workers from across the country, yet this disaster is the worst in the past five years. Despite government vows to regulate mining activities and related corruption better, thousands of jade pickers continue to scour for jade scraps that might have been left behind in tailings by the large mining operators.
Myanmar is the world’s biggest exporter of jadeite with official sales worth $750 million in 2016/17, the bulk of which leaving for China. The obscure industry was worth $31 billion in 2014, and watchdog groups assume that operators are tied to former and acting military figures and their cronies. The riches of the vast natural resources in northern Myanmar help finance both sides of the civil war between Kachin insurgents and the military. [Myanmar Times] [Asia Times] [Bangkok Post] [SCMP] [Radio Free Asia]
7 July 2020
Myanmar: General elections in November
(jn) The chairman of the Union Election Commission of Myanmar announced that the next general election for the parliament would be held on November 8, 2020. Representatives for more than 1170 national, state and local seats will be chosen including those in the country’s conflict-stricken regions.
The election will serve as a litmus test for State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to lead a civilian government for another term. Since she gained power in a landslide victory in 2015, ending years of military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to enjoy popularity domestically, especially among her base of the Bamar majority, despite escalating armed conflicts between the government and ethnic insurgent groups in some states and slow economic growth.
Internationally, the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and once revered democracy icon has considerably suffered over the military crackdown that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee the country and that gave rise to corresponding accusations of genocide, which she fended off at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.
Experts still expect her to retain an albeit diminished majority of seats in parliament, even though 25% of those are constitutionally reserved for the military. The main opponent of the NLD is the ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’, the political arm of the military.
Human Rights groups fear that many citizens, among them marginalized ethnic groups and internally displaced people, will not have fair access to the ballot box. Nevertheless, relatively competitive and free elections could be a landmark in consolidating Myanmar’s trajectory towards a more stable democracy. [Myanmar Times] [Al Jazeera] [The Diplomat]
30 June 2020
At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute
(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.
ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.
On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].
The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.
There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling.
For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.
The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.
The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1].
The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]
30 June 2020
Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute
(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]
30 June 2020
Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful
(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]
Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]
The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]
30 June 2020
Myanmar: Thousands of villagers flee army operation in Rakhine state
(jn) Some 10,000 villagers have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state after the government allegedly ordered them to leave their homes as part of a larger military campaign against combatants of the rebellious Arakan Army (AA) in the state. The mass exodus set in after a local administrator had warned village leaders that the army had planned “clearance operations” against insurgents. However, a government spokesman said on Saturday that the original evacuation order issued by border-affairs officials had been revoked. Border affairs officials acknowledged issuing the order through the local administrator but said it affected fewer villages.
“Clearance operations” is the term that Myanmar authorities used in 2017 to label the forceful crackdown against insurgents from Rakhine state’s Muslim-minority Rohingya people which led to the large-scale refugee crisis in the region. [Radio Free Asia] [Bangkok Post]
30 June 2020
Construction of Chinese BRI deep-sea port in Myanmar to start soon
(jn) According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Commerce, preparations are in the final stages for a Chinese-Myanmar joint venture that will establish a deep-sea port in the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State. The SEZ is central to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) which itself is embedded in China’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The port is envisaged to be a lifeline for the landlocked Chinese province of Yunnan and would give China an alternative connection to the Indian Ocean instead of the Strait of Malacca. The entire project is going to encompass 4300 acres including an industrial zone for the garment sector and several other industries.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January, concession and shareholder agreements were signed. But the state-owned Chinese counterpart, the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), already struck a shareholder agreement as early as 2015 with the previous Myanmar government in which CITIC was granted an 85% share in the project.
After it was criticized that this arrangement could lead Myanmar into a debt rap with China, the latter accepted to cede 30% of the shares to Myanmar under a readjusted agreement with the new NLD-government. What is more, the initial investment costs of up to $10 billion were scaled down to $1.5 billion. In February, however, the Ministry of Commerce said that CITIC will own 51% of the industrial zone while the Myanmar government will own 49%. [The Irrawaddy]
23 June 2020
Myanmar: Opposition party leaders to run for parliament
(dql) The opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has announced that its leaders will contest the November elections in attempt to revive the fortunes of the military-backed party. The list of the candidates will be led by the party’s chairperson U Than Htay, a former brigadier general and former Energy and Rail Transportation minister.
Formed in 2010 as the political arm of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (military) rulers, the party won the general election that year with over 70 percent of seats in parliament and its then leader, U Thein Sein, was appointed president. In the 2015 election the party lost against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). [Myanmar Times]
For an outlook of party mergers and other pre-electoral coalition forms in the upcoming election see Su Mon Thant at [ISEAS].
23 June 2020
Malaysia: Plans for Rohingya detainees to be sent back to Sea
(cm) Last Friday, security sources divulged that Malaysian authorities plan to send 269 Rohingya Muslims back out to sea. Their hopes of sending the refugees to Bangladesh fell short as Bangladeshi officials rejected their request. Thus, authorities are now aiming to repair the boat, regardless of the report of one death and poor health conditions upon arrival. [Reuters]
In response, Amnesty International in a statement said that “not only would such a move breach the most basic principles of international law, if the boat subsequently managed to land in another country irregularly, it could potentially contravene Malaysia’s own law banning the smuggling of migrants.” [Amnesty International]
In early June, Malaysian authorities were unable to cease entry or return the Rohingya refugees due to their damaged boat. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]
9 June 2020
Bangladesh: First Rohingya refugee dies of Covid-19
(ls) In the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the first Rohingya refugee has died of Covid-19, triggering new fears that the novel coronavirus could spread more widely in the overcrowded camps with 60,000 to 90,000 people per square kilometer. At least 29 Rohingya have tested positive for the virus so far since the first case was detected in mid-May. Bangladesh as a whole has seen a spike in infections in recent weeks.
9 June 2020
Myanmar rejects cease-fire proposal from ethnic insurgent groups
(jn) Last Tuesday, the Myanmar military rejected to enter into cease-fire talks offered by three ethnic armed groups – the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – and announced to further retaliate recent rebel attacks, instead. The government’s announcement came only days after the AA had conducted a retaliatory attack against a border guard outpost in Rakhine state, leaving four dead and six people kidnapped. [Asia in Review, No. 22, June/2020, 1]
The government of State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’ is seeking to bring an end to Myanmar’s ethnic conflict. However, so far only ten of the country’s 20-some ethnic armed groups have signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the government insists on before the groups can participate in the peace talks. On Sunday, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) ruled out the possibility of signing the government’s ceasefire agreement this year. [Myanmar Times]
An analysis by Radio Free Asia (RFA) revealed that the armed conflict between government forces and the AA in Rakhine state has killed 257 civilians and injured 570 others between December 2018 and May of this year. [RFA 1] [RFA 2]
9 June 2020
Malaysia: Rohingya migrants on Malaysian territorial waters
(cm) Off the northwest island of Langkawi, 269 Rohingya Migrants attempted to enter Malaysia on Monday morning. The border control authorities managed to detain the migrants, as the boat was too damaged to be sent back. Many migrants illegally travel to Malaysia to flee the conflicts of Myanmar, or poor refugee camp conditions in the Bangladesh, and head towards a nation that is predominantly Muslim. [The Jakarta Post] [Channel NewsAsia]
However, the COVID-19 virus highly impacted the overcrowded detention centres and unhygienic conditions. This posed a risk to the national security to Malaysian citizens, and vulnerability to detainees without international protection from the UNHCR. [Al Jazeera] [Amnesty International]
The government aimed at strengthening their security by coordinating with the Armed Forces, National Task Force and Malaysian border of Security Agency, to battle the influx of illegal migrants and undocumented workers. [New Straits Times]
2 June 2020
Myanmar: Violence rages on in Rakhine State
(jn) The insurgent Arakan Army (AA) killed four policemen and captured nine people, police and family members, in an attack on a paramilitary border guard outpost in Rathedaung township of Rakhine state on Friday. The military decried the AA’s strategy of targeting border guard outposts and police stations, but also civilians, as war crimes. An AA spokesman said that the attack was in retaliation for an army raid on an AA camp in Chin state on May 24. Since the beginning of the armed conflict between Myanmar and the AA in late 2018, another such large scale raid on border posts only happened in January 2019, leaving 14 policemen dead [AiR No. 1 January/2019, 1] [RFA][Myanmar Times]
Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the almost complete torching of an abandoned Chin State village which it said had “all the hallmarks” of previous military arson attacks on villages. Locals, however, were reluctant to put the blame on either side of the conflict between the AA and the government forces. No deaths have been reported since the village had been deserted for several months after artillery fire had scared away the villagers, but some former residents living nearby have now lost all their livelihoods.
In another case, satellite images have now revealed that the large destruction of another abandoned village in Rakhine state was indeed caused by arson. Neighboring villagers had witnessed soldiers entering the village before they heard gunfire and saw flames erupt. HRW denounced the devastation and called for an impartial investigation. The Myanmar military also used arson as a military tactic during its crackdown on Rohingya communities in 2017 forcing about 750.000 Rohingya Muslims to flee for Bangladesh and leaving thousands dead which led to investigations by the International Criminal Court against Myanmar. [CNA] [RFA 2] [RFA 3]
Such violent incidents that happen on a regular basis have also made clear that the many unilateral ceasefires announced by the Tatmadaw or insurgent groups in recent years have mostly not been adhered to and failed to stop the fighting. [The Diplomat]
2 June 2020
Myanmar trying to find its footing amid power struggle between China and India
(jn) The Myanmar military flew detained members of Indian insurgent groups from the northwestern region of Sagaing to the Indian state Assam in mid-May to surrender them to Indian authorities, which now has become public. Indian insurgents have sought shelter in western Myanmar since the late 1960s from where they used to launch offensives into eastern Indian states. This was mostly condoned or denied by Myanmar authorities, whose resources were tied up in other seditious regions of the country, until February 2019 when the army raided a headquarter that was shared between a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) and rebels from India.
The recent repatriation and last year’s raid fit the greater pattern of a geostrategic (re-)alignment that Myanmar seeks in a regional rivalry between China in the north and India in the west. Before the political reforms and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power in the last decade, the country had deep ties with China. The latter has never linked its investments and arms sales to Myanmar’s human rights record unlike the West. The revival of diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the West, however, came to an abrupt halt with the violent crackdown against Rohingyas and the ensuing refugee crisis in 2017.
In recent years the Myanmar leadership has pivoted to several other countries, first and foremost again to China, which is eager to further integrate Myanmar in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aiming at strengthening the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as an exclusive access to the Indian Ocean and vast natural resources. However, rifts have appeared between Suu Kyi, who is working towards ever closer ties with Beijing, and the military’s top brass, who are increasingly seeing themselves as their country’s guardian against an anticipated loss of sovereignty under Chinese dominance.
This comes as a remarkable reversal of the previous role allocation, because Suu Kyi as an internationally revered political pro-democracy and human right activist, formerly married to a Tibetologist, was not the obvious go-to-person for China. But with her reputation in tatters on the world stage since the Rohingya refugee crisis, Suu Kyi has looked north to tap into economic support which she needs to successfully weather the upcoming national election this November.
Fittingly, in January, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to visit Myanmar in 20 years with 33 bilateral agreements in tow. The Tatmadaw’s stance on China, however, has become increasingly frosty given China’s economic advancement with large infrastructure projects, and its double game on the issue of ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, acting both as conflict mediator and secret arms supplier to rebel groups. Tensions have also led the military’s top brass to suspend two major Chinese infrastructure projects.
The Tatmadaw have thus turned to India that is equally indifferent about the human rights situation. Since 2017, the military cooperation has been taken to a new level, including joint military training and exercises in the Bay of Bengal were India is keen to contain China’s encroachment. India is concerned about Chinese influence and arms trafficking to insurgents in its unruly north eastern border regions.
In its effort to diversify its security alliances, Myanmar has also turned to Russia that sold it six Sukhoi Su-30M fighter jets and graced it with a visit by the defense minister in January 2018 during which a deeper military cooperation was agreed upon. [Asia Times 1] [Asia Times 2]
26 May 2020
Myanmar: News editor jailed for two years over report on coronavirus death
(jk) A Myanmar news editor has been jailed for two years after his online news agency reported on an alleged coronavirus death in Karen State that turned out to be false. His arrest two weeks ago was followed by an unusually swift conviction in court last week where he was sentenced under section 505(b) of the penal code to two years in jail. [The Straits Times]
Penal Code Sections 505(a) and 505(b), regarding circulating statements that are “likely to cause” fear, alarm or induce offences against the state public order, amongst other things, are vaguely worded and used widely to stifle dissenting voices.
26 May 2020
Myanmar submits first report on Rohingya to International Court of Justice
(jk) Myanmar has submitted a first report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) after the court in The Hague indicated that it is plausible that genocide occurred and ruled in January to impose measures on Myanmar, demanding the government to take action to prevent future acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim community. The Court also ordered the government to take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of evidence, and to submit a report to the Court on all measures taken within four months, and then every six months, until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court. [Asia in Review No. 4, January/2020][International Court of Justice]
Myanmar has vowed to carry out its own investigations, saying international justice mechanisms violate its sovereignty. While some observers see issuing the first report after four month as a positive step signalling Myanmar’s compliance, Rohingya groups say the ICJ’s orders are being ignored and the military is continuing to commit atrocities against them. [Al Jazeera]
26 May 2020
Bangladesh: Rising fears of coronavirus infections in Rohingya refugee camps
(ls) In Bangladesh’s refugee camps, about 15,000 Rohingya refugees have been put under coronavirus quarantine. Health experts have long warned that the virus could lead to mass infections in the cramped camps, housing almost one million Rohingya who fled from Myanmar. In early April, authorities already imposed a complete lockdown on Cox’s Bazar district, which has a population of about 3.4 million people, including the refugees. [Straits Times]
26 May 2020
Myanmar: Large amounts of illicit drugs and liquid fentanyl seized
(jk) Narcotics police have seized a large amount of the synthetically produced opioid fentanyl, alongside other drugs, in Myanmar’s Shan State. According to the UNODC, the seizure provides evidence that the opioid is being produced and moved in the area (Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle”) in extremely large quantities and it is quickly becoming a hot-spot for fentanyl in particular.
The seizure led to the confiscation of staggering amounts of opioids, including close to 4000 liters of methyl fentanyl, over 17 tons of methamphetamine tablets, over 500 kilograms crystal methamphetamine, 292 kilograms of heroin and over 600 kilograms of opium, morphine and ketamine. [The Associated Press]
For a highly interesting and investigative long read from the coal face and the middle of the Golden Triangle, see [GQ Magazine].
19 May 2020
Myanmar: Recent military reshuffle prepares the ground for Commander-in-Chief’s retirement
(hg) Earlier this month and six months ahead of the general election expected to be held in November, the Myanmar armed forces, the Tatmadaw, have reshuffled some important positions, promoting parts of a new generation of officers, a development lucidly analyzed by Nanda for [Frontier Myanmar].
The reshuffle is widely seen as a move by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has headed the Tatmadaw for nine years, to shore up support among senior ranks before his current five-year term ends in 2021.
In effect, the latest reshuffle has strengthened those perceived to be close to Min Aung Hlaing, who himself became appointed commander-in-chief by Senior General Than Shwe in 2011 when the military transferred power to the quasi-civilian administration headed by President U Thein Sein. Min Aung Hlaing became vice senior general a year later and senior general in 2013.
Now, with his retirement advancing, Min Aung Hlaing prepares a military leadership close to him, which would turn out particularly useful if speculations are accurate that he has political aspirations and may run for the presidency.
Most significant is the rise of Major-General Kyaw Swar Lin, 49, commander of the Tatmadaw’s Central Command, who has been promoted to become Myanmar’s youngest lieutenant-general replacing Lieutenant-General Nyo Saw as quartermaster general, the sixth highest position in the Tatmadaw. Kyaw Swar Lin, who is a graduate of the 35th batch of the elite Defence Services Academy, served as a junior officer to Lieutenant-General Moe Myint Tun, commander of the Bureau of Special Operations 6, who is widely expected to become the next Tatmadaw commander-in-chief. Both served together on operations in Rakhine State prior to 2018. According to rumors, newly appointed quartermaster general Kyaw Swar Lin could become deputy commander-in-chief then. At least three of the 14 regional command positions of the Tatmadaw were also reshuffled.
19 May 2020
UN Security Council addresses Rakhine conflict and Covid-19 in Myanmar
(jn) Last Thursday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held a closed-door video conference both on the escalation of violence in Rakhine state and on the impact of Covid-19 in the country, on the request of the United Kingdom. The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, was expected to give an assessment of the situation.
The second UNSC meeting on Myanmar this year comes after a UN-convoy got caught up in the armed conflict between the national military and the insurgent Arakan Army [Air No. 16, April/2020, 3], an ambush that left one WHO-worker dead. The attack was strongly condemned by UN Secretary General Guterres. Myanmar has begun investigations into the incident and the identity of the perpetrators, but their independence remains doubtful. [Bangkok Post] [RFA]
At the same time, the country’s leadership under Aung San Suu Kyi is racing to counter the economic and social devastation of the pandemic [AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1], among other things with a stimulus of about $2 billion. It is suspected that the relatively small number of Covid-19 cases is simply owing to the lack of testing capabilities, and is also expected to hit the working poor, especially tens of thousands of migrant workers, the hardest.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government received widespread criticism after it had first downplayed the virus in the country despite the country’s limited health care system. However, experts presume the virus to be under control now, which except for the nationwide shutdown has, according to observers, more to do with local community organizing than with effective governance. [Asia Times] [Bloomberg]
19 May 2020
Layoffs in Southeast Asian garment industry leave workers in precarious situation
(ls) Thousands of garment factories across Southeast Asia have been shutting down, laying off workers after orders from major brands were cancelled due to limited demand in the Covid-19 crisis. In Cambodia, about 60,000 garment workers have lost their employment. In Myanmar, the number is at 58,000. Myanmar’s garment industry was the fastest-growing sector of the economy, accounting for about 10% of the country’s exports. The European Union has created a wage fund for workers in Myanmar worth 5 million euros. The government promised to cover 40% of the salaries of laid off workers. At the same time, factories that have reopened are struggling to enforce social distancing and hygiene practices in often cramped conditions. [Reuters]
12 May 2020
Malaysia: Rights groups urge government to act on hate speech against Rohingya
(jk) Several human rights groups have urged the government under new PM Muhyiddin Yassin to address hate speech and threats against Rohingya refugees in the country after numerous posts spread on the internet calling for violence and even murder against the refugees. A letter addressed to the government stated that the surge in hate speech was “driven by claims the Rohingya were demanding citizenship or other legal rights in Malaysia”. [Al Jazeera]
12 May 2020
Myanmar’s military declares ceasefire over Covid-19, excluding areas where the Arakan Army operates
(jk) Myanmar’s armed forces have declared a unilateral ceasefire with ethnic rebel forces until the end of August to focus its effort on containing the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The ceasefire explicitly excludes parts of northern Rakhine and Chin State, where clashes between the government forces and the Arakan Army (AA) continue. [Myanmar Times]
While violence in northern Rakhine continues to spread, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces met separately with leaders of other armed ethnic groups to discuss combatting the outbreak. Reportedly, when meeting with the huge and powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), he also mentioned the group’s alleged support of the AA among other armed ethnic groups, selling them weapons and ammunition. [The Irrawaddy]
5 May 2020
Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees sent to controversial island facility and many are still at sea
(jk) Following the rescue of hundreds of Rohingya refugees from a boat that had been turned away by Southeast Asian nations recently [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3] and the country’s decision to not allow the entry of another 500 Rohingya people on board two fishing trawlers amid “running out of our generosity” [Asia in Review, No. 17, April/2020, 4], a number of refugees have been relocated to a controversial facility on an island in the Bay of Bengal constructed last year. Authorities said they were afraid the group may be suffering from Covid-19. [South China Morning Post]
The facilities for 100,000 people were constructed on the islet “Bashan Char” about 40 kilometers off Bangladesh’s coast in order to reduce the number of refugees in the border camps. Critics have claimed the islet is not safe and prone to natural catastrophes. Many Rohingya have spoken out against the relocation to the island for fear of not receiving any help in case of a natural disasters or severe storms. The UN has said an independent feasibility study needs to be carried out before any relocations could begin. [The Business Standard]
[Reuters] spoke to seven Rohingya survivors from a boat that spent months at sea and were refused to land at any country because of virus fears. They report on their horrific experiences and after overpowering the ship’s crew, which cost the lives of some on board, they eventually returned to Bangladesh. Hundreds more stuck at sea.
5 May 2020
Myanmar: Spread of COVID-19 cases against the backdrop of ongoing violence
(jn) Myanmar has officially reported 151 cases and six deaths related to the outbreak of COVID-19 since the onset of the disease on March 23rd, the largest epicenter being Yangon. Limited testing capacities have raised the fear that the disease could have spread further than is known yet, posing the risk that the country could be overwhelmed soon. The challenge to tackle the coronavirus is made more difficult by the fact that Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in South East Asia with millions of people living in cramped housing where social distancing is virtually impossible.
Under the leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has formed a civil-military “Emergency Response Committee”. Should the civil leadership feel the need to fall back upon the military’ resources, more human rights violations and intensifying local conflicts are to be feared, let alone an increased dominance of the still powerful military, the Tatmadaw. [The Diplomat]
At the same time, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned on Wednesday that the military may once again be committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine state, fearing a repeat of atrocities that have already subjected the country to accusations of genocide against the Rohingya minority. Lee said that the Tatmadaw have also expanded their campaign against minorities to the neighboring Chin state in the west of the country. A government spokesman rejected the accusations.
Humanitarian agencies worry that the affected minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, which could spread quickly in the cramped refugee camps with poor hygiene and no access to health care. Absent a coherent national response many dissident minorities have been left on their own as the government has not established contact with locally dominant armed groups, especially in the remote border regions. [The Guardian][Nikkei Asian Review] [Dhaka Tribune] [RFA]
Myanmar’s government equally faces criticism with regard to violations of freedom of expression and freedom of the press according to the domestic NGO Athan. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power in 2016, lawsuits have been filed against more than 1000 people for unlawfully criticizing the government, the military or members of parliament. [The Irrawaddy]
28 April 2020
Bangladesh “running out of our generosity” on Rohingya boat refugees
(ls) After Bangladesh rescued hundreds of Rohingya refugees from a boat that had been turned away by Southeast Asian neighbors and on which about 60 people had died [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3], the country’s foreign minister Abdul Momen said that the government will not allow the entry of another 500 Rohingya people on board two fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal. With reference to Bangladesh’s major efforts in hosting Rohingya refugees, he said that “Bangladesh has already taken more than a million of Rohingya. We are running out of our generosity now.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, wrote to Momen appealing to him “in the strongest terms to open your ports and allow the boats to land.” [Al Jazeera] [The Guardian]
28 April 2020
Myanmar: Armed conflict continues to escalate in Rakhine state
(jk) Armed clashes between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military in Rakhine state continued to take place over the past week. The conflict, briefly described with some useful background here last week [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3], cost the lives of at least four civilians and injured two more during clashes this week. [Dhaka Tribune] State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has issued a statement praising “the Tatmadaw or military for protecting residents’ lives and property”, drawing some criticism from people who disagree with the Tatmadaw’s heavy handed approach. [The Irrawaddy 1][The Irrawaddy 2]
21 April 2020
Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states face massive insurgency operations
(hg) This Tuesday, a driver of the World Health Organization died of his injuries he suffered together with a government health worker when their vehicle came under attack yesterday in Rakhine State where they were transporting COVID-19 test samples. [Frontier Myanmar] The attack points at a spiking violence in an increasingly dangerous armed conflict.
Three years after Myanmar’s Army started to clamp down massively on Rohingya, a significant insurgency takes shape in Myanmar’s Western Rakhine and Chin states. This time, Myanmar’s armed forces are heavily challenged by an ethnic Rakhine armed group called Arakan Army (AA).
Founded in 2009 by Rakhine Buddhists who seek self-governance, the exchange of hostilities between the insurgents and government forces (Tatmadaw) began escalating in late 2018. In August 2019, the AA conducted coordinated attacks on the Tatmadaw’s Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA) in the Mandalay Region, along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), together forming the Northern Alliance. Subsequent peace talks delivered no tangible results. [Irrawaddy] As a result of the increasing clashes, more than 100,000 people have been displaced already last year. [Myanmar Now]
In January this year, the AA launched an attack on an advanced regional military training school in Rakhine. Afterwards, the AA increased its pressure on the government when several hundred fighters attacked four police posts in northern Rakhine state. As a response, the Aung San Suu Kyi government instructed the armed forces to “crush” the rebels. [Economist]
Since then, the security forces deployed 15,000-20,000 troops in a massive operation, involving heavy artillery and almost daily air strikes in populated areas with a growing number of civilian casualties. [Economist] [Irrawaddy] [VoA 1] [Myanmar Now]
The AA has made itself a name as a guerrilla force that also operates in urban areas, conducts bombings and abducted hundreds of civil servants, policemen, soldiers and politicians. According to an expert, Myanmar’s armed forces have suffered at least a couple of thousand casualties in what might be “the most serious insurgency the Burmese military have faced since independence” (Anthony Davies). [Economist]
Besides the recent mobilization, the government has blocked mobile-internet service to about 1 million people in Rakhine and Chin states since June, and the police has charged several journalists who interviewed the AA’s leader with violating the counter-terrorism law after the government has designated the AA as a terrorist organization March this year. [Economist] [VOA 2]
21 April 2020
Dozens of Rohingya refugees die on board boat turned away by Southeast Asian neighbors
(ls) About 60 Rohingya refugees have died on board a boat that was refused entry by Thailand and Malaysia, apparently also because of stricter controls due to the coronavirus pandemic. The boat with initially about 500 people on board had started its journey in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. After about two and a half months in the Gulf of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, it arrived in Bangladesh where the surviving people on board were rescued. [South China Morning Post]
Another boat with about 200 Rohingya refugees was refused in entry by Malaysia last week. The latest developments have sparked concerns of a repeat of a 2015 crisis when many Rohingya died at sea after Southeast Asian nations turned their boats back following the collapse of long-established people smuggling routes. While relatively few boats have arrived in Malaysia since then, some have been allowed into the country. Earlier this month, 202 Rohingya landed in Langkawi and were detained. [Channel News Asia]
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohammad has frequently called Myanmar to stop all acts of persecution against the Rohingya minority.
In an unrelated development, Myanmar has transferred hundreds of recently released Rohingya prison inmates back to Rakhine state, after fears that overcrowded prisons could become hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks. In Rakhine state, Rohingya live under tight movement restrictions and in conditions Amnesty International has condemned as “apartheid”. [Straits Times]
21 April 2020
Bangladesh rescues Rohingya drifting at sea but dozens died and more are feared to be at sea
(jk) Officials in Bangladesh said a ship with almost 400 Rohingya refugees that left for Malaysia eight weeks ago was found adrift in the Bay of Bengal. On board were refugees who had left the refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar and had hoped to reach Malaysia. After being turned away – according to witnesses due to stricter measures during the Covid-19 pandemic- the boat remained at sea in hope of being granted access to the Malaysian shore before it attempted a return to Bangladesh.
When the Bangladesh Coast Guard eventually took the ship in after it was notified of its presence in the Bay of Bengal, it found that at least 30 of the Rohingya refugees had died at sea. [The Guardian 1]
Just days later, Malaysia said it had denied entry to a second boat carrying about 200 Rohingya refugees which is now also believed to be adrift at sea. Amnesty International is calling for Malaysia and Thailand to “immediately dispatch search and rescue boats with food, water and medicine to meet the urgent needs of possibly hundreds still at sea”. [The Guardian 2]
14 April 2020
Myanmar: Voice of Myanmar journalist released after Arakan Army interview got him arrested
(jk) At the end of last month, an editor of the Voice of Myanmar was arrested on terrorism charges after he had published an interview with a spokesperson of the Arakan Army which was recently declared a terrorist group. The interview discussed the labelling, but under the Counter-Terrorism Laws, it is prohibited for organizations and individuals to associate with outlawed organizations, now including the Arakan Army. [Al Jazeera]
10 days later, the editor who was facing a potential life sentence over the charge, was freed and said that the prosecutors for the case decided that he “had not violated Sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law […], and CID [Central Intelligent Department] officers immediately came to my cell to tell me about my rights and release me”. [Radio Free Asia]
7 April 2020
Malaysia intercepts boat carrying Rohingya refugees
(ls) Malaysian authorities have intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 Rohingya people off the holiday island of Langkawi. In February, at least 15 Rohingya refugees died when a vessel carrying about 130 people capsized in the Bay of Bengal while trying to reach Malaysia, which is a favored destination of Rohingya refugees. [Reuters]
31 March 2020
Myanmar: Army withdraws criminal complaint against Reuters
(jk) After the Myanmar military had filed a lawsuit against Reuters and a local lawmaker for criminal defamation following a story about two Rohingya women dying as a result of shelling in Rakhine state as reported in [Asia in Review No. 11, March/2020, 3], the military has now withdrawn this and a second lawsuit filed last year against an editor for a local news website, “because of the mediation and request of the Myanmar Press Council”. [Reuters]
31 March 2020
Mekong River Joint Patrol started
(jk) The Mekong River joint patrol by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand began last week. The four countries will engage in “joint visits, inspections and an anti-drug publicity campaign during the four-day patrol” and will include a focus on the Golden Triangle notorious for illegal drug activity. [Navy Recognition]
17 March 2020
Myanmar: Military’s representatives in parliament reject major constitutional reform initiated by ruling party
(hg) After weeks of tensions, with general elections slated for late this year, Myanmar’s parliament rejected a bundle of major constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).
Some amendments aimed directly at the military’s constitutionally acknowledged role by gradually reducing the number of seats in the national and regional parliaments reserved for military appointees and by stripping the armed forces of its majority on a committee deciding on a state of emergency, which implies the handover of power to the army chief. Another amendment sought to make future constitutional reforms easier by lowering the constitutionally required threshold from three-quarters to two-thirds of the MPs. [The Economist]
17 March 2020
Myanmar army sues Reuters over Rohingya women shelling report amid new clashes in Chin State
(jk) In Myanmar, the army has filed a lawsuit under section 66D of the Telecommunications Act against Reuters news agency and a lawmaker for criminal defamation after a news story was published in January this year about the death of two Rohingya Muslim women as a result of army shelling.
The army insists its artillery fire had not killed the women, instead, the Arakan Army (AA) was to blame for the deaths. The area where the shelling took place is not open to reporters. [Irrawady]
In the meantime, clashes and airstrikes over the weekend by government forces in western Myanmar’s Chin state killed at least 20 civilians, injured many more and saw over 1,000 villagers to flee their homes. [RFA]
10 March 2020
Aung San Suu Kyi loses another human rights award
(tk) The City of London Corporation (CLC) has revoked an award granted to Myanmar’s leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as she personally defends her country against allegations of rape, arson and mass killings with genocidal intent against Rohingya victims at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This is not the first international honor she lost. In 2018, Amnesty International withdrew its highest honor, The Ambassador of Conscience Award. [Amnesty International] The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum rescinded its top award and the City of Oxford, where she studied and raised her children, revoked its honorific freedom. [Daily Sabah]
3 March 2020
Myanmar: Germany suspends development cooperation
(tk) Last week, Germany’s Development Minster Gerd Müller suspended all development cooperation with Myanmar until the country ensures safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
Germany had assured Myanmar 154 million Euro of financial support, but Müller came to this decision during his visit of the largest Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. He said, “I am deeply moved by their plight. Such ethnic cleanings and crimes against humanity are unacceptable.” To further punish Myanmar for their crimes, he prospected further sanctions including restrictions on visa issuance and trade. [Asia Times]
On the other hand, Germany assured to provide additional funding of 15 million euros for education and sanitation measures to help the Rohingya refugees living in the camps in Bangladesh. An activist of “Free Rohingya Coalition” welcomes the suspension and would like other countries to take this as an example. German development workers in Myanmar, however, are surprised by this decision and assess it as “highly problematic” concerning the trust relationship with Myanmar, which has taken a long time to establish.
German MP Renate Künast, chair of the ASEAN Parliamentary Friendship Group, fears that this decision might affect the wrong people, namely the Rohingya living in the country’s poorest region Rakhine, who have been supported by the development cooperation. [taz, in German] [The Daily Star]
Meanwhile, the violent conflict in Rakhine state continue. On the weekend, eleven Rohingya villagers were killed and several injured. [Radio Free Asia]
3 March 2020
Myanmar: Strengthening ties with India
(tk) During the visit of Myanmar’s president U Win Myint to India from Wednesday to Saturday, Myanmar and India signed 10 memorandums of understanding ranging from infrastructure and wildlife protection to humanitarian assistance. Four of them aim to boost the development of Rakhine state to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees. Further, the two sides also announced measures to improve connectivity and people-to-people contacts. [Hindustan Times] [New Straits Times]
25 February 2020
Myanmar on money-laundering watch list
(tk) The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) put Myanmar along with eleven other countries on its money-laundering watch list and ordered to take steps to avoid further financial punishment. Although the country has tried to stop money laundering by developing a strategic implementation plan, it has been unsuccessful. The main factor for money-laundering in Myanmar is opium and synthetic drug production. Further, illegal jade mining, arms trafficking, and logging contribute to the problem. Being grey-listed does not carry any sanctions, but will lead to more monitoring of Myanmar’s financial activities and might affect access to loans from foreign institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. [Reuters] [Myanmar Times]
25 February 2020
Myanmar: More court-martials against soldiers over crimes against Rohingya
(ls/tk) Myanmar’s army is to hold more court-martials over alleged abuses against Rohingya Muslims. The army’s announcement came after a government-appointed commission found that soldiers, among other actors, had committed war crimes against Rohingya in 2017. Myanmar has vowed to carry out its own investigations, saying international justice mechanisms violate its sovereignty. The country is facing genocide charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. In January, the ICJ ordered preliminary measures against Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts and preserve evidence. [Reuters]
Meanwhile, the United Nations urged Myanmar’s government to lift the recently installed internet shutdown in Rakhine state. According to United Nations experts, the internet shutdown has severe impacts on the human rights of over a million people in Rakhine state, including their rights to safety, security, health, education, food, shelter, livelihood, freedom of expression, information, participation, association and assembly. At the same time, fighting and possible use of heavy weapons occurred near Rohingya villages, as reports showed. [UN News]
18 February 2020
Myanmar: No improvement of Rakhine situation
(tk) Myanmar’s military chief and an ethnic Rakhine delegation led by a member of the Arkan National Party (ANP) met in Naypyitaw and discussed how to stop clashes in order to achieve peace in Rakhine State last week. The meeting, however, drew criticism and questions from members of the Rakhine community because this meeting was not officially planned in the ANP and violence continues. [The Irrawaddy]
On the same day, an artillery fire hit a primary school in Rakhine state and left at least 19 students injured. Both, the military and Buddhist rebels denied they were behind the shelling. [Al Jazeera]
Due to the ongoing violent situation and seasonal calmer water, more Rohingyas risk their lives by trying to flee to predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia or Indonesia. On Tuesday, at least 15 Rohingya refugees drowned when an overloaded boat carrying mostly women and children sank as it tried to reach Malaysia. Local authorities respond with detention, prosecution and sending back the refugees. On Friday, nearly 50 Rohingyas have been detained at sea by Myanmar’s navy as they were caught trying to flee. [The Star]
18 February 2020
Bangladesh builds barbed-wire fences around Rohingya refugee camps
(tk) Bangladesh started erecting barbed-wire fences around Rohingya refugee camps, watchtowers and CCTV. The government said, it had taken these measures to strengthen the surveillance on the Rohingya people and the refugee camps in order to rein in illegal trafficking of refugees. In recent months incidents of trafficking of Rohingya to Malaysia have significantly increased. Several had died on their way.
However, Rohingya refugees and rights groups urged the government not to take these measures. They are concerned, that wire fences may cause psychological and mental disorders. [AA]
11 February 2020
Myanmar: Internet Shutdown expanded in Rakhine State
(tk) Myanmar authorities have reinstated the shutdown of mobile internet traffic in five more townships in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine and Chin states. Already in June 2019, Myanmar authorities had ordered telecommunications companies to shut down internet services in four Rakhine State townships. [Asia in Review 4/6/2019]
This earlier shutdown had been lifted in September, but now due to “security requirements and public interest”, re-imposed in a total of nine townships. The internet shutdown causes an information and communication blackout that affects approximately one million people. Human rights experts say that shutting down entire parts of communications systems can never be justified under human rights law. [Human Rights Watch]
4 February 2020
Bangladesh: Situation of Rohingya children in refugee camps
(tk) After human rights organizations have been campaigning for the nearly half a million Rohingya children in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, the Bangladesh government now has announced it will offer schooling and skills training opportunities to Rohingya refugee children, who have already missed two academic years. The pilot program starting in April is supported by UNICEF and will initially enroll 10,000 Rohingya children up to the age of 14, where they will be taught in Burmese under Myanmar’s curriculum. Children older than 14 will get skills training. [Amnesty International] [Al Jazeera]
Meanwhile, a delegation from the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently visiting Bangladesh to assess the Rohingya crisis. ICC judges authorized the request to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. However, the current visit of the Prosecutor’s delegation is not part of the investigation, but to engage with relevant stakeholders and explain the judicial process and the status of the investigation to the public. [Prothom Alo]
4 February 2020
Myanmar: Two Rohingya women killed after ICJ ruling
(tk) Just two days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to take measures to protect Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state from genocide, [Asia in Review No. 4, January/2020] at least two Rohingya women were killed and eight other villagers were wounded after artillery shells hit a village in western Rakhine.
It remains unclear who fired the shells, but a senior official of Rakhine’s regional government believed it was fired from a nearby military battalion. He said, “whenever there is an incident in Muslim villages, we found it is due to the military”. Due to the just previously issued court order, he sees the incident as a clear message from the military that they are not accepting the ICJ ruling. [AA]
4 February 2020
Myanmar – US relations: Trump imposes immigration restrictions
(tk) On Friday, President Trump added Myanmar along with five other countries to a list of immigration restrictions as his latest move to reduce immigration – a top campaign promise – as he pushes forward on reelection efforts.
All six countries have substantial Muslim populations, and the Muslim minority from Myanmar of course, is still fleeing genocide. Last year, nearly 5,000 Burmese refugees arrived in America, many of them hoping to reunite with family.
While immigrant visas will be banned, non-immigrant visas can still be granted and according to officials the ban won’t apply to refugees. The proclamation will take effect later in February.
According to an official, the restrictions are “the result of these countries’ unwillingness or inability to adhere to certain baseline identity management information-sharing and national security and public safety criteria that were established by the department in 2017 at the president’s request.” In opposition to the move, US House of Representatives’ Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that “President Trump and his administration’s continued disdain for our nation’s national security and our founding ideals of liberty and justice dishonor our proud immigrant heritage and the diversity that strengthens and enriches our communities.” [The New York Times] [BuzzFeedNews]
28 January 2020
Myanmar: ICJ orders provisional measures to protect Rohingya from genocide
(ls/tk) The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague ruled last Thursday to impose provisional measures on Myanmar, demanding the government to take action to prevent future acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim community. By ordering the measures, the ICJ only indicated that it is plausible that genocide occurred, that there is a link between The Gambia’s claims and the provisional measures requested, and that the Rohingya are still in danger of “irreparable harm”. In these proceedings, the Court did not need to decide on the merits. [Frontier Myanmar]
Besides ordering Myanmar to ensure that no acts of genocide occur, the Court also ordered the government to take effective measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of evidence, and to submit a report to the Court on all measures taken within four months, and then every six months, until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court. [International Court of Justice]
According to experts, such monitoring system is rarely seen, and it perhaps reflects concerns arising from the Bosnian Genocide case, where a provisional measures order of April 1993 had to be followed by another in September 1993, and both were of no avail, as the Srebrenica genocide continued. [Opinio Juris]
Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it was “important for Myanmar that the Court reaches a factually correct decision on the merits of the case”. It also said that NGOs presented a “distorted picture” of the situation in Rakhine state. The word “Rohingya” was absent from the Ministry’s statement. [Al Jazeera] The ICJ, however, recognized that “the Rohingya appear to constitute a protected group within the meaning of Article II of the Genocide Convention” (para. 52, 23 January Order).
Rohingya groups, as well as human rights organizations and the Gambian Justice Minister have welcomed the decision as a triumph of international law and international justice. However, some Burmese people described the ruling as “unfair and unjust” and said the day of the court’s decision was “a tragic day for Myanmar”. According to them, “the judges were blind and deaf and didn’t know the real situation in the country”. The Bangladesh Government hopes that Myanmar will take back all the Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh after the deadly military attacks and will provide them security. [BBC]
Meanwhile, it was reported that Myanmar troops have shelled a Rohingya village on Saturday. Two women were killed, and seven other people injured in the apparent attack. The military denied responsibility, saying that rebels attacked a bridge. Besides violence committed against Rohingya people, the region was plunged into further chaos by new fights between the military and the Arakan Army, a rebel group that recruits from the mostly Buddhist majority in the state. [Reuters 1]
In order to ease the tensions, the Arakan Army had released a member of parliament of the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD), who had been abducted in an attack on a boat in November. [Reuters 2]
21 January 2020
Myanmar: UN Rohingya Genocide Case Court Ruling Set for Next Week
(tk) The West African nation of Gambia asked the International Court of Justice last month for an immediate court order claiming a breach of the Genocide Convention by the “security operations” between 25 August and 5 September 2017 by the military against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. [Myanmar Times] Gambia accuses Myanmar of a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide – including the killings of civilians, raping of women and torching of houses – that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar defended the actions saying they were a tragic consequence of hostilities started by Rohingya insurgents. [The Diplomat]
An international panel set up by the Malaysian government to probe accusations of human rights abuses said in its report on Monday, it found that war crimes had been committed but that there was no indication of genocidal intent. Human Rights Watch, however, is of the opinion that the report was an attempt to influence the forthcoming International Court of Justice’s verdict. [Myanmar Times]
The court will hand down its final and legally binding decision on January 23. Though, the court has no enforcement powers, it is part of the United Nations. [The Diplomat]
21 January 2020
Myanmar: Thousands of workers rally for higher minimum wage
(tk) On Sunday, nearly 10,000 garment workers from 20 labor organizations in Yanong took the streets to demand an increase of the minimum wage from currently K4800 to K9800 ($6.66) ahead of the review of the country’s new minimum wage law. According to the Minimum Wage La, that rate is to be defined every two years. In 2018 the minimum wage was set at K4800, but prices of rice and accommodation are rising. The chief organizer of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar said a worker needs a minimum wage of about K8000 for eight work hours per day to be self-sufficient and be able to provide the minimum needs of his family. [Myanmar Times]
21 January 2020
Chinese President Xi visits Myanmar signing major infrastructure developments
(jk) Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar over the past weekend, marking the first trip by a Chinese President since 2001. In the country’s capital, Xi and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi signed 33 agreements, including some major infrastructure developments.
One of them is the Kyaukphyu special economic zone (SEZ) and deep-sea port in Rakhine State providing access to the Bay of Bengal, as well as a railway link connecting the port with southern China. [The Diplomat] [Splash 247]
The port project in particular worries neighboring countries suspicious of a larger Chinese footprint and a “string of pearls” strategy when seen together with other projects such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan or Djibouti. For obvious geographical reasons, Myanmar plays an important role in China’s strategic planning and after mounting pressure from many Western countries over the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar as well is looking for support and partners.
Underscoring the notion that many of the deals struck are not purely economic in nature, after the visit, a joint statement was issued by China and Myanmar “in which Myanmar reaffirmed the so called ‘one-China principle’, naming Taiwan as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China’s territory” [Focus Taiwan]. The English versions of the statement read slightly different. The MOFA Myanmar Facebook page for instance, referred to a commitment to a One China Policy and to the three regions as “inalienable parts of China”, not using the term “the People’s Republic.”
7 January 2020
Myanmar: No results after talks on Rohingya repatriation
(lf) The December talks between the Burmese government and representatives of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have ended without results. The meeting was supposed to pave the way for the return of the refugees from Bangladesh to Rakhine state in Myanmar but speakers of the refugees say the government has offered no new incentives for returning. [Dhaka Tribune] [Voice of America News]
31 December 2019
Myanmar: UNGA passes resolution condemning human rights abuses against Rohingya
(lf) After Aung San Suu Kyi rejected allegations of genocide at the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) earlier this month, the UN general assembly has passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Myanmar against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities with 134 of the 193 member states voting in favour and 9 against it.
The resolution calls for an end to the fighting, which started in 2017, as well as ending the statelessness of almost all Rohingya which are seen as Bengalis, rather than Burmese by the government since 1982. In addition, the UN approved a budget for the investigation of human rights abuses in Myanmar and Syria upending Russian attempts to stop it. [The Guardian] [BBC]
24 December 2019
Bangladesh asking Russia to pressure Myanmar on Rohingya
(lf) Bangladesh’s foreign minister has urged Russia to put more pressure on Myanmar regarding the Rohingyas, of which Bangladesh still hosts between 600.000 to one million after they were forced to flee Myanmar amid a violent military crackdown. The refugees have led to a humanitarian crisis as Bangladesh is not sufficiently equipped for the number of refugees.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Myanmar in 1948 [Embassy of Russia in Myanmar], the two countries have been close and the FM recognises that Russia – which has blocked a previous UN statement in the Rohingya case- holds a lot of sway over Myanmar. [The Star]
24 December 2019
Myanmar buys new military aircrafts
(lf) Myanmar’s air force has commissioned several new aircrafts, including six light attack aircrafts. Myanmar has one of the largest armies in Southeast Asia, when it comes to manpower, however its capabilities have been lagging behind its neighbors. This new order has been part of the recent modernization strategy of the army. [The Diplomat]
17 December 2019
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi at the ICJ: Reactions and assessments
(jk/ls) Last week, Myanmar’s legal team presented arguments in response to the genocide lawsuit filed against the country by The Gambia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague at the first public hearing. Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked the Court to reject the genocide case in her closing remarks to the judges on the last of three days of public hearings.
Suu Kyi accused The Gambia of providing a misleading and incomplete account of what happened in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017. A transcript of her speech can be found here: [Al Jazeera]
[The Irrawaddy] has compiled a range of views on the arguments put forward.
Reactions to Suu Kyi’s appearance were naturally mixed. In a rather dramatic response to the ICJ hearing, the Arakan Army (AA), a Buddhist armed ethnic group fighting Myanmar forces in Rakhine state, abducted the chairman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Buthidaung township as he organized a public rally in support of Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense at the court. [RFA]
10 December 2019
Myanmar at the ICJ: Aung San Suu Kyi representing her country this week
(ls/nj) This week, Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi appears in person to defend Myanmar against accusations of genocide before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. She will attend the hearing in her capacity as the Union Minister of the Foreign Affairs. It will deal with jurisdictional questions and the possibility of provisional measures that would mandate Myanmar to halt a continuing genocide. Closing submissions from both sides at the ICJ will be made on Thursday. The judgment is expected to be reserved. [The Guardian] [Eleven Myanmar]
Human Rights Watch has put together an overview of Questions & Answers regarding the case. [Human Rights Watch]
Press releases from the International Court of Justice on this case are published here: [ICJ]
Meanwhile, Thai authorities announced that they will delay the deportation of the arrested wife and children of Tun Myat Naing, the commander of the Arakan Army, and carry out a full investigation. The Arakan Army is an ethnic armed group that fights for greater autonomy of Rakhine state. Rights groups have criticized the arrests, worrying that the family could be forced back to Myanmar in what has been an increasing pattern by Southeast Asian states to send home each other’s dissidents. [Reuters]
26 November 2019
Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi to personally defend her country in Rohingya case at ICJ
(ls/nj) As reported last week, the Gambia has filed a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Myanmar of genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority. Now, State Counsellor and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she will appear before the court “to defend the national interest of Myanmar”. The military said that it will fully cooperate with the government on this matter. Suu Kyi had previously blamed the incidents on Rohingya “terrorists” and described reports of atrocities, including gang-rapes and mass killings, as fake news. [Reuters] [Myanmar Times]
The ICJ has said it will hold the first public hearings in the case already on December 10 to 12. Myanmar is likely to challenge the jurisdiction of the Court. However, whereas some state parties to the Genocide Convention have made specific reservations to Article IX of the Genocide Convention, which gives jurisdiction to the ICJ to try genocide, Myanmar has not done this. Regarding the merits of the case, the observations of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2019, which found that Myanmar has failed to perform its obligations to prevent, investigate, and punish genocide, will make Suu Kyi’s defense an up-hill battle. [The Diplomat]
19 November 2019
Four immediate reforms to strengthen the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
(jk) The International Commission of Jurists has published a legal briefing note which outlines four immediate reforms that if implemented, would enhance the Myanmar Human Rights Commission’s abilities to protect human rights. The commission that was established eight years ago has remained largely ineffective as its independence from both the government and in particular the military is highly questionable. [ICJ]
19 November 2019
Myanmar facing charges for Rohingya genocide at ICJ, ICC
(nj) Myanmar faces tremendous legal pressure for its alleged genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. On Wednesday, rights groups filed a case in Argentina where former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi among other Myanmar high ranking officials have been accused of crimes against the Rohingya minority.
In addition, the West African nation Gambia submitted a case against Myanmar’s genocidal campaign at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest court. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has approved to investigate all allegations of crimes against humanity during Myanmar’s 2017 military crackdown against the Muslim minority. [Aljazeera]
Myanmar is facing several charges including mass rapes, killings and intended acts to destroy the Rohingya group in whole or in part. Hopes are that the court’s ruling could help stop the genocidal campaign against Rohingya in Myanmar. [South China Morning Post]
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, 4] has 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]
Date of AiR edition
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]