Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

12 January 2021

Myanmar: Economic repercussions of the junta rule

(nd) The ongoing transition from the 2010 dissolved junta’s military rule to democracy still leaves huge political and economic power with the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), who are reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats. The Tatmadaw is also engaged economically, which is why, despite the lift of official sanctions, United Nations (UN) human rights advocates warned against doing business with the Tatmadaw due to its human rights atrocities.

Reportedly, this warning is not taken seriously internationally, with two British banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, having lent US$60 million to a Vietnamese company building the mobile network Mytel in Myanmar, of which the Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation owns 28%. Also, Israeli technology company, Gilat Satellite Networks, has been doing business with Mytel. Sometimes indirectly, there is investment in a subsidiary of a country, which is doing business with the Myanmar Economic Corporation, which is the case for the Australian Future Fund.

The UN’s warning is due to the Tatmadaw’s operation in 2016 against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a separatist Islamist insurgency in the western state of Rakhine, which is one-third Muslim. A 2017 fact finding commission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council investigated the allegations of atrocities and a year later concluded the killing of thousands of Rohingya civilians, forced disappearances and mass gang rapes, and called to trial high-ranking officers for genocide.

Another year later, the mission scrutinized the Tatmadaw’s economic interests, mainly focused on the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and another conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL), which have profited from near-monopoly control over many activities and industries under the junta. While they became public companies in 2016, their profits still mainly go to the Tatmadaw. While the report discouraged economic involvement in companies with ties to the military, it still encouraged general investment in Myanmar. Until 2011, the US, EU and Australia imposed rather broad trade and diplomatic sanctions. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Myanmar: Tatmadaw and USDP challenging the electoral result

(nd) The Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) went ahead to challenge the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory claiming electoral fraud. Following their probe, the military found nearly 4 million voter-list irregularities, possibly pointing to fraud in 179 townships. The election commissioners rejected the accusations as “exaggerated” and “absurd”. The military plans to call a special session before the current legislative term ends, which they can do according to Article 84 of the 2008 Constitution, since they dispose of a guaranteed quarter of the parliamentary seats. Also, the USDP asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ over the UEC chairman and commissioners over electoral misconduct, which will be heard on January 29. Observers, however, calculate the success of these moves rather unlikely.

The general election on November 8 provided the NLD with a supermajority of 920 seats (or 82.3 percent of contested seats) the Union, state and regional legislatures. [Irrawaddy]


12 January 2021

Myanmar: Negotiations for make-up elections in Rakhine and Shan state

(nd) Despite the temporary ceasefire between the military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), a government spokesman said the possibility to hold the elections in parts of Rakhine state was dependent on a solid security guarantee to the Union Election Commission (UEC). The military said elections should be held February 1 in parts of Rakhine and Shan states where voting had been cancelled before the November 8 general elections for security reasons. At the moment, the government and the UEC are still negotiating with the AA, which already stated that it will guarantee security during voting. At the same time, the government is negotiating with members of the Northern Alliance including the AA, Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and has sent a draft bilateral cease-fire agreement containing a security guarantee to the Northern Alliance to hold make-up elections. [Radio Free Asia]

12 January 2021

Myanmar, India to cooperate in Nagaland 

(nd) Following Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane’s and Foreign Secretary H.V. Shringla’s visit to Myanmar in November, more than 50 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), including its top leader Niki Sumi, were made to abandon their base in Myanmar by the military. Sumi returned and showed his willingness to join the ongoing Naga peace process with India’s federal government. Ever since a deadly attack on 18 Indian soldiers on June 4, 2015, Indian security forces were hunting Sumi, who was considered responsible for the ambush, while the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) claimed responsibility for the attack. Analysts suggest that it is likely that the Indian government will accept Sumi’s proposal to restore the ceasefire agreement and drop the cases against him.

India was negotiating for Burmese cooperation for a while already, with its Northeastern neighbor being key to Narendra Modi’ Act East policy. The involvement of envoys and the top military brass highlights a switch in India’s foreign policy strategy, which also included foreign tours to boost bilateral defense cooperation to counterbalance China, inter alia to Myanmar, Nepal, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. [Irrawaddy]

12 January 2021

Myanmar, China to meet this month

(nd) As first high-level official visit after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election in November, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Myanmar this month. It is expected that Wang’s visit will speed up the construction of projects delayed by the pandemic under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Issues could arise due to the lack of participation of residents and ethnic states and little information shared, which could lead to protests against these projects upon the beginning of construction. The development of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Rakhine State, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone in Shan and Kachin states, and the New Yangon City project in Myanmar’s commercial capital were named as pillars of the CMEC by Chinese president Xi Jinping. None of the CMEC projects has reached the implementation stage yet.

While Myanmar’s earlier role vis-à-vis China was rather passive, officials in Naypyitaw now argue that Myanmar should be more pragmatic in dealing with China, urging the country to developing projects itself and communicate with the public and then negotiate with China. Both countries’ relationship iscomplex with China being the largest neighbor and trade partner, who will gain economic control over Myanmar’s through the development projects – a criticism that follows all projects of the BRI globally, including the potential for debt trap diplomacy, implications for national sovereignty, environmental issues and security risks. [Irrawaddy]

5 January 2021

China, Russia to vote against resolution against Myanmar 

(nd) A draft resolution on the situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar was adopted 130-9 by the UN General Assembly, with Russia, China, Belarus, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Myanmar themselves voting against it, and 26 countries, including India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Singapore abstaining from voting.

India said they engaged with Myanmar at every level, Japan commented they were also communicating with Myanmar directly, while China said they were trying to negotiate with Myanmar and Bangladesh. [New Age World]

5 January 2021

Bangladesh wants repatriation of Rohingya refugees to begin this year

(lm) Bangladesh’s foreign minister on January 3 informed that a letter had been sent to Myanmar’s government, requesting to resume the repatriation process of more the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees this year. Context and timing of the announcement are noteworthy: In a 134-9 vote with 28 abstentions the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on December 31 approved a resolution strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and deaths in detention. [India Today] [Dhaka Tribune] [New York Times]

Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed a repatriation deal in November 2017 followed by a physical agreement in January 2018 to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to the Rakhine province. However, there has been no success in the repatriation of Rohingyas despite two failed attempts in the past. Meanwhile, authorities in Bangladesh have started relocating Rohingya refugees from crammed camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].

5 January 2021

Myanmar: Abducted ruling party members released by Arakan Army

(nd) In an effort to build trust and achieve longstanding ceasefire with the government, the Arakan Army (AA) released three members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to enable the Rakhine State to hold voting canceled in November. The members were abducted mid-October. The release was “the result of the second online meeting” between AA chief Major and the military peace negotiation committee chairman.

Following active fighting since November 2018, the AA and the military agreed on a temporary ceasefire in October, mediated by the chairman of Japan’s Nippon Foundation. The military unilaterally extended the truce until January 31, but excluded areas where groups operate that are considered as terrorist groups. Since March, the AA has been labelled as such a group. [Irrawaddy]


5 January 2021

Myanmar: Continued fighting in Kayin state

(nd) In Southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, new clashes occurred between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union (KNU), forcing more than 3,000 villagers to flee. Despite a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) in 2015, fighting resumed in early December last year, following the military’s refusal to withdraw troops from the area as required by the NCA. Soldier presence has been increased in many areas, while the parties are negotiating.

The KNU is one of ten ethnic armies to have signed the NCA to end decades of fighting that left one sixth of Myanmar’s ethnic Karen people living in refugee camps in Thailand. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Myanmar: Tension rising in Rakhine state

(nd) Ahead of this week’s expiration of an unofficial cease-fire between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), displaced villagers fled anew due to signs of returning government troops.

For two years, the Northern Rakhine state has been in fights with the military in an attempt to seek greater autonomy, leaving 300 civilians dead and about 230,000 displaced. [Radio Free Asia 1]

The government peace negotiators are looking for new peace talk rounds with the Northern Alliance, consisting of the AA, the Ta´ang National Liberation Army, the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which is among seven other ethnic groups that yet have to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). Negotiations aim at a bilateral ceasefire agreement. [Myanmar Times]

5 January 2021

Myanmar: New vision for the nation’s peace process

(nd) In her New Year’s speech, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi introduced a new approach to the country’s peace process, the “New Peace Architecture”, which shall enable participation by political groups, civil society organizations and the public, in order to find a balance between representation and effectiveness. This shall also include both formal and informal dialogues in the coming five years.

In order to achieve a democratic federal union, the constitution must be amended, foreseeing the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence in 2022. During its first term in power, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government managed to sign three parts of the Union Accord with the 10 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatories, and is in the process of negotiating bilateral agreements with the members of the Northern Alliance. [Irrawaddy]

This was mirrored by President Win Myint saying on Myanmar’s Independence Day on Monday that the government is working to end the armed conflicts, securing long-term peace, and building a democratic federal union.

After the election in November last year, dozens of ethnic political parties appealed to join Aung San Kyi’s vision to forge a federal union in the multiethnic nation, which consists of 135 ethnic races and of 54.4 million people. Still, some also urged the NLD government to put more effort into dealing with ethnic affairs within the existing legal framework rather than prioritizing attempts to amend the constitution, given that need for an approval of the amendment of more than 75% of parliamentarians and the concurrent constitutional right of the military to nominate at least 25% of members of parliament from its own ranks. [Radio Free Asia] [Myanmar Times]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]