Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)
Date of AiR edition
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]