Asia in Review Archive 2021
Date of AiR edition
30 March 2021
India seeks to expedite major infrastructure project with Myanmar
Having withdrawn its frontline troops along Pangong Tso [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], India is now reportedly expediting work on the Kaladan Road Project, an ambitious road infrastructure project that would open a gateway for New Delhi to Southeast Asian countries.
The objective of the Kaladan Road Project is to link India’s landlocked northeast with the country’s eastern coast through the southern coast of Myanmar. Together with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Road Project is considered a vital component of New Delhi’s multifaceted “Act East Policy”, which seeks to compete with China’s massive infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Foreign Policy]
Although New Delhi was able to develop a close rapport with Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, over recent years, completion of the strategic project has been delayed by over three years due to a combination of several factors. Of these, the long-ranging conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine armed group in Myanmar, assumes added significance, due to recent developments.
In seeking greater autonomy for the western Rakhine State, the AA has battled against the Tatmadaw since 2018, with hundreds of fatalities caused and more than 200,000 residents being displaced due to the conflict. In November, then, the AA surprisingly ordered its armed members to fall back as it entered a ceasefire with the Myanmar military. Lending further weight to the argument that the agreement was setting the stage for the coup d’état, the military junta later even removed the AA from list of prohibited groups [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3].
While reports suggested that Japan had brokered the deal between the Tatmadaw and the rebel AA, India may be considered the third party benefitting from the situation. For recent developments have diminished the threats from the AA on the Myanmar side of the project, albeit temporarily.
30 March 2021
Myanmar: At least 141 killed in deadliest day since military coup
(lm) March 26 witnessed the bloodiest day since the military seized power in February, as security forces killed at least 141 pro-democracy protesters in 44 towns and cities across the country. The fresh crackdown came as Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, held the annual “Armed Forces Day” parade in the capital Naypyitaw, using the occasion to condemn the opposition and to promise elections – without specifying the date. [Deutsche Welle] [CNN 1]
Eight countries — Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand — sent representatives, but Russia was the only one to send a minister, who met with senior junta leaders and offered his support. Support from Moscow and Beijing, which has also refrained from criticism, is important for the junta as those two countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and can block potential UN actions.
Prior to the lethal crackdown, Myanmar’s military junta on March 23 accused the leaders of the ongoing nationwide protests of arson and inciting violence and sought to justify last month’s coup by repeating accusations of fraud against deposed de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Surprisingly, authorities the following day released more than 600 people detained during the anti-junta protests. [The Straits Times]
More than 500 civilians have been killed since nationwide protests erupted against the coup, according to the latest tally by the local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been tracking killings of demonstrators in Myanmar. But what is more, at least 25 percent of protester deaths have come from shots to the head. In a new tactic, protesters sought to step up a civil disobedience campaign on March 30 by asking residents to throw garbage onto streets on key road intersections. [South China Morning Post 1]
The violent response from the military leaders drew renewed Western condemnation, with countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union speaking out. Moreover, in a joint statement, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the Myanmar military to “immediately stop killing the very people it has the duty to serve and protect.” [CNN 2] [UN News]
To further starve the military junta of revenue, the United States and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), two conglomerates controlled by Myanmar’s military. Washington on March 29 also suspended relations established with the country under the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) until the return of a democratically elected government. In addition, the United States Trade Representative will weigh whether the political situation in Myanmar threatens the status granted under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which provides some developing countries with preferential trade access to the US. [South China Morning Post 2] [Reuters] [Voice of America]
30 March 2021
Myanmar: Trial of Suu Kyi postponed to April 1, according to aid
(lm) A court hearing for Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been postponed until April 1, an aide to her lawyer said on March 24, marking the second successive postponement in her case. Suu Kyi, who was arrested the same day the military seized power in Myanmar on February 1, faces five charges that include illegally importing six handheld radios, breaching coronavirus protocols and violating an anti-corruption law [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. [South China Morning Post]
30 March 2021
Myanmar: Fears of civil war grow after series of airstrikes causes thousands to flee to Thai border
(lm) While the death toll among protesters in Myanmar rose dramatically over the weekend [see article in this edition], about 10,000 residents from territory in the country’s southeast controlled by the Karen ethnic minority fled to a safe zone near the Thai border following two days of airstrikes by the army. What is more, Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups are increasingly putting aside their differences, indicating the possible formation of a federal army. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times 1]
Over the course of two days, military jets bombed territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s two dozen ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for decades to gain more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. The air assaults were the most significant attack for years in the region and came in retaliation for an attack by the KNU on an army post near the border. [Bangkok Post] [The Irrawaddy]
Since December, fights between the military and the KNU have flared again, after the group in 2015 had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the central government, along with several other insurgent groups [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Since the coup in Myanmar on February 1, the hilly border region between Myanmar and Thailand has once again become a refuge for other opponents of the military regime.
On March 28, then, fighting erupted between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another armed ethnic group, in the jade-mining area of Hpakant in the northernmost state of Myanmar. While there had been several major clashes between the KIA and the military in the past, both sides were in the process of negotiating a ceasefire agreement in the leadup to the military coup on February 1. The military’s governing body, the State Administrative Council, has announced to continue the peace process with ethnic armed organizations, but the KIA said it would support the protesters and refused to recognize the military regime [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. [CNN]
The tension at the frontier comes as the leaders of the resistance to last month’s coup are calling on Myanmar’s armed ethnic minority groups to band together and join them as allies. So far, these groups – which make up about one-third of the country’s population – have only committed to providing protection to protesters in the areas they control. But with the bursting of the militias’ defense belt bursts looming, an increasing number of the ethnic armed groups aligns itself with the protesters. [South China Morning Post 1]
Lending further weight to the distinct possibility of mass demonstrations cascading into civil war, three insurgent groups in a joint letter on March 30 called on the military to stop killing peaceful protesters, adding that they would be willing to “cooperate with all nationalities who are joining Myanmar’s spring revolution in terms of self-defence.” [South China Morning Post 2]
Speaking against this backdrop, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on March 29 the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting the Myanmar junta, telling reporters “there is probably no one to support the use of violence against the people”. The prime minister also defended his military’s decision to send representatives to attend the “Armed Forces Day celebrations” [see article in this edition], saying Bangkok had to maintain a good rapport with the military junta. [Deutsche Welle] [Khaosod English] [Nikkei Asia]
Earlier the same day, Thai authorities denied allegations by activist groups that more than 2,000 refugees, who had tried to enter Thailand had been forced back across the river, despite ongoing aerial bombardment. Moreover, authorities also said it was government policy – nota bene: Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, and its asylum law refers to “illegal foreigners” who can be arrested and deported at any time – for the army to block refugees at the border and deny reporters and aids groups access to the area. [The Straits Times 2]
23 March 2021
Bangladesh: Thousands flee ‘massive fire’ at Rohingya refugee camps
Authorities have begun investigating a huge blaze that ripped through a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh on March 22, forcing at least 50,000 people to flee and left seven people believed dead. The fire, which marks the largest of multiple fires that have plagued the camps this year alone, was believed to have started in one of the 34 camps, before spreading to two other camps. [CNN] [France 24] [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2]
Meanwhile, a United Nations delegation on March 12 completed a three-day visit to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal where authorities have moved more than 13,000 Rohingya refugees since December, ignoring ongoing complaints by rights groups concerned about the low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. The UN earlier said it had not been allowed to carry out a technical and safety assessment of the island and was not involved in the transfer of refugees there [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]. [Arab News]
To ease chronic overcrowding in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2], Bangladesh wants to eventually transfer 100,000 of the more than one million refugees to Bhasan Char. The government routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2].
23 March 2021
Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military
(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]
Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]
Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1]
Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]
With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.
The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962. [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]
Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]
According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]
Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]
In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]
The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]
According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]
The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]
Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]
16 March 2021
India: Rights body files petition with National Human Rights Commission over Rohingya refugees
(lm) New Delhi-based rights group ‘National Campaign Against Torture’ (NCAT) on March 9 filed a petition with India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), urging the public body to process the asylum/refugee claims filed by Myanmar nationals who fled their country following the coup d’état in Myanmar last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The EurAsian Times]
The rights group asked the NHRC to direct the government to not forcibly repatriate any Burmese refugee until their refugee claims have been assessed by the NHRC and further to extend humanitarian assistance to the fleeing refugees. As of the first week this month, 16 Myanmar nationals have crossed into Indian territory and are currently taking refuge in different districts in the northeastern state of Mizoram, the NCAT said in a press statement.
On March 6, authorities detained nearly 170 Rohingya in the city of Jammu in Kashmir and sent them to a holding center, potentially as part of wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. For the recent detention follows Prime Minister Modi’s government’s announcement in 2017 that it would deport all Rohingya. [Human Rights Watch]
About 15,000 of the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants.
16 March 2021
Regional meeting to discuss situation of migrants in the pandemic
(nd) According to a recent statement by a senior UN official, stigmatized and stranded migrants should be vaccinated promptly and valued for the region’s economic recovery. The Asia-Pacific’s migrant workforce comprises 40 % of the world’s migrants. Due to the pandemic, many lost their livelihoods, strander due to closed borders, facing discrimination and xenophobia, or were forcibly returned to their home countries. Due to their dense living situation the nature of job primarily in the service industry, migrants are specifically vulnerable to a Covid-19 infection. Thailand’s foreign minister Don Pramudwinai admitted that misinformation and insensitive messaging resulted in a widespread believe that migrants were a threat to public health, cutting them off access to health services. In December, a rise in Covid-19 cases at the country’s largest sea food market in Samut Sakhon, home to a large number of migrants from Myanmar, was blamed on foreign workers entering illegally.
The meeting, which was held in Bangkok, aims to identify challenges in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-legally binding intergovernmental agreement struck in 2018, a first ever UN global approach to international migration.
In the wake of the coup in Myanmar, both India and Thailand have so far closed their borders for Myanmar refugees, potentially in violation of international law, which states to return no one to a country where they are likely to face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. [Benarnews]
16 March 2021
Bangladesh criticizes international community nor not doing enough to repatriate Rohingya refugees
(lm) Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momin has appealed to the international community to work sincerely, instead of paying ‘lip service’ regarding the repatriation of Rohingyas refugees to their home country Myanmar. Addressing a discussion at the Foreign Service Academy in the capital Dhaka on March 8, the foreign minister also urged countries to re-evaluate their commercial ties with Myanmar, and criticized that some countries had even increased their trade volume with Myanmar since the military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya that began in August 2017. [The Daily Star]
Momin also took a potshot at international organizations and rights groups that had criticized Bangladesh’s decision to send some of the refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Since early December, authorities have relocated about 10,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh has repeatedly justified the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2].
16 March 2021
South Korea moves to ban military exports to Myanmar
(nm) In response to the military coup and violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar, South Korea has moved to suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports to the country, and reconsider its development assistance, according to the foreign ministry last week. Simultaneously, it declared to allow Myanmar nationals to remain in South Korea on humanitarian grounds until conditions stabilize. Approximately 25,000 Myanmar nationals will be covered by the special permits.
While the last defense export from South Korea to Myanmar was issued in 2019, Seoul still spends millions of dollars on development projects in the Southeast Asian country. The ministry said it would reconsider some of the cooperation, but would continue to fund projects that are directly related to the livelihood of the population and humanitarian aid. [Yonhap 1] [Yonhap 2] [Reuters]
Last week, Burmese residents and some Democratic Party lawmakers also came together to give a press conference in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Seoul, calling for the revival of democracy and holding up three-fingered signs as a symbol of resistance and solidarity for the people in Myanmar. South Korean and Australian foreign ministers also came together last week to discuss a coordinated approach to the situation in Myanmar, in addition to other issues such as the upcoming G7-summit. [The Korea Herald 1] [The Korea Herald 2]
16 March 2021
SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020
(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)
Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.
23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]
16 March 2021
Myanmar: Rising violence in crackdown on protesters
(nd) Last Wednesday, according to documents shared with the US Department of Justice, the military hired an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist to “assist in explaining the real situation” of the army’s coup to the United States and other countries. He is supposed to be receiving $ 2 million, which could be in violation of imposed sanctions. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council failed to agree on a statement to condemn the coup, call for restraint by the military and threaten to consider “further measures,” due to amendments to a British draft proposed by China, Russia, India and Vietnam. [Channel News Asia 1]
Following Myanmar Now, the offices of media outlets Mizzima and Kamaryut Media were raided last Tuesday. In its intensifying crackdown on the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the military started to target striking railway workers. [Asia Times] Meanwhile, Ba Myo Thein, the second NLD official, died in police custody. [Channel News Asia 2]
According to a leaked document on social media, a Chinese delegation held an emergency meeting with home affairs and foreign ministry staff in late February, asking the military to upgrade security for its pipeline projects amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment across the country due to its defense of the regime. Additionally, the delegation asked the military regime to pressure media to help reduce skepticism towards China. At least two officials have been detained over the leak. [Irrawaddy 1] In response to that and due to China’s role in blocking a resolution of the UN Security Council, protesters started a campaign boycotting Chinese imports as well as issuing threats against a major Chinese energy pipeline and port, which are part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, providing an ocean access. [Radio Free Asia 1] Over the weekend, Chinese-run factories were set on fire by protesters, further accusing China to support the military, which prompted the military to impose full martial law over parts of Yangon. For urging security forces to better protect Chinese business interests, despite further deadly crackdowns on protesters, China faced harsh criticism, further fueling anti-Chinese sentiment. [Irrawaddy 2]
Overall, the actions of security forces grew even more violent, killing with direct shots in the head or critical areas, such as the abdomen, and many teenagers among the deceased, whose toll rose to 183. Medical personnel and international journalists were among the almost 2000 arrested. More strategically, civil and digital infrastructure is destroyed, on top of the already imposed internet blackout from 1am to 9am, the military also imposed a 24-hours shutdown of mobile internet service in an attempt to cut off lines of communication among protesters. [Radio Free Asia 2] According to the UN food agency, prices for food (20-35%) and fuel (15%) rose significantly since the coup. [Reuters]
According to a report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI), the military is deploying army divisions notorious for atrocities to deliberately escalate violence against protesters. Videos published by AI showed troops using military weapons inappropriate for policing, like automatic rifles, indiscriminately spraying live ammunition in urban areas, and even making a sport of shooting protesters, some amounting to extrajudicial executions. [Radio Free Asia 3]
Last Wednesday, the military in accordance with its governing body, the State Administrative Council (SAC), removed the ethnic armed group, Arakan Army (AA), from its list of terrorist groups. Only in March 2020 was the AA labelled as a terrorist organization. The AA intensified fighting from November 2018 to early November 2020, with hundreds of fatalities and more than 200,000 residents displaced due to the conflict. In an effort to establish national peace, the military held two rounds of talks with the AA since November 2020, enabling military resources to be concentrated elsewhere. [Irrawaddy 3]
The acting administration of the Committee Representing the National Parliament (CRPH), a group of MPs mostly National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has started to set up a public administration program establishing local councils. Also, CRPH has put itself at the head of the CDM to support inter alia fired civil servants. With its announcement to abolish the 2008 constitution, which gives extraordinary power to the military, CRPH reached out both to civil society leaders and ethnic political parties and armed groups, aiming to build a broad coalition. A next step would be seeking support from Western governments. [Asia Times] CRPH also announced to back a “revolution” ousting the military government. [Radio Free Asia 2]
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has announced that it will put on hold funding for Myanmar government development projects in various sectors. Between 2013 and 2019, the ADB funded projects worth more than US$3.5 billion. [Irrawaddy 4]
UN-appointed Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews said Thursday, given the systematic and brutal action by the military against peaceful protesters, they are likely to meet the legal threshold for crimes against humanity, reinforcing that the people of Myanmar needed the help of the international community now. [UN News] The US government announced that Myanmar citizens would be able to remain inside the United States under “temporary protected status”. The protection is usually set for a limited period, but can be extended if the hardships or threats like political upheavals or natural disasters making returns difficult remain. [South China Morning Post 1] In the latest Quad meeting, leaders of the United States, India, Australia and Japan vowed to push to restore democracy in Myanmar. [South China Morning Post 2] ASEAN nations are increasingly urging the junta to hold a dialogue with protesters to find a peaceful solution and refrain from further violence. Many herald an intensification of violence over the Armed Forces Day on March 27, a holiday that commemorates the 1945 uprising against Japanese occupation forces led by Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. [Nikkei Asia]
Adding to her charges, ousted state council Suu Kyi was accused of accepting bribes amounting to $600,000 in payments and gold bars while in office. [Radio Free Asia 3] In an effort to delegitimize the coup legally, scholars debated whether junta-appointed president Myint Swe cannot legally be President. According to section 59f of the Constitution, the office of president or vice-president cannot be held by a person with a foreign citizenship, or if their spouse, children, or children’s spouses are citizens of a foreign country. Allegedly, Myint Swe’s son-in-law holds an Australian passport. The section is infamous because it prevented Suu Kyi from becoming President in 2015 due to her deceased husband’s British nationality. [The Diplomat]
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) carried out an attack on a military outpost in Kachin State on Thursday. Before the coup, there were few major clashes between the two, who were in the process of negotiating a ceasefire. While the military’s governing body, the State Administrative Council, announced to continue the peace process with ethnic armed organizations, the KIA said it supported the protesters and refused to recognize the military regime. KIA urged the military not to use live rounds and threatened to take revenge for the death of protesters. [Irrawaddy 5]
9 March 2021
India arrests more than 150 Rohingya refugees, ramps up security at Myanmar border
(lm) About 170 Rohingya refugees living in the city of Jammu in Kashmir have been rounded up into a holding center. Sources saiy the mass detentions are part of a wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, which witnessed a coup last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] and where the Rohingya remain a heavily persecuted minority. [Reuters]
The Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for years asked state and territory governments to identify and deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees scattered across different Indian states, despite international law prohibiting states from refoulement, i.e. returning asylum seekers to a country where they risk persecution. About 15,000 of the refugees hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants. [Al Jazeera]
Many Rohingya believe that the latest crackdown is linked to the Legislative Assembly elections of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, which are scheduled to be held from between March and April. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has made it an election promise to deport the Rohingya if they win. [The Guardian]
Thus, the process, which is likely to continue in the coming days, has sparked panic among the Rohingya refugee population. Being stateless in their home country of Myanmar, they are unable to travel to another country legally. Eager to avert deportation, many of them have therefore gone in hiding in other Indian states or entered Bangladesh. [Channel NewsAsia] [France24] [Voice of America]
Moreover, India has ordered the Assam Rifles, its oldest paramilitary force that is guarding the Indo-Myanmar border, to prevent any Myanmar national from crossing into Indian territory. New Delhi has also yet to respond to Myanmar’s request to send back eight police officers who had entered India’s northeastern state of Mizoram to escape taking orders from the military junta. [The Straits Times]
Since Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – overthrew and detained the country’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi this February, New Delhi has been taking a cautious approach, being wary of China’s growing influence and the high stakes involved to maintain peace and security along the India-Myanmar border. Hours before the second closed meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council, India on March 5 said that it has been discussing the situation with partner countries and the issues in the country should be resolved through peaceful manner. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post] [The Indian Express]
9 March 2021
Myanmar: General strike to continue as death toll rises
(nd) As two more charges were added to detained President Win Myint last Wednesday, protesters gathered again.[Channel News Asia 1] Police reportedly beat up medics to hinder them from treating protesters. Following many officers joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), 19 police officers fled to India in an effort to disobey to junta’s orders. [South China Morning Post 1] Myanmar‘s Cardinal Charles Bo compared the situation to the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.
In Yangon alone, 400 protesters were detained, including journalists, six of whom were charged for spreading “fake news” about the coup. Just last month, maximum sentences were raised to three years in jail. Meanwhile, the special meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers failed to reach a consensus. A common statement denounced the violence, while individual statements by Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore urged Myanmar’s military rulers to free Aung Sun Suu Kyi and other political leaders who remain detained. [Reuters 1] [Channel News Asia 2]
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said ASEAN members must adhere to the founding principle of non-interference, but still have a duty to respect its values for democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law and constitutional government. Malaysia urged the military leaders to return to negotiations. [Radio Free Asia 1] Meanwhile, there was confusion over who represents Myanmar at the UN. Following Myanmar Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun’s emotional appeal at the UN General Assembly last week, the junta announced he was fired. US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said they have not received any official evidence or request that he be removed, leaving him the representative of the Myanmar government. [Voice of America 1] In a verbal note, the Myanmar Foreign ministry informed the UN of the removal of Kyaw Moe Tun. In the latest twist, the UN appointee by the military resigned, saying that his successor remains the representative of Myanmar to the UN. [Channel News Asia 3] Meanwhile, more than 10 Myanmar diplomats based at foreign missions have announced to stop working for the military, in the US, Switzerland and Germany. [Irrawaddy 1]
The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) named four ministers to temporarily lead the official duties, three of whom belong to National League for Democracy (NLD). The committee consists of 17 politicians, against whom the military has issued arrest warrants. The committee has not yet asked for international recognition, but German President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schäuble has expressed his support for the committee. [FAZ in German]
The UN has again denounced the violence and warned, it could threaten regional stability and turn into a “real war”. According to UN envoy to Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener who talked to the generals, they said they were used to sanctions and […] survived the sanctions time in the past”, and also dismissed warnings of becoming isolated. [South China Morning Post 2]
Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan toughened his language and condemnation of the coup, connecting a strong ASEAN response with the credibility and ability to shape politics of the bloc in general. According to analysts, this move is to avoid to create a vacuum for China to fill. Singapore is still criticized for its close economic ties with the military, being the top direct foreign investor in Myanmar. [South China Morning Post 3] The US has imposed another round of sanctions, blocking the ministries of defense and home affairs and top military conglomerates from certain types of trade. The two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Company (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), are involved in almost every industry, making them a logical target, that is likely to affect the country’s economy collaterally. [Reuters 2] On Tuesday, Swedish fashion brand H&M announced to suspend all orders in Myanmar. [South China Morning Post 3]
Youtube has announced to remove five military-run television platforms hosted on its webpage. Also, TikTok announced to remove content on its platform, depicting Myanmar soldiers delivering death threats to protesters. [Reuters 3] Myanmar citizens reported an increase in arbitrary violence against residents and drivers by security forces, giving rise to fears of a certain culture of lawlessness cultivating. [Radio Free Asia 2]
On Monday, two more protesters died due to shots in the head, while an alliance of nine trade unions called for a general strike. Civil servants have been striking for weeks following the creation of the CDM. A NLD official has died in police custody, reportedly he was tortured to death. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation in the death and an end of impunity. [Nikkei Asia] Overnight raids and arrests continued, with reported violence and destruction of homes. [Voice of America 2]
48 Myanmar nationals, including 8 policemen, fled to India’s Northeast. In a letter, the Myanmar government asks India “in order to uphold friendly relations between the two neighbour countries” to return the policemen. India has not answered the request yet but recently worked to build closer ties to Myanmar to counter China. [South China Morning Post 4]
The body of the teenager shot in the head last week was exhumed in an effort to prove the military did not kill the girl. Parallelly, the regime on a social media campaign started a disinformation campaign putting the blame for the killed protesters on a third party not associated with the military. [Frontier Myanmar] Additionally, the military council stripped five independent media companies of their licenses, including Myanmar Now, Khit Thit media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Mizzima, and 7 Day. Before the announcement, the offices of Myanmar Now were raided and office equipment taken away. At least 34 journalists have been detained since the coup. [Voice of America 3]
Despite the NLD’s failure to unite the ethnically divided country, different ethnicities and religions seem to be united in their rejection of the coup. Also, protesters’ demands grow to be more inclusive to social issues like sexual self-determination. Rohingya refugees voiced their support of the protests, resulting in some netizens and protesters publicly regretting their lack of support for the Rohingyas in 2017. [South China Morning Post 5] [Benar News]
The military has started to occupy universities, schools and hospitals as base camps, as well as locations close to residential areas to coordinate mostly nightly crackdowns on civilians, searching apartments door to door. [Irrawaddy 2] So far, an estimated 1,700 people have been arrested, more than 60 killed.
9 March 2021
Malaysian court to allow judicial review by rights groups
(nd) Following last week’s deportation of Myanmar nationals in military ships [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1], a Malaysian court granted international human rights groups the permission to challenge the move. The judgment is major, given the country’s law banning immigration decisions to be questioned in court. The legal bid was brought by rights groups Amnesty International and Asylum Access, who claimed that among the deported were asylum seekers and children. The latest court decision also puts on hold the deportation of another 114 Myanmar nationals until the end of the judicial review. The decision is unlikely to bring back the detained but enables rights groups to challenge similar cases in the future. The deportation was criticized internationally and potentially amounts to contempt of court. Malaysia hosts more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, which is in turmoil following a coupon February 1. [Reuters]
2 March 2021
Myanmar: Lethal force against protesters, international backlash
(nd) Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met her Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in Bangkok to facilitate an ASEAN approach to respond to the recent military coup in Myanmar. Uniting the regional bloc, which is governed by the principle of non-interference, will be a challenge though. In a statement, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha confirmed his participation in the talks, stressing that their meeting was not signaling an “endorsement” of the situation. In reverse, there was also no condemnation as well. [Bangkok Post]
Indonesian Minister Marsudi reported from her trip to Brunei last week, that the Sultan supports a special ASEAN meeting on Myanmar. She also had telephone conversations with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Japan, India and China on the issue. Indonesia is the largest member of ASEAN. It accounts for 40% of its population and gross domestic product, and has a track record of pushing for delicate issues to be tabled on the ASEAN agenda. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4] So far, however, Myanmar seems to have rejected the offer of a special foreign ministers’ meeting of the ASEAN member states. The response from other member states remained divided. [Nikkei Asia 1]
Also, some activists criticized Indonesia for its approach for allegedly legitimizing the junta leaders. Moreover, in a joint open letter to ASEAN, dozens of Southeast Asian NGOs said that the fractured response will damage the bloc’s image and credibility. [Benarnews]
According to a leaked document, the World Bank has notified the military that it put on hold disbursements for their operations as of February 1. Payment application prior to the coup will still be executed. [Irrawaddy 1] Following a partial ban last week, Facebook banned all remaining accounts, pages, media entities, and commercial ads run by the military on Facebook and Instagram, citing the “deadly violence” occurring since the coup. Facebook is Myanmar’s most popular social media platform and a frequently used site for information. [Irrawaddy 2]
Meanwhile, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is gaining momentum with more and more individuals and businesses joining to boycott products linked to the military. Additionally, shops and roadside vendors started to refuse to sell goods to the police, military personnel, and their family members, to oppose the security forces’ crackdown on protesters. [Irrawaddy 3] The CDM is growing steadily and is noticeable in everyday life, leaving hospitals, bank, factories and government offices empty. Some 50 civil servants lost their job over their participation in the strike. According to an estimate by the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, three-quarters of the civil servants are on strike. Overnight arrests are targeting CDM participants in particular. [Channel News Asia]
The coup continues to affect Myanmar’s economy, with Japanese automaker Toyota announcing a delay in opening a factory due to the situation. Japan also considers stopping new official development aid to Myanmar amid the deadly crackdown on protesters. On Friday, a Japanese journalist was detained by the police. [Nikkei Asia 2]
Japan has been assisting Myanmar economically since 2011 and provided 189.3-billion-yen ($1.8 billion) in official development aid (ODA) in 2019. Unlike US and Europe, Japan kept ties to the military and did not impose sanctions of Myanmar, but froze ODA, which it tied to democratization efforts. Also with the latest coup, Japan has not imposed sanctions yet and seems to be looking to get in contact with the military to avoid driving Myanmar closer to China. Still, Japan joined US and Europe in their criticism of the coup and urged the military to stop its crackdown on protesters. [Nikkei Asia 3]
Last Thursday, protesters clashed with around hundred military supporters in Yangon, hinting at more escalation. [Voice of America] Following almost 800 arrests among protesters, the military started to target major, medium-sized and small business owners and contractors across the country by interrogating and in certain cases detaining them detained by the Office of the Chief of Security Affairs, the most feared branch of Myanmar’s military intelligence agency. All business owners were accused of entertaining ties and having made donations to the National League for Democracy (NLD) or Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother’s charitiy, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation. Their whereabouts are unknown. [Asia Times]
At least 25 journalists were arrested nationwide, with 10 remaining detained. [Irrawaddy]
Over the weekend, at least 18 people died and many were wounded when police used live rounds to disperse protesters. The UN, EU, Canada and Japan have strongly condemned the violence. [Irrawaddy 4] UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews released a statement listing options for UN member states and the security council to take action. Among them were a global arms embargo, sanctions against businesses owned or controlled by the junta, and to convene the UN Security Council. He also urged countries that imposed sanctions to “immediately consider more.” [Voice of America] Even before the last weekend’s violence, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN intensely urged the international community to take the “strongest possible action”, flashing the three-finger-salute used by pro-democracy protesters. [Asia Times 2] After his speech, according to leaked documents the military recalled at least 100 staff from missions in at least 19 countries, transferring more than 50 staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to the vacant positions. [Irrawaddy 5]
The military asked security forces not to use live rounds any more, following the international criticism. [South China Morning Post]
On Monday, the first trial day was held via video conference, showing ousted leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi in good health. It is expected to be a lengthy trial to keep her detained and possibly unavailable for the announced new general election, after two more charges were added against her. Meanwhile, the military spokesperson announced that the office of state counselor, a position established for Suu Kyi who could not become president due to her foreign husband, would be eliminated. [Nikkei Asia 4]
On Tuesday, a special ASEAN foreign minister meeting was resumed. Both Singapore and Malaysia condemned the violence. Singapore faced heavy criticism for being the main source of foreign direct investment in Myanmar and entertaining close links to the junta.
2 March 2021
Malaysia: Burmese detainees deported despite court ban
Despite a last-minute court order to postpone to ship’s departure, Malaysia still deported more than 1,000 Myanmar detainees. The US and UN had criticized the plan, and rights groups said there were asylum seekers among the detainees. The temporary motion brought by activists was affirmed hours before the scheduled deportation. There was no comment given, also not why the number of 1,086 deported was lower than the 1,200 detainees earlier. Rights groups argued that minor groups facing prosecution in Myanmar were among the detainees. The UN refugee agency was not granted access to the migrants and could not determine their status. Malaysia had expressed “serious concern” over the coup, but was later criticized for accepting the offer from the Myanmar junta to send warships to repatriate the detainees, which would present the military favorably. [Asia Times]
A group of international rights stated on Friday that at least two of the deported children had been separated from their asylum-seeking families in Malaysia, along with 17 other unaccompanied children. [Malay Mail]
Human Rights Watch urged the government to immediately investigate in the deportation and order the Immigration Department to grant the UNHCR access to people in detention. [Human Rights Watch]
23 February 2021
ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace
(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.
Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.
A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.
Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.
Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]
In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.
The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.
In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]
23 February 2021
Anti-Singapore sentiment and Singapore’s latest move towards anti-coup in Myanmar
(py) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently denounced the use of lethal weapons of the junta against unarmed civilians in Myanmar after a report of two deaths in the city of Mandalay. Singapore is now under tremendous pressure as there have been anti-Singapore sentiments over the internet, urging citizens to boycott Singaporean products and business chains. Protesters urge Singapore to use its economic clout to support the movement. However, ASEAN’s principle in non-interference and respect for member’s national sovereignty might block the way for possible collective and individual actions against the junta. Nevertheless, Singapore could still exert its power by publicizing the military’s financial activities in Singapore, suspend or slow dealings with junta-linked bodies. Experts doubt such actions would be taken. [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia]
23 February 2021
Myanmar: Ongoing protests
(nd) Nationwide protests continued despite gathering bans, internet shutdowns and an intensifying crackdown on protesters. Internet connectivity dropped to only 21%. On Monday, Facebook blocked the main news site run by the military. Facebook is the primary source of information and news, with an estimated 22 million of 54 million people using the social media platform.
On Wednesday, shots were fired but it was unclear if live ammunition was used. Following a campaign on social media, protesters in Yangon blocked major roads to prevent civil servants from going to work and hinder security forces. UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, already last Tuesday warned of “potential for violence on a greater scale”. More troops were deployed to big cities. [BBC]
Andrews also highlighted his impression for the risk young demonstrators are taking, who “had a taste of freedom” and will not give up. In a similar defiance, many signs last week read “You have messed with the wrong generation.” [Voice of America 1]
The release of detained leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi was further delayed and she is charged with violating Covid-19 restrictions. Her lawyer could not see her personally. Her lawyer also commented the 2008 constitution prohibits to charge the President with criminal offenses, rendering charges and detention of President U Win Myint unlawful and invalid. [Voice of America 2]
Meanwhile six celebrities, including film directors, actors and a singer, were targeted for encouraging and promoting civil servants to join the protests. The charges carry a prison sentence of 2 years. On Thursday, hackers attacked multiple government-run websites. In Mandalay, train services were disrupted heavily on Wednesday by striking workers, who were shot at with rubber bullets by the police, causing injuries. [Channel News Asia 1]
Following US-President Joe Biden’s executive orders, sanctions were imposed on individuals and three military-connected companies. The move was understood by analysts to be a first step to give the military junta room to find a political compromise with Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Meanwhile, the military has been active in seeking reconciliation with ethnic groups, excluding Rohingyas in an effort to demonstrate a more effecting governing of the country than NLD. [Nikkei Asia]
More than 500 people have been arrested since the coup, with security forces attacking and beating reporters. Some reported being followed by police in plainclothes. Government workers were arrested for their participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), with the whereabouts of some unknown. [Radio Free Asia] At large protests this Tuesday, almost 200 people who joined the general strike, were beaten and arrested. [Irrawaddy]
The 20-year-old protester who was shot in the head last week by live ammunition has died. [BBC 1] Large crowds attended her funeral over the weekend. Reportedly, a policeman died as well. In another round of live ammunition used, three more protesters died, which prompted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to condemn violence and lethal force and urged the military to stop the repression. [BBC 2] The junta earlier said protesters are inciting the people and warned protesters might die, following the announcement of a general strike by the CDM. [Asia Times 1] The CDM’s work stoppage sees first results, with many critical functions being at least delayed, such as the banking sector and businesses running short on cash.
Seemingly, the military is determined to wait the protests out. Support from Russia, a reluctant reaction from ASEAN and Western fear of pushing Myanmar closer to China have created a rather favorable international floor for the coup. Different from historic brutal crackdowns on protesters, this time there are no active conflicts with the ethnic states. In November, the military surprisingly agreed to an ad hoc ceasefire with the Arakan Army (AA) in western Rakhine state, which in hindsight according to observers was already setting the stage for a possible coup. This is highlighted by the military further pushing the peace process within the context of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) after the coup. The closing of a second frontier made possible the significant deployment of troops to major cities. According to analysts, the late-night internet shutdowns are likely to be followed by a more strategic crackdown on protest leaders to disperse the movement. [Asia Times 2]
Britain and Canada joined the US in imposing sanctions on Myanmar, the Quad group (Japan, Australia, India, US) agreed that democracy must be restored quickly. [South China Morning Post] The US extended their sanctions to two more generals and the EU also joined with the imposition of sanctions on military leaders. [Channel News Asia 2]
23 February 2021
Malaysia: Burmese ships to deport Burmese migrants
(nd) Despite UN-voiced and international concerns, three Burmese military ships over the weekend arrived in Malaysia to pick up 1,200 asylum seekers and others from Myanmar. Nearly 100 of them are from the Myanmar Muslim, Kachin and Chin communities, traditionally coming to Malaysia fleeing from persecution. Rights groups therefore urged not to deport the asylum seekers. Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees. With regards to the Rohingyas, Malaysia vowed not to deport those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, UNHCR has not been allowed to interview the detainees for their status. Malaysia was also criticized to be cooperating with the junta leaders and thereby legitimizing them. The ships were scheduled to leave for Myanmar on Tuesday. [Nikkei Asia] Before their departure, a Malaysian court has ordered their temporary stay until Wednesday 10 am to hear Amnesty International and Asylum Access’s application for judicial review of the deportation. [Rappler]
23 February 2021
Indonesia to rally among ASEAN for a joint stance on coup in Myanmar
(nd) In an effort to promote among ASEAN member states a common stance on the coup in Myanmar, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Brunei last week. Brunei currently holds the ASEAN chair. She already discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and is expected to meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday.
Retno commented, Indonesia “prioritised” efforts to ensure a democratic transition in Myanmar, and has held talks with regional foreign ministers and counterparts in India, Australia, Japan and Britain, and the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener. Last week, Indonesia and Malaysia called for a special ASEAN meeting on the coup. The member states responses were mixed, but mostly in adherence to their principle of non-interference, calling it an internal affair.
According to analysts, Indonesia is looking for a better response to the military coup both regionally and internationally, underlining its regional role as peacekeeper and communicator. [South China Morning Post]
Meanwhile, Indonesia is reportedly pushing Southeast Asian countries to agree on an action plan over Myanmar’s coup that would keep the junta to its promise of holding elections, involving also monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive. [Reuters]
16 February 2021
Bangladesh: Authorities to move more Rohingya to remote island, despite outcry
(lm) Authorities in Bangladesh have sent another 3,000 to 4,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, ignoring ongoing complaints by rights groups concerned about the low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. [The Straits Times] [Anadolu Agency]
Since early December, authorities had already relocated about 7,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh justifies the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. The government also routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2].
Earlier this month a long-awaited meeting of a working committee on the Rohingya repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar had been adjourned indefinitely, after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government and declared a year-long state of emergency [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
16 February 2021
ASEAN-EU strategic partnership
(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.
Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.
The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.
The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.
Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]
16 February 2021
ASEAN to have less trust in China
(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.
China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]
16 February 2021
Myanmar: Responses by the UN to the coup
(nd) In a statement UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the military and police of Myanmar to ensure that the right of peaceful assembly is “fully respected” and demonstrators are “not subjected to reprisals”. “Reports of continued violence, intimidation and harassment by security personnel are unacceptable”, he added. Guterres called on all member states to “collectively and bilaterally” exercise influence with respect to the protection of the human rights, and urged the military authorities to enable the Special Envoy to visit Myanmar under agreeable conditions and to assess the situation. The UN Special Rapporteur of human rights in Myanmar, underscored with respect to the military generals: “You WILL be held accountable”. He added that “Myanmar military personnel and police need to know that ‘following orders’ is no defence for committing atrocities and any such defence will fail, regardless of their place in the chain of command”. He highlighted that security force “have a moral, professional and legal obligation to protect the people of Myanmar, not provoke or assault them.”
The Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the coup sets back the country’s two-decade-long development, and condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters. She also referred to the current crisis as “born of impunity”, with a lack of civilian control over the military and its disproportionate influence.
Hundreds of arbitrary detentions, mostly happening at night and by police in plainclothes, with the whereabouts of many unknown, many activists went into hiding. In a resolution on Friday, the UN Human Rights Council called for the restoration of the democratically elected Government, the immediate and unconditional release of all persons arbitrarily detained, and the lifting of the state of emergency. Also, it urged the “immediate and permanent lifting of restrictions” on the Internet, telecommunication and social media, and to not further violate the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. [UN News 1] [UN News 2] [UN News 3]
16 February 2021
Malaysia: Detention of Myanmar national announced
(nd) After the military regime in Myanmar offered to take back citizens detained, Malaysia announced to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals. Malaysia regards them as illegal migrants since it does not formally recognize refugees. There was no comment made whether refugees are among the detainees, but past groups have included members of the Chin, Kachin and the Muslim Rohingya communities. More than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar are in Malaysia, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR. Myanmar views Rohingyas as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar will send navy ships on February 21. This is the first time Myanmar’s navy had offered to help repatriate its citizens, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees, who also said refugees are in danger of persecution if sent back.
The Myanmar army in 2007 launched operation against Rohingya Muslims, forcing around 730,000 to neighboring Bangladesh, which was referring to by the UN as “genocidal intent”. [Malaymail]
16 February 2021
Myanmar: Second week of consecutive protests, crackdown intensifying
(nd) The protest against the military coup have been ongoing for eleven consecutive days. Last Tuesday night, martial law was installed, with protesters continuing to defy a ban to gather. It also saw the first use of lethal force, with three protesters hospitalized with gunshot wounds. A 19-year-old protester was shot in the head in the capital of Naypyitaw and declared braindead. The United Nations special rapporteur condemned the violence. [Myanmar Now] Headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were raided by the police at night. Elected lawmakers of NLD self-declared a Parliament and appointed detained Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counselor through 2025. [Irrawaddy 1] Her detention was extended at least until February 17. The Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity founded by Suu Kyi, is being investigated by the military regime, hinting at an effort to file more charges against her. The foundation, named after Suu Kyi’s mother, was established in 2012 to strengthen health, education and living standards, especially in the less developed parts of Myanmar. [Irrawaddy 5]
Meanwhile, NLD has increased support for the growing civil disobedience movement (CDM), promising to help any worker fired for opposing the coup, which was joined by more government employees from various ministries. In the eastern state of Kayah, about 40 policemen joined the protesters. The protests have reached to all the ethnic dominated states. The military regime urged medical staff and state employees to go back to work and threatened with consequences. [BBC 1] [Frontier Myanmar 1] [Frontier Myanmar 2] [Irrawaddy 2] [Irrawaddy 3] [Reuters] On Monday, many followed a call by protest leaders to withdraw cash from military-owned Myawaddy Bank, in an effort to boycott the military’s economic operations. Maximum withdraw amounts were limited and banks closed early, citing Covid-19 restrictions. [Irrawaddy 4]
Staff from the Ministry of Information and state-owned media joined the CDM, prompting protesters to start targeting state media for “broadcasting misinformation.” Reportedly, journalists were harassed or injured while reporting, with one journalist detained. Access to the internet is still disrupted. Meanwhile, Facebook announced to reduce the availability of content and profiles run by the military for they have “continued to spread misinformation” after the coup on February 1. [Voice of America 2] [Rappler]
On Wednesday, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha reportedly received a letter from Myanmar’s junta leader asking for help to support democracy. Prayut himself seized power in a coup, overthrowing an elected prime minister in 2014 and facing the severest protests in decades and calls to resign. The Thai and Burmese armies worked closely together for decades. [Bangkok Post]
Last week, the military regime reportedly sent a letter to the Bangladeshi government, mentioning a solution to solve the fate of the Rohingya refugees currently located in Bangladesh. Military commanders have visited Rohingya camps close to the border with Bangladesh and close to Sittwe. Due to overcrowded camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh started to transport Rohingyas to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal, which was criticized internationally. Reportedly, the message conveyed by the military visitors was that Sun Kyi was to blame for the crimes against Rohingyas in 2017. [Asia Times]
Due to the spread of a rumor, China was assisting the military regime in blocking access to media by sending IT experts, thousands of people last week protested outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon. China Enterprises Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar stated the aircraft was carrying goods such as seafood. Anger against China and protests in front of its embassy still increased with China continuing to label the coup an internal affair, fueling existing anti-Chinese sentiment. [Irrawaddy 6]
Meanwhile, a Cyber Security Law draft was released, which requires providers to store user data and provide it to the government upon request. With the internet blockade now being almost permanent, millions of protesters are using offline messaging app Bridgefy. Last week, US President Joe Biden announced sanctions against the coup leaders. The US would strictly control exports and freeze US assets of the military while maintaining support to civil society groups. The efficacy of such sanctions is debated since most leading figures are already facing US sanctions due to the brutal crackdown on Rohingyas in 2017. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Frontier Myanmar 3]
On Friday, which was Union Day, the military regime remitted sentences of and released 23,000 prisoners. Mass pardons are common to happen on national holidays to relieve overcrowded prisons. Union Day marks the signature of an agreement between Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, and the Shan, Kachin and Chin people to unify the republic in 1947. Allegedly, among the released are thugs to intimidate and threaten protesters, a known tactic from years of military rule. Clashes between protesters and police grew more violent, with three protesters shot by rubber bullets. [BBC 2]
Military vehicles were deployed into major cities on Monday. That same day, members of the Union Election Commission (UEC) were systematically detained on both state and local level, reportedly pressured them to back the army’s yet unsubstantiated voting fraud claims. [Radio Free Asia 2] At a protest site on Sunday at a power plant in Kachin, video footage shows the military firing into crowds to disperse them. It was unclear if rubber bullets or live ammunition was used. [Voice of America 1]
Over the weekend, the military regime suspended a law that made a court approval mandatory for detention or search of private property. Also, well-known backers of mass protests were arrested, such as Min Ko Naing, a leading pro-democracy activist since 1988. On Friday, The UN human rights office stated more than 350 people have been arrested in since the coup. In addition to late-night-arrests, the regime reinstated a law requiring people to report overnight visitors. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asia] Additionally, various sections of the Penal Code were amended, including provisions against spreading “false news”, hindering government employees from working, and broadening a clause about “bring[ing…] hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection” toward the government, to now also include the Myanmar military. Prison sentences can reach up to 20 years. According to critics, the amendments clearly aim at legalizing a crackdown on protesters. [The Diplomat]
The military calls the coup justified due to an alleged widespread voter fraud in general elections on November 8, which the NLD won with an overwhelming majority.
9 February 2021
Talks between on Rohingya repatriation deferred due to military coup in Myanmar
(lm) A long-awaited meeting of a working committee on the Rohingya repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been adjourned indefinitely, after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government and declared a year-long state of emergency. Earlier this month Dhaka its neighbor to resume the repatriation process this year, after Myanmar had earlier said it was committed to the repatriation as per the 2017 bilateral agreement, in spite of two failed attempts in the past [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Dhaka Tribune 1]
Furthermore, the new administration has explained in writing to Bangladesh the reasons for the coup, citing alleged discrepancies such as duplicated names on voting lists in scores of districts in the national election held in November last year [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [The Daily Star]
What is more, Bangladesh last week turned down a proposal to import 100,000 metric tons of rice under a government-to-government agreement from Myanmar, at a time when Dhaka is trying to replenish its depleted reserves after floods last year ravaged crops and sent prices to a record high. In December last year, Bangladesh agreed to buy 150,000 tons of rice from the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED), one of the largest procurement and marketing agencies for agricultural products in India. [Dhaka Tribune 2]
9 February 2021
Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects
(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.
Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]
9 February 2021
Singapore: Police warning not to hold protests over Myanmar
(py) The police issued a warning not to protest with respect to “recent developments in Myanmar”. The announcement came as a reaction towards online postings in support of Myanmar, encouraging participation in demonstrations. Police reminded them of the Public Order Act, which carries as an offense to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit. Police reminded “foreigners visiting, working or living in Singapore” “to abide by our law” and otherwise will be “dealt with firmly”, having their visas or work passes terminated. Last week’s coup by the Myanmar military saw hundreds of thousands of protesters, including doctors and state employees, taking to the streets and staging civil disobedience. [Channel News Asia]
9 February 2021
Myanmar: Coup unfolding
(nd) Following the military’s takeover last Monday, actions of civil disobedience have increased with some wearing red ribbons in protest, medical workers striking, raising the three-finger salute known from the Thai pro-democracy protesters. This marks another extension of the MilkTeaAlliance, an anti-authoritarian hashtag, which was prompted during Hong Kong protests in 2019, and spread to include Taiwan and Thailand, occasionally India over border disputes with China.
Secretary General Antonio Guterres pledged “to make sure that this coup fails” by gathering enough international support. Due to a veto by China, the UN Security Council did not agree on a joint statement. The Group of Seven major economic powers condemned the action and urged the military to reverse it. The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.
Meanwhile, the police filed charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, which include breaching import and export laws, and possession of unlawful communication devices, and announced her detention until February 15. President Win Myint was charged for violating protocols to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The access to social media services was blocked for the sake of “stability”. Many used VPNs to circumvent the blockade. The high numbers of users and spread of information are a testament to the liberalization of the telecom sector and press freedoms reached in recent years. [Nikkei Asia] [Reuters] [BBC 1] [South China Morning Post 1]
In the past, China has invested time in both forging ties with civilian and military leaders in Myanmar, although the military is the institution most suspicious of Chinese influence in the country and their support of armed ethnic rebels in the North. Western powers have been reluctant so far to impose sanctions. The US have officially labelled the action as coup, which enables further steps to impose sanctions. Japanese citizens have protested in support of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi, but the government was hesitant to comment on the imposition of sanctions. India did not use the word “coup” but urged to return to the rule of law and democracy. In an effort to counter China’s influence in the region, both countries maintained balanced relationships to both civil and military leaders.
Japan has an increased economic interest and entertains a developed strategic partnership with the military. India in turn needs the Burmese military to contain separatist movements in the Northeast of India and is believed to be the key protector of a US$1.4 billion infrastructure investment to connect India to its regional neighbor states. This makes them unlikely to join US sanctions but rather eyeing for a compromise. With respect to China’s more lenient stand on human rights issues, a further push towards China through another round of sanctions is feared. Past impositions of sanctions have not been successful. Therefore, US reactions to the coup will be the first test for the administration of Joe Biden and his credibility, closely monitored by China taking advantage of possible friction between the West and Myanmar. [South China Morning Post 2] [Foreign Policy] [The Atlantic] [The Diplomat] [Foreign Affairs]
According to observers, the coup happened less for strategic purposes but rather for personal calculations and pride. With a constitution designed to ensure military influence on the country with a guaranteed quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the military blocking any amendments to it, Suu Kyi’s latest electoral success might have been one too many. When she was hindered from becoming President in 2015 due to her marriage to a foreigner, she herself created the title “State Counselor”. Both in 2015 and now, she had an immense electoral victory, leaving only few seats to the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Following the military’s claim of electoral fraud, she refused to convene a special session of Parliament for discussion. The independent election commission was also quick to dismiss the complaints, making the rationale of a power struggle very credible. Additionally, Min Aung Hlaing is said to have strong civilian political ambitions, possibly for serving as a President, but was facing retirement this year. An NLD-controlled parliament would have been unlikely to elect him. His former position of Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces would have been appointed by the President in consultation with the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), reminding the military of another potential power loss. Also, Min Aung Hlaing faces international accusations with respect to the crimes against the Rohingyas.
Additionally, the NLD since 2015 sought to reform the 2008 constitution, which safeguards military prerogatives. Last year’s efforts to propose constitutional amendments to limit or revoke these privileges were rejected entirely through the military’s de-facto veto in parliament. It is unclear if the NLD would have been able to push through such amendments but the latest elections did enable them to succeed in former USDP strongholds.
The military might aim to justify the coup as a support of democracy by fighting electoral fraud, which runs against the assessment of international observers. The military has not yet provided evidence to support its claim. Still, for that rationale, the military might point to the single-member plurality voting system, meaning the most voted for candidate wins irrespective of the vote share. This system makes it harder for ethnic and small parties to succeed. It might present leverage for the military to garner support from ethnic minorities, which were promoting the proportional representation system at the latest election. [Asia Times] [East Asia Forum 1] [East Asia Forum 2]
Despite the coup, the signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) announced they will continue to implement the peace process with the military government. Experts are still worried about the fate of the ethnic minorities in Rakhine state as well as the Rohingya refugees. [Irrawaddy] [South China Morning Post 3]
Although the access to the internet was blocked increasingly, thousands of protesters gathered nationwide, making them the largest protest since 2007, when thousands of monks demonstrated against the military regime in the so-called Saffron Revolution. The police used water cannons, rubber bullets and fired warning shots into the air. On Monday, a general strike was called, which was followed by tens of thousands in Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay and Yangon. The protesters include teachers, lawyers, bank officers and government workers. The military regime imposed a curfew and a ban of gatherings of more than 5 people in a beginning crackdown on protesters. [Asia Times 2] [BBC 2] [Radio Free Asia]
Myanmar saw military coups in 1962 and 1988; in the 1990 election the military rejected the landslide victory of the NLD and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years. Her once excellent international reputation suffered significantly over her defense of the military’s violence against Rohingya Muslims.
9 February 2021
Singaporean investor to cut ties to Myanmar military
(nd) Singaporean businessman and co-founder of Hong Kong-listed gaming group Razer, Lim Kaling, announced to cut economic ties to Myanmar’s military, following last week’s coup. Lim was a minority shareholder (49%) in Virginia Tobacco Company through RMH Singapore Pte Ltd, with the rest held by Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL). MEHL is one of the two conglomerates run by the military, which have connections to nearly every industry and sector in the country. Local advocacy group Justice For Myanmar welcomed the step and urged Lim to persuade RMH Singapore to end their business with MEHL. Earlier, Japanese beverage producer Kirin announced to end its long-standing joint venture with MEHL, following pressure by activists. Such moves were promoted by human rights groups to foreign investors for years.
Myanmar’s economy, already hit by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, is likely to suffer more from last week’s coup, with Western sanctions lurking. Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in a televised speech was eager to present stability, saying this coup would be “different”, foreign investors are invited and all development projects would continue. Although adverse reactions of foreign investors after the Military’s crimes against the Rohingya Muslims of western Myanmar in 2017 were largely inexistent, the latest coup is likely to see stronger repercussions, for its definite end to Myanmar’s era of political reform. [The Diplomat]
9 February 2021
Myanmar, New Zealand to suspend contact; Australian Turnell remains detained
(nd) Following the military coup in Myanmar last week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced to suspend all high-level contact with Myanmar and the imposition of a travel ban on its military leaders. Additionally, New Zealand will scrutinize their aid programs and projects do not benefit the military. The aid program has had a value of about NZ$42 million ($30 million) between 2018 and 2021. New Zealand urged the military regime to release all detainees and restore civilian rule. Last week, the economic advisor to Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Australian national Sean Turnell was abducted. His family has called for his immediate release. [Reuters] [Irrawaddy]
9 February 2021
ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar
(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.
While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.
Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms.
Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]
2 February 2021
Thailand to deport Burmese migrant workers
(nd) In an effort to contain the recent Covid-19 spike, Thailand deported 158 undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, with more expected to follow. Despite the central meaning Burmese migrant workers have for the Thai economy, Thailand announced travel restrictions last March forcing thousands of foreign workers to leave the country, with 624 arrest on the Southern border. Following this move, illegal border entries have risen, resulting in arrests of Thai smugglers. The estimated number of illegal migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos is 500,000. End of 2020, the cabinet enacted a program to temporarily legalize such undocumented workers, with nearly 2 million having applied for the two-year extension. [Benarnews]
2 February 2021
Myanmar: Civilian protests against military presence
(nd) Civilians in Kayin and Mon states last week protested against military presence, which was in violation of a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) reached in 2015. The NCA was signed by 9 other ethnic armies. Early December last year, fights between the military and the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest ethnic rebel army, restarted, causing residents to flee their homes. The military denied troop reinforcements. Civil society groups have urged the country’s leaders to end the conflict and advertised for meetings between KNU and the military. [Radio Free Asia]
2 February 2021
Myanmar: Military stages a coup
(nd) Over the weekend, the Burmese military staged a coup arresting Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leading party members. State powers were transferred to General Min Aung Hlaing. Telephone lines, the internet and media coverage were interrupted temporarily. There will be an emergency rule for one year, after which new elections will be held. In a Facebook post carrying her name, Aung San Suu Kyi called to protest the coup, which was intended to reinstate military rule in the country that has been on a careful path to democracy. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party called on the military to release the detainees. As a first echo of the call to protest, the country’s largest activist group, The Yangon Youth Network, announced the launch of a civil disobedience campaign.
Western countries condemned the step; the US urged the military to reverse its actions and warned of possible responses. China commented they “noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation.” It is likely that the coup will bring Myanmar further into Chinese influence, which is the biggest investor and for a long time has executed strong presence at the northern border. Additionally, the country’s economy still suffers from the repercussion of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the UN Council expressed fears for the fate of about 600,000 Rohingya Muslims, with the Council planning to meet this Tuesday.
Reactions in the region reflect the tendency of erosion of democracy. Both the Philippines and Thailand referred to it as internal matter, possibly bearing their own history and current crackdowns on protesters in mind. Current ASEAN-chair Brunei, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, urged Myanmar to adhere the bloc’s core principles, including the commitment to the rule of law, good governance, democratic principles, and a constitutional government. The principles also include a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states. The contested government in Malaysia is currently under an emergency rule until August. According to a Brookings Institute report, Indonesia’s democracy is regressing, given an increase in military involvement in public life and active positions for people linked to the dictatorship of former President Suharto. [Radio Free Asia]
The Thai student-led pro-democracy protest movement showed their solidarity under the trending hashtag “coup d’etat”, including Myanmar into the “Milk Tea Alliance”, a social media movement uniting democratic protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. On Monday, rallies were held outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok. Around 200 protesters clashed with 150 policemen, with three protesters arrested. [The Diplomat] [Bangkok Post]
Last week, more than a dozen embassies, including the EU and the US, reemphasized to “adhere to democratic norms” amid an already looming military coup. The military alleged widespread voter irregularities in November’s election, which resulted in only 33 seats for the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The military urged the government and the Union Election Commission (UEC) to review the results. The UEC denied the allegation, saying no evidence supports this claim. Following, an army spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.
Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing commented by saying the country’s constitution could be “revoked” under certain circumstances. The 2008 constitution features a provision, which enables the military’s commander-in-chief to wield sovereign power during a state of emergency, which has to be declared by the president.
In the November 8 general elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the elections with 82% of the contested seats. 25% of the seats are given to the military. Myanmar had a brutal, corrupt military rule from 1962 to 2011. The result of the 1990 election, which the NLD won by 81%, was erased and Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010. [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2] [Radio Free Asia] [South China Morning Post] [FAZ in German] [Reuters] [Channel News Asia 3] [Reuters]
2 February 2021
Bangladesh: Military coup in Myanmar may scuttle plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees
(lm) The military coup in neighboring Myanmar on February 1 [see article this edition] has raised fears in Bangladesh that the new regime may not make genuine efforts to revive the stalled process of voluntary repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees. Myanmar had earlier said it was committed to the repatriation as per the 2017 bilateral agreement, despite to failed attempts in the past [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [The Straits Times 1] [Forbes]
Bangladesh is hosting more than a million Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal military crackdown three years ago [see AiR No. 5, August/2017,12] at cramped makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, which is considered the world’s largest refugee settlement. Earlier this month Dhaka urged Myanmar to resume the repatriation process this year, after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 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 [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s government sent two more groups of Rohingya refugees to a remote Bay of Bengal island on January 30, ignoring complaints by rights groups concerned about low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. [South China Morning Post] [Bloomberg]
Since early December, authorities had relocated about 3,500 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh justifies the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. The government also routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. [The Straits Times 2]
26 January 2021
Myanmar to sign development agreement for a power plant
(lf) For the development of a power plant in Yangon, the state-controlled Electric Power Generation Enterprise signed a contract with TTCL Power Myanmar Company Limited, a subsidiary of Thailand’s TTCL Public Company Limited, which, in turn, is a joint venture between Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD), and Japan’s Toyo Engineering Corporation. The estimated investment volume is US$685 million (911 billion kyats).
The ITD is currently facing legal dispute with Myanmar with respect to the Dawai Special Economic Zone. Myanmar terminated the development contract with ITD after a loss in confidence through breaches in the contract and a constant delay of the project. ITD plans to challenge these allegations.
At current, only half of Myanmar’s population is connected to the national grid, which is the lowest rate for any ASEAN country. In recent years, electricity consumption has increased by 15-19% annually. To meet this demand, the National League for Democracy has focused on liquid natural gas (LNG) and small dams. While plants can be built rather fast, the LNG cannot be produced domestically due to a lack in technology and the high expenses for the production. [Irrawaddy 1] [Irrawaddy 2] [See also AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]
26 January 2021
Myanmar: Villagers agree to relocation from Chinese run copper mine
(lf) Villagers who live close to a copper mine jointly run by a Chinese company (China Wanbao Engineering Company) and the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Company (MEHC), have agreed to relocate. This ends a violent dispute between the villagers on one side and the MEHC/ China Wanbao Engineering Company and the police on the other that started in 2012 after villagers complained about not receiving adequate compensation for their land. In the same year, during a peaceful protest 70 monks and 10 civilians were harmed through the use of highly toxic white phosphorus by security forces, followed by the killing of a female protestor who was shot in 2014 by police forces. The villagers have agreed to relocate after an agreement was found with the Chinese company. [Irrawaddy]
26 January 2021
ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic
(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.
Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]
26 January 2021
Myanmar, China to deepen cooperation
(nd) During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Myanmar, the countries agreed on a major transportation project and a five-year trade and economic pact, including 8 bilateral deals. Most importantly, a feasibility study for the second half of a rail line from East to West, connecting Myanmar’s border with China to its Bay of Bengal coast, forms part of it. The line is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and shall provide an access to the Indian Ocean in bypassing the Malacca Strait. The first half of the project included a deep-water port on the coast and parallel running oil and gas pipelines, which drew a lot of criticism by residents.
The construction work was slowed down by Burmese fears of spiraling into a “debt trap” and dependency on China amid the high volume of BRI projects. According to analysts, the recent success to push the projects signals significant growth of Chinese influence on Myanmar. Also, the signing of a 5-year plan at the beginning of National League for Democracy’s (NLD) second term shows Myanmar’s dependency on China, as well as Chinese strategic ambition in Myanmar. The years of little competition for Southeast Asia might be over with the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Wang’s latest visit was therefore seen as a move to get ahead of Biden in the region. Wang is also visiting Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines and donating Covid-19 vaccinations. [Voice of America]
26 January 2021
Myanmar, Russia to seal military deal
(nd) Myanmar and Russia agreed on Russian military supply, including surface-to-air missile systems, surveillance drones, and radar equipment, expanding their mutual defense cooperation. It is speculated Myanmar might use the new equipment along the border with Bangladesh, or in Shan State, close to the Self-Administered Zone by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s largest ethnic armed organization. UWSA was technically equipped by China early last year.
Reportedly, Russia also has an interest in establishing naval visits to Myanmar in order to have an ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific. The countries have established diplomatic ties in 1948. Together with China, they voted to block a UN Security Council resolution against Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis. The countries have joint military drills and Myanmar has bought Russian military equipment since the 2000s. Myanmar was the fifth-biggest importer of Russian weapons and aircraft in 2014, with a volume of US$20.4 million (27.2 billion kyats), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
For Myanmar, it is a possibility to counterbalance the influences of China, India and Western powers. As a former British colony, Myanmar mainly used European military equipment until Western countries imposed a ban in 1988 on military sales after a pro-democracy uprising was crushed violently in a military coup. [Irrawaddy]
26 January 2021
Myanmar, Indonesia to urge safe return conditions for Rohingyas
(nd) In an effort to weigh in on the solution of the Rohingya refugees, Indonesia urged Myanmar to create safe conditions to return from Bangladesh to Rakhine state. During a virtual ASEAN meeting, the bloc members supported the repatriation plan. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) reminded the bloc members of the ongoing clashes between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Army, creating an unsafe environment into which a return cannot be forced. APHR renewed calls to exert more pressure on the Burmese government in this regard.
In November 2018 and August 2019, previous plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees failed due to the lack of a guarantee for their safety and rights. Indonesia took in over 11,000 Rohingya refugees since 2015, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. With regards to the about 400 Rohingya refugees residing in Aceh province, Amnesty International Indonesia emphasized the government should not rush repatriation unless the conditions in Myanmar are safe. [Benar News]
Brokered by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar met last week to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees last week. While Bangladesh has announced a successful agreement on the repatriation of 1 million Rohingya refugees, the Burmese side has downplayed the significance of the meeting’s conclusion. The media coverage was either non-exiting or listed under “national” in an unprominent location. Observers see this as a sign of how little pressure with regard to this issue is felt by — the Burmese civilian and military leadership. [Anadolu Agency]
19 January 2021
Myanmar ends concession to Thai-led construction consortium
(nd) A consortium which was led by Thai construction company Italian-Thai Development Public Co. Ltd. (ITD) and was to build the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Southern Myanmar to transform the region into Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex was notified by the Burmese government of the termination of their involvement due to its failure to comply with the concession agreement and substantial delays. The project site is adjacent to the Andaman Sea and near the Gulf of Thailand, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans and linking the broader regions with each other, and includes a deep seaport to avoid the crowded Malacca strait for the transportation of goods. It is backed by the Thai government and a priority for the National League for Democracy-led government.
The initial agreement with the Italian-Thai Development Public Co. Ltd. (ITD) dates back to 2008 and was scheduled to be completed in 2015, with Japan being involved at a later stage. Following renegotiations between 2016 and 2018, it was agreed upon that ITD received a concession to develop the initial phase, with Japan becoming a third stakeholder. [Irrawaddy] [Asia Times]
19 January 2021
Myanmar, China to further push for implementation of BRI projects
(nd) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to Myanmar, brought donations of COVID-19 medical supplies, voiced support for the government’s peace talks with ethnic armed groups and urged a quicker project progress of Chinese-led infrastructure projects, which form a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Special reference was made to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as the flagship project under the BRI, including a railway and gas and oil pipelines. China has a vital strategic interest in stable access to the Indian Ocean from its southwestern provinces, which is why it is also getting involved in furthering peace talks. In Rakhine state, Myanmar’s military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) have been fighting for two years, which resulted in the killing of about 300 civilians, and displacing of about 230,000 people. The temporary ceasefire has been in place since November 8.
While the economic benefits of the infrastructure projects for Myanmar have been doubted by observers, rights groups urge the government to be more transparent to the public and listen to the locals with respect to existing land issues. [Radio Free Asia]
19 January 2021
China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia
(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]
Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]
Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]
During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]
19 January 2021
Bangladesh, China, Myanmar to hold tripartite meeting on Rohingya repatriation on January 19
(lm) A secretary-level meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar will be held on January 19 in Dhaka to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. China will join the meeting as mediator. The last tripartite meeting on Rohingya repatriation was held in January last year. While Myanmar has shown little cooperation since then, Bangladesh is hopeful some headway will made at the upcoming meeting, according to Bangladesh’s foreign minister. [South Asia Monitor] [Radio Free Asia]
Bangladesh and Myanmar first signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, followed by a physical agreement in January 2018, to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to Rakhine State in Myanmar. The countries had set two dates to begin the repatriation – November 2018 and August 2019 – but refugees were reluctant to return to what they said was a hostile environment in Rakhine. Authorities in Bangladesh more recently then 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].
The upcoming meeting assumes added significance, because recent developments may spur China to pressure Myanmar on the issue: 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 [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].
19 January 2021
China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”
(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043.
The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership.
Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”
As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]
For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017.
19 January 2021
Myanmar: Police clash with protestors
(lf) On Saturday, police clashed with supporters of infamous Buddhist firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu who has been imprisoned for the last two months after he surrendered himself to face a sedition charge. Wirathu, who is well known for his fiercely violent anti-Muslim rhetoric, recently become increasingly critical towards the National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi. [Reuters] [AiR No 44, November/ 2020, 1]
19 January 2021
Myanmar: Democracy still under threat
(lf) Despite new elections and a massive win for the re-elected National League for Democracy (NLD), the state and outlook of liberal democracy in Myanmar remains dire. See for an analysis a recent piece of the East Asia Forum Finding a sign of hope in the agreement between ethnic parties and the NLD to form a democratic federal union. [East Asia Forum]
19 January 2021
Myanmar: NLD meets with ethnic parties
(lf) Myanmar’S governing National League for Democracy (NLD) met again with several ethnic parties to discuss the possibility of forming a unity government in the multiethnic country. [Irrawaddy 1] The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Party (SNLD) which holds a total of 42 parliamentary seats has already agreed to cooperate with the NLD and also offered to mediate between the NLD and other ethnic parties. [Irrawaddy 2]
19 January 2021
Thailand arrests Thai police officers accused of smuggling Burmese migrant workers
(nd) Thailand’s deputy national police chief confirmed that at least 33 Thai police officer were involved in human trafficking on the Thai-Myanmar border. They are now facing criminal prosecution.
He added that another eight civilians who are part of the smuggling gang, which transported the migrants to work in a seafood center in Samut Sakhon, the epicenter of a recent outbreak of Covid-19 outbreak. Samut Sakhon hosts many factories employing migrant workers, especially from Myanmar. [Irrawaddy]
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]