Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Bangladesh: Rohingya observe fourth anniversary of Myanmar military crackdown

(ad) Hundreds of children on August 25 defied a ban on protests at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar to mark the fourth anniversary of the Myanmar military crackdown, which forced over a million Rohingya to flee to other countries.

Bangladesh authorities had banned protests and rallies, saying they could spread the coronavirus. In fact, the country has been battling an alarming surge in infections and deaths in recent weeks, as the highly transmissible delta variant is driving an infection surge across the country. Around 20,000 infections and 200 deaths have been recorded so far in the southern region bordering Myanmar where the sprawling refugee camps are located [see AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3]. [The Straits Times]

Thousands of armed police and troops patrolled the camps in the Cox’s Bazar district but did not act against the children who took part in the march in Kutupalong camp, the world’s largest refugee settlement. Other members of the Rohingya community organized human chains or held prayer meetings. [Dhaka Tribune 1] [Dhaka Tribune 2]

Bangladesh has provided shelter and security to over 740,000 Rohingyas who fled across the border after the Myanmar military in mid-2017 launched a brutal offensive against the Muslim minority in Rakhine State following an attack on a military outpost by a Rohingya armed group. The new arrivals in Bangladesh joined more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled earlier violence.

However, four years since the exodus, many of the refugees see no visible hope of going back to their homeland. Earlier in February, 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].

31 August 2021

Russia to tighten relations to Myanmar

(nd) Last week, Russia confirmed plans to deliver military equipment Myanmar. Following a meeting between Gen. Maung Maung Aye and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin, Russian officials announced plans to deliver an air defense weapons system to Myanmar’s military. A military delegation from Myanmar was in Moscow to attend the International Military Technical Forum “Army 2021” and participate in the International Army Games, giving room to discuss military and technical cooperation and possibilities to deepen military relations. The delivery was now confirmed, saying it will arrive in “a timely manner”, while junta spokesman Maj. General Zaw Min called Russian relation with Myanmar “stronger than ever.” Before the coup, Russia’s Defense Minister announced to sell air defense weaponry to Myanmar, which has reportedly arrived in Myanmar and training has begun. After the coup, frequent visits occurred between the countries, also strengthening cultural ties by planning to send civilians for scholarships to Russia.

While western governments have responded with sanctions, amid a defiant military regime, Russia managed to strengthen ties with Myanmar, making use of the isolated regime to expand in the area. The UN Assembly in June voted to not sell weapons to the junta in light of the crackdown on protestors. The US and 118 other countries voted in favor, while 36 countries, including Russia, abstained. With Western nations reluctancy to engage with the military regime, Russia and China became the main partners, with Thailand and India only secondary.

While Russia was looking to get a foot in the door in the region, looking for strategic allies, it was also looking for an arms market, which is growing in Myanmar, from less than US $8 million in 2014 to more than US $115 million in 2020, accounting for 51 percent of all exports. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia made around US $10.7 billion in arms sales to Southeast Asia from 1999 to 2018, most to Vietnam, followed by Myanmar. Also, the Russian navy eyes access to the Indian Ocean.

Additionally, Russia considers general investment in Myanmar, while most other investors have stopped their engagement due to the February coup, most likely considering oil and mining opportunities in Myanmar. Currently, Russian companies are operating a steel factory in Shan state and engaging in oil exploration.

Bilateral relations between Myanmar and Russia have deepened since the military coup on February 1, ousting the NLD-led government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Followed by China, Russia has become central for Myanmar’s defense system, also expanding cooperation between their air forces. [Radio Free Asia] [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

China to gain access to India Ocean through rail line via Myanmar

(nd) The recent opening of a rail line through Myanmar provided China with access to the Indian Ocean. The rail line was opened on August 25 and goes from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, to Lincang, in China’s Yunnan Province opposite Chin Shwe Haw, which borders with Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State. This is the first link for western China to the Indian Ocean and will significantly reduce time to ship cargo from Yunnan Province, enabling to ship from Singapore via Myanmar, to Yangon Port.

As part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a border economic cooperation zone in Chin Shwe Haw shall be developed as an economic hub for Yunnan Province’s imports and exports. The rail line will be central for Chinese and Burmese international trade while providing a source of income for the military.

As part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a deep seaport in Kyaukphyu Township in Rakhine and a Special Economic Zone is also underway, in an effort to bypass the congested Strait of Malacca.

Since the rail line crosses areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, it has been delayed due to fighting with the military following the February coup. [The Irrawaddy]

Myanmar’s military seized power from the government on Feb. 1 in response to what it said was a fraud-tainted victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the country’s November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing 1,038 people and arresting 6,033, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

31 August 2021

South Korea to support Myanmar restoration

(nd) South Korea will continue to support democratic restoration in Myanmar through closely cooperating with international actors and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG). The Office of the President of South Korea announced this in response to a public petition signed by 268,428 people to support the NUG and reject the military junta. Before the coup, South Korea was the sixth-largest investor in Myanmar in 2020. The announcement added it supports Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists and reiterated for the military to stop violence against civilians and release political detainees, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 1,019 civilians have been killed and 7,589 people arrested, nearly 6,000 of which are still being detained, by the military regime since February. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar, US to reiterate support for democracy

(nd) On her current tour through Southeast Asia, US Vice President Kamala Harris said the US was committed to support Myanmar to restore democracy, urging other nations to join the US. Once again, Harris condemned the ongoing violence against protesters, causing 1,014 casualties since the coup on February 1, and more than 5,000 people detained. The military regime is facing nationwide opposition, with a striking workforce further straining the economy and ethnic armed groups creating resistance for them to seize control of the entire country. The US has repeatedly called on the regional bloc ASEN to resolve the crisis, and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has also talked to the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), comprised of by elected lawmakers of the ousted National League for Democracy government and their ethnic allies, as first official US contact with NUG. ASEAN did not engage with NUG yet. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Forced vaccinations for factory workers

(nd) Factory workers in Yangon are forced to get a vaccination, or face a pink slip. While those willing to take the vaccinations were offered 5,000 kyats (U.S. $3), refusing to do so is met with the threat of being fired. Workers are wary of side effects and claim that no information about the vaccination is provided to them. Reportedly, this is happening in many factories. The vaccine used is Chinese-made Sinopharm, which was shipped in millions. Workers said they also refused because they were not granted a sick day if they fall ill after the inoculation.

Amid the military coup and its repercussions, the health care sector was commented to be at the brink of collapse, with hospitals working at maximum capacity. [Radio Free Asia]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Series of explosions in Yangon and Mandalay

(nd) On Monday, series of explosions in at least 12 locations in Yangon and Mandalay were reported. The attacks targeted inter alia offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD offices were raided by junta forces before the explosion. No casualties were reported. Allegedly responsible for the attack are members of Pyu Saw Htee groups, which are trained and armed by the military regime.

Soon after the coup, armed resistance against the military regime amid its crackdown on protesters was formed. As a response to this, the regime started to train the Pyu Saw Htee groups, who installed bombs in schools and government offices, and killed a number of protesters, including NLD members, already. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Highest number of soldier defections

(nd) Recently, the 300,000-strong military has endured a high number of defections. Around 2,000 soldiers and police have recently joined the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) after the military coup in February, one third of which are military personnel. Most military personnel are privates and sergeants, officers from lieutenants to majors account for about 100.

In absolute terms, the number might be small, but is unprecedented in Myanmar’s military history, when in a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 against dictator Ne Win some soldiers joined the protests. According to ex-army officers, the military now is at the brink of splitting. Cited as reasons were the brutality of the regime against peaceful protestors, reaching a death toll of currently more than 1,000. Another military defector said his fellow soldiers were not following the code of conduct but behaved like “thugs with guns”, further demolishing the image of the military, and a reason for their peers to follow the CDM. Additionally, defectors were appalled by injustices, human rights violations and the realization that the coup leaders would put their personal benefits before the country or the military institution itself.

International and local observers argue, democracy cannot be reached without the split in the military, making way to fight deeply entrenched corruption and oppression. Also, neither ethnic armed groups nor the armed people resistance will be enough to defeat the regime.

Reception of defection is positive, with donations made by the public to support them. Additionally, the National Unity Government (NUG) issued a statement to entice more soldiers to defect, promising they can join the federal army and keep their original positions and pension allowances. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Shadow police force in Kayah state

(nd) Police officer on strike in Kayah State have formed a shadow police force to work together with anti-regime groups. The Karenni State Police (KSP) was formed two weeks ago, led by the Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC), and consists of 320 police defects.

KSCC consists of elected lawmakers and representatives of political parties, ethnic armed organizations and civil society groups, and was formed in April. Currently, KSCC is negotiating with the National Unity Government for ways to cooperate to fight the military regime. While KSCC shall care for the administrative, legislative and judicial issues in Kayah, KSP will be tasked with law enforcement, while still working at capacity-building and training, for example with respect to federalism. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Troop movements in Karen State

(nd) The military junta stepped up its reinforcements of troops to Karen and Kachin states in eastern and northern Myanmar, amid calls by the US and other Western countries. Likewise, hundreds of troops by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have reportedly deployed troops, with fights expected to erupt upon entering by the military forces. Within this month, military activity has increased with in both states. The Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has called for negotiations to avoid fighting. Following the military coup, some KNLA brigades reportedly sheltered striking civil servants and provided military training to volunteers in an effort to fight the junta.

The troop mobilization of the military came after the National Unity Government’s (NUG) announcement to set a date for a “D-Day” operation to oust the military regime through an uprising supported by a network of People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia groups and other allies.

Over the weekend, the military regime had to suffer casualties in fights with ethnic armed groups in Karen, Kayah, Shan and Kachin states. [The Irrawaddy 1]

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are 205,260 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar, most of whom are in Kayin, Kayah, Shan and Chin states, joined by some 500,000 refugees from the decades old conflict already accounted for by late 2020. The most recent 3,000 refugees in Kayah and Kayin states are not included in these figures yet.

Following yet unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud leading to the landslide victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the country’s November 2020 general election, the military took over in a coup on February 1, with reported casualties of 1,016 and 5,937 arrested. According to political analysts, the end of the rainy season could warrant for intensified fighting, with the military forces aiming to take control over the peripheric areas of the country controlled by ethnic armies. [UCA News] [Radio Free Asia] [The Irrawaddy 2] [The Irrawaddy 3]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Genocide law passed

(nd) In a move widely perceived as an attempt to mitigate international pressure, the junta has added a genocide law to the country’s colonial-era Penal Code. The addition carries the death penalty for murders committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including other crimes committed with genocidal purpose. Additional changes were made to the Code of Criminal Procedures to allow arrest of suspects without a warrant and to rule out the possibility of bail.

The announcement coincided with an online campaign marking the fourth anniversary of the beginning of attacks against Rohingyas in 2017. [See article above] The regime faces a genocide charge at a United Nations court for the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya, filed in 2019 by The Gambia representing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Accusations were denied both by the former National League for Democracy government and the junta. In early 2020, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to comply with four provisional measures as requested by The Gambia, including taking steps to prevent genocide, ensuring that the military and its affiliates do not such acts, preserve evidence on such acts and provide regular progress updates. [The Irrawaddy]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: Arakan Army to administer Rakhine state effectively independently

(nd) In a step closer to their goal of sovereignty, the rebel Arakan Army’s (AA) political wing United League of Arakan (ULA) has expanded its administrative and judicial mechanisms across Rakhine State, Western Myanmar. Hundreds of its people are effectively administering the region independently of the military junta. In a bid to become an autonomous Rakhine State, AA tries to involve the state’s entire population, including the Rohingya Muslims, in administrative roles and police work, which marks an unprecedented approach. According to observers, this inclusive take is likely to be successful.

Since 2018, AA has been fighting for greater autonomy and has a powerful stand, illustrated by the junta removing AA from its list of terrorist groups in March, designated as such by the NLD-led government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The conflict between AA and the military had displaced more than 230,000 civilians, seriously injured or killed nearly 1,000 by artillery shelling, gunshots, and landmine explosions, including more than 170 children. The NLD government also excluded AA from its peace conference, blocked humanitarian assistance, and canceled the November 2020 national election in large parts of Rakhine State for “security reasons”. This last move has prompted many Rakhine state residents to support AA, which has since the coup topped up its efforts to establish an independent administration. With inter alia own dispute resolution mechanisms, AA increased trust among residents who endured years of discrimination by successive central governments. [The Diplomat]

31 August 2021

Myanmar: NUG to promise justice for Rohingya

(nd) Marking the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the 2017 attacks against the Rohingya, Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), expressed sympathy for the displaced and vowed to hold the military accountable for its crimes not only against the Rohingya but against other people in Myanmar.

Having experienced the brutal junta crackdown in the past months, with at least 1,016 people killed, people in Myanmar have become more empathetic to the Rohingya cause, sharing an enemy with respect to the military. Also, the UNG’s stance towards the Muslim majority will have constituted to it. In June, NUG announced plans to amend the constitution by repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law to give citizenship to the Rohingya, who are not recognized as an official ethnic group in Myanmar and are often viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The plans represent a sharp policy charge from ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The NUG, opposing the military junta in Myanmar, is comprised of ousted politicians, activists and representatives from ethnic minority groups, reiterated the voluntary and safe repatriation of Rohingya to remain top priority. Their call coincided with other civil society organizations and women’s rights groups expression of solidarity with the Rohingya plight. The military campaign against the Rohingya has been described by international rights groups and foreign governments as constituting acts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” The statement also called for an immediate referral of the junta to the International Criminal Court (ICC), accepting ICC jurisdiction for acts committed prior to 2002. Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute that formed the ICC, so the court currently does not have jurisdiction, therefore an investigation could only cover acts committed in Bangladesh.

While activists praised the NUG’s promises with respect to the Rohingya, which is politically significant given that the NUG includes a number of former ministers from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, arguably complicit in the injustice against the Rohingya, it is unlikely that the NUG’s decision to empower the ICC can be implemented. Last week, growing frustration among young activists was reported, arguing the NUG’s “lack of progress in establishing itself as a genuine rival administration to the military regime, let alone removing the Tatmadaw from power”, asserting its leadership was merely paying lip service.

Still, only the military has control of Myanmar’s airspace and the country’s central regions, despite the increasing instances of armed resistance, while the NGU controls no sovereign territory. Also, time could prove to be an enemy for the shadow government, risking to slide into indifference. [UCA News] [Benar News] [The Diplomat]

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Homes raided, relatives arrested when NLD members cannot be found by junta

(mt) Junta troops have raided the homes and arrested relatives of three elected members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) on August 18 as they could not be found themselves. [Myanmar Now] [The Irrawaddy]

Arbitrary detention of family members of MPs, political opponents, and anti-military activists is not new in post-coup Myanmar. The military junta has been detaining relatives and children of both political and civilian activists who are still on the run and remained unlocated by the junta’s authorities to push them to come forward and free their loved ones. [AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1]

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Vaccination program ineffective in tackling COVID-19 crisis, residents say

(mt) Senior citizens who were vaccinated last week declared that Myanmar national vaccination program against CODIV-19 implemented under the junta is ineffective and prioritizes military categories.

Military leaders said Sinopharm vaccines were to be given to hotel and restaurant staff first, other than the elderly. However, senior citizens claim military-implemented vaccine roll out plan has not been able to meet junta-given purposes as the prioritization criteria are not respected and as ever more citizens are refusing to get their jabs if administrated by the military.

A Myanmar independent researcher has released a statement saying that from a poll of almost five thousand citizens, 59 per cent would not get a junta-given jab and that the 29.9 percent accepted to receive the vaccine under the national program but has not yet been given one. Senior citizens who made the statement remain anonymous. [Mizzima]

Moreover, as infection and number of daily deaths continue to rise and as ever more people refuse to accept a military junta-provided vaccine, people are turning to brokers on social media to purchase at a way higher price a vial of Indian-manufactured Covishield vaccine. One vial of anti-COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India is usually priced at the relative cost in Kyat of $49. Local brokers however have been selling it now for more than $1,215 each. [Myanmar Now]

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Two more journalists arrested, charged with sedition

(mt) Myanmar’s military government has arrested two more local journalists last week, the latest among dozens of detentions in a sweeping crackdown on the media since the February 1 military takeover.

On August 15, security forces arrested Sithu Aung Myint, a columnist for news publication Frontier Myanmar and commentator withVoice of America, and Htet Htet Khine, a freelance producer for BBC Media Action, according to news reports citing a military-owned television broadcaster. [The Straits Times]

Authorities charged Sithu Aung Myint with spreading false news, a crime under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code punishable by up to three years in prison, and sedition, under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code, which can carry a life sentence. [The Irrawaddy]

Htet Htet Khine, in turn, was charged under Section 17(1) of of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly working for a banned radio station and harboring Sithu Aung Myint while she fled an arrest warrant; if convicted, she could face two to three years in prison for each offense. [Myanmar Now]

Human Rights Watch late last month said the military junta had arrested 98 journalists since the coup and should stop prosecuting media staff. Of those arrested, 46 remained in custody as of the end of July.


24 August 2021

Myanmar: Shadow government launches guerrilla radio program

(mt) The shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta on August 20 launched the first daily radio program as it seeks to challenge junta’s supremacy and control of the media infrastructure in post-coup Myanmar.

Since the February 1 military takeover, representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) have been supporting the resistance on international news broadcasts from abroad. The daily radio program seeks to inform the people of Myanmar on junta troops-carried-out atrocities on civilians across the country, giving voice to democracy activists hiding from the junta through their direct letters read on-air, and reporting on local ‘self-defense’ initiatives implemented from various resistance and ethnic groups in the different regions and states. [The Straits Times]

The same day, however, the military regime reacted by confiscating radios from shops in the city of Yangon and placed restrictions on radio imports. The junta has also issued an official order to every police officer, ward, and village administrator to seize radios, which have witnessed an increase in demand following junta-imposed growing restrictions on internet access and NUG announcement of the launch of its station and program. [The Irrawaddy]

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Trial against former leader Suu Kyi postponed until September

(mt/lm) Court proceedings against ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been postponed until September 6 and 7, after a nationwide lockdown imposed amid soaring COVID-19 cases has been extended until the end of August.

The hearings pertain to sedition charges, which have also been levelled against ousted President Win Myint and another senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. The court proceedings were first adjourned in mid-July, and members of the legal defense team have not been able to meet their clients since then. [The Irrawaddy]

Moreover, Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Commission earlier this month filed additional corruption charges against Suu Kyi, Win, and several other members of the now-defunct NLD administration in connection with land permits they granted in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw. The military junta has charged the defendants under Section 55 of the Anti-Corruption Law, which carries up to 15 years imprisonment.

24 August 2021

Myanmar: AA leader says group is ‘monitoring’ military as fears of renewed conflict grow

(mt) The leader of one of the largest ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar, the Arakan Army (AA), said the group was closely monitoring the activities of military forces, as concerns over the stability of a ceasefire in Rakhine State grow. 

In an interview on August 15, the AA’s military chief said that the military junta appears to be reacting to moves by the armed group and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), to establish its own judiciary and other administrative functions in western Rakhine State. [Myanmar Now]

In seeking greater autonomy for the western Rakhine State, the AA has battled against the military since 2018, with hundreds of fatalities caused and more than 200,000 residents being displaced due to the conflict. In November of last year then, the AA surprisingly ordered its armed members to fall back as it entered an informal ceasefire with security forces. [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

Since the military coup in February, the AA and ULA have significantly accelerated their effort to assume administrative control in Rakhine State. Earlier this month, for example, the ULA announced the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism – an initiative that has largely been welcomed by civil society groups and prominent members of Rakhine political parties.

In response, the junta has moved to reassert its control by imposing new restrictions on the pretext of containing the spread of COVID-19, after the ULA/AA had issued stay-at-home orders of its own in late July. But what is more, the junta apparently also strengthened its forces in the northern part of the State since the second week of August, a move that has raised fears among local civilians of a return to open hostilities.

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Shadow government reports to UN Security Council as death toll tops 1,000

(mt) Myanmar’s shadow government on August 17 reported last month’s alleged massacres of civilians by security forces in the Sagaing Region to a meeting of the United Nation Security Council.

In a letter sent to UN Secretary General António Guterres, Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations earlier this month claimed 40 bodies had been found in various locations near a township in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region throughout July [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. According to the National Unity Government (NUG), the latest report on the alleged killing provides strong evidence that the junta is guilty of war crimes. [The Irrawaddy]

Timing and context of the report assume added significance: On September 14, the 75th UN General Assembly will open, and the question de jour will be who will represent Myanmar – the military’s representative or the representative of the democratically elected, ousted government? [The Interpreter]

In related developments, the death toll as a result of Myanmar’s military takeover topped 1,000 on August 18, according to Thailand-based activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been tracking detentions and killings by security forces. [The Straits Times]

24 August 2021

Myanmar: Rohingya give first testimony in universal jurisdiction case in Argentina

(mt/lm) Members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority have testified in court for the first time on the alleged atrocities faced during their persecution in Myanmar, in a case that could create an important precedent for future cases. [TRT World]

Investigations on crimes allegedly committed by Myanmar military forces, the so-called Tatmadaw, against the minority Rohingya community in the country’s Rakhine state are already under way at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nation’s International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In 2019, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) filed a complaint in Argentina over the crimes committed in Myanmar against Rohingyas, including mass killings, sexual violence, torture and forced displacement. In July of this year then, a lower court dismissed the case based on the existence of the ongoing investigation before the ICC on crimes committed against the Rohingyas. The complainant appealed the decision.

The latest court hearing took place on August 17 when six Rohingya women now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh testified remotely before the Federal Criminal Appeals Court in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. [The Straits Times]

The Argentinian Appeal Court will decide whether to invoke the principle of “universal jurisdiction” – which allows for the trial of international crimes committed by anybody, anywhere in the world – to open a case against Myanmar’s leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Thus, the upcoming decision will set an important milestone: does the complementary principle of the ICC – which stipulates that States bear the primary responsibility for prosecuting international crimes – allow a State to investigate and prosecute under universal jurisdiction similar allegations that are being investigation by the ICC? In other words, does the ICC take precedence over national authorities using universal jurisdiction? [Trial International]

24 August 2021

Vietnam to attend ASEAN’s AIPA-42 

(ct) A Vietnamese National Assembly (NA) delegation led by NA Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue attended the 42nd General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA-42) in Brunei on August 23. According to the agenda, the first plenary session focused on several issues including women’s empowerment, climate change, cyber security, and international economic integration. In his welcoming remarks, the AIPA-42 President and Speaker of the Legislative Council of Brunei noted that the theme of this year’s General Assembly highlights parliamentarians’ important role in supporting the ASEAN vision of a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible community towards the ASEAN Community in 2025. Also, NA Chairman Hue presented a key-note speech on the situation in the region and throughout the wider, highlighting the role of multilateral cooperation of ASEAN. [Việt Nam News]

24 August 2021

ASEAN not as effective and quick on Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s foreign minister says

(mt/lm) The 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc (ASEAN) has not been as effective on the crisis in Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview last week, as protests and a violent crackdown continue in the country.

Calling the situation in Myanmar “dire”, the Singaporean top diplomat said ASEAN was trying to be constructive, facilitate dialogue and deliver humanitarian assistance. He also said that his country and the regional bloc had “maintained lines of communication” with Myanmar’s shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta, the National Unity Government. [South China Morning Post]

Singapore is small but wields strong economic and political influence in Southeast Asia: The city-state is Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, overtaking China in 2019 to bring in more than $24 billion of investments through lucrative real estate projects, banking, shipping, sand exports and construction, as well as arms sales. [The Irrawaddy]

In June, Singapore supported a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in June, which called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders. Besides Singapore, ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam voted in favor of resolution. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

Earlier this month then, alongside with Indonesia and Malaysia, it “pushed for tougher language” in a communique published following the appointment of Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Balakrishnan said he hoped there would be progress to report on Yusof’s visit to Myanmar before the 39th semi-annual ASEAN summit in November. But he also cautioned that the military had to grant the envoy access to all stakeholders for the visit to be meaningful.

17 August 2021

Indo-Pacific forces from 21 partner nations kick off SEACAT

(lm) Maritime forces from Indo-Pacific partner nations on August 10 began the 20th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) naval exercise in Singapore and virtually. [Al Jazeera] [NavyTimes]

Signifying the largest iteration to date, this year’s exercise involves ten ships and more than 400 personnel. 21 nations participate, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.

This year’s also presents a new element by incorporating international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, whose objective is to create an even more realistic scenario to “enhance understanding and adherence to accepted rules, laws, and norms,” the US Navy said in a statement. Participants include United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet]

The SEACAT exercises commenced just a day after more than 10,000 troops from China and Russia began a major exercise, West-Interaction 2021, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Last year, the event was conducted as part of a virtual symposium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

17 August 2021

China to fund development projects in Myanmar

(mt/lm) China will transfer more than $6 million to Myanmar’s military junta to fund development projects, in a sign of cooperation resuming under the military junta that overthrew the elected government earlier in February. [The Diplomat] [The Straits Times]

According to China’s official state-run press agency, Xinhua News Agency, the agreement was signed by Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Beijing’s Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai on August 9. The funds will finance 21 projects under China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework, an interstate cooperation initiative comprising of the six countries located along the Mekong River. [LMC China] [Xinhua News Agency]

Unlike Western countries that have condemned Myanmar’s military junta for cutting short democracy and the killing and imprisonment of its opponents, China has embraced a softer approach, with the opening of oil and gas pipelines that cross the country, in addition to plans for economic zones and a major port development.

Myanmar’s military junta earlier this month invited bids to provide legal services to two crucial infrastructure projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a 1,700-kilometer infrastructure route that promises to connect the Indian Ocean oil trade to China’s remote and underdeveloped Yunnan Province. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

The Chinese aid dispersal came just a day before the United States announced on August 10 it was giving Myanmar more than $50 million in aid to support relief groups dealing with a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Southeast Asian country. [U.S. Department of State]

17 August 2021

Japan resumes meeting with five Mekong countries

(lm) Japan held a virtual foreign ministerial meeting on August 13 with five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River, to reiterate its commitment to the subregion and to reinforce its foreign policy objective of pushing back against Chinese attempts to widen its sphere of influence. [South China Morning Post]

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met virtually with his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam under the 14th Mekong – Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

While this Japan-Mekong meeting takes place annually, it was postponed from its original March date as Tokyo feared that holding it would be seen as recognizing the Myanmar’s military junta which seized power from an elected government. But Japan decided to go ahead after China hosted a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – including Myanmar – in June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2], and the United States also met virtually with the bloc’s foreign ministers on July 14 [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. [Kyodo News 1]

Last week’s virtual encounter saw Japan pledging additional medical support for the five Mekong River countries – all of which are battling with COVID-19 surges due to the highly contagious Delta variant – on top of around 5.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and $68 million worth of medical equipment including oxygen concentrators.

Foreign Minister Motegi expressed full support for the appointment of Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar to mediate between the military and pro-democracy protesters [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. Further, conveying concerns about the military’s nullification of the country’s November general election, the Japanese top diplomat called for a dialogue among all parties concerned and “expressed his strong expectations for a constructive response from Myanmar”. [Kyodo News 2]

17 August 2021

Myanmar: Former strongman Than Shwe hospitalized

(mt) The former longtime military ruler of Myanmar, Than Shwe, has been hospitalized with COVID-19, an official said on August 12. [South China Morning Post] [The Washington Post]

Than Shwe and his wife, Kyaing Kyaing, are being treated under tight security at a VIP section of the Thaik Chaung military hospital in the capital of Naypyitaw, according to the official, who did not provide information on the severity of their illness.

During his rule from 1992 until 2011, Than Shwe led a feared junta that brutally crushed dissent and routinely jailed political opponents. When he stepped down, he anointed the current junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, the new senior general, and handed power to a nominally civilian, pro-military government.

17 August 2021

Myanmar: Chin State armed forces offers monetary rewards to junta troops to defect

(mt) An anti-junta defense force in Myanmar’s western Chin State announced on August 10 that it will be rewarding soldiers defecting from the military with nearly $3,000 in return for “standing with the people” and surrendering their weapons to the anti-dictatorship resistance.

In a statement, the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) said at least 20 soldiers in Chin State had surrendered to the anti-coup armed resistance in recent weeks, adding that the group wanted to make it easier for soldiers to leave the security forces. [Myanmar Now]

Reuters had reported in March that around 280 policemen entered India’s northeastern state of Mizoram to escape taking orders from the military junta. [AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]

Armed resistance groups in several Chin State townships have fought back against the military, with particularly intense battles taking place in the north-western town of Mindat, where Myanmar’s military used artillery bombardments and helicopter attacks while battling members of a local anti-junta defense force [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

17 August 2021

Myanmar: United States lose contact with American journalist detained by junta

(mt) An American journalist detained in a Myanmar prison has not been in touch with United States officials for several weeks, the State Department said on August 12. [The Detroit News]

Danny Fenster, a managing director for local news publication Frontier Myanmar has been held in detention since May, when he tried to board a flight out of the country [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. The journalist, who faces charges under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code which purports to address “incitement” and carries up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine, appeared virtually for a second time in a special court hearing in mid-July [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3].

Inmates inside Insein Prison in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon – where Fenster is being detained –staged a protest last month over what activists said was a major COVID-19 outbreak in the colonial-era facility. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]

17 August 2021

Myanmar: Rohingya minority left out of COVID-19 vaccination roll-out

(mt) Authorities in Myanmar currently have no intention to include members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country’s national vaccination effort, as they begin vaccinating priority groups against COVID-19 in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

A local administrator from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, told Reuters that the vaccine rollout currently only allows for 10,000 doses being administered to members of so-called priority groups, including elderly, healthcare workers, government officials, and Buddhist monks. [Reuters]

About 120,000 Rohingya are currently encamped in settlements, located on the outskirts of Sittwe. Most residents have lived in the camps since 2012 – the year Rakhine became the scene of bloody interethnic violence – despite the fact that they were forcibly relocated by the government on a purportedly temporary basis. Up to half a million more Rohingya remain in villages elsewhere in the state.

Although many of the Rohingyas have long and deep roots in Myanmar, they are officially stateless: Created in 1982 by Myanmar’s then-ruling military junta, the citizenship laws favor the majority Bamar community and others judged to be among the country’s “national races” and excludes others from full citizenship.

Consequently, the Rohingya do not hold any state-issued ID, and thus, cannot get vaccinated as the national vaccination program requires beneficiaries to be ID-holder citizens to receive jabs. [The Irrawaddy]

17 August 2021

Myanmar: UN envoy warns of civil war if no successful talks

(mt/lm) The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, warned on August 10 of “a full-scale civil war” if the military, supporters of the ousted democracy, ethnic groups and other key parties do not hold an all-inclusive dialogue that also includes discussions of humanitarian assistance, the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and “root causes” of the current crisis. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times] [UN News]

Speaking from Switzerland, Schraner Burgener said that over the past two months, she has been holding talks with the military, ethnic armed organizations, and other stakeholders, including the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed by exiled lawmakers ousted in the military takeover.

At that time, the 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc, ASEAN, was yet to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar, and appeared particularly hamstrung by its bedrock policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making.

Hence, Schraner Burgener decided not to wait but to move ahead with her proposal for an all-inclusive dialogue organized around four “clusters” covering pandemic response, humanitarian assistance, and issues related to the Rohingya community. The final and biggest cluster would address “root causes: of the crisis, such as discussions around the federal system, the constitution, law reforms and the electoral system.

She also proposed establishing an international observer group on Myanmar. Membership would comprise China, India, Japan, Thailand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Switzerland, in addition to the UN, the European Union and the ASEAN.

However, in her wide-ranging discussions, she said she realized no stakeholder “will give up and [is] ready to make any compromises.”

Myanmar’s military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for his part appears determined to solidify his grip on power, Schraner Burgener said, pointing to the recent declaration naming him prime minister, the annulment of November’s election and fears that the National League for Democracy of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi could soon be disbanded [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1].

During her discussions, she said Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations “were in the majority very positive of this idea” and members of the NGU were “interested in the ideal but clearly would have preconditions to start such a dialogue.”

She also said she had a long conversation with Vice-Senior General and current Deputy Prime Minister Soe Win on July 16 on many issues including the proposal for a dialogue, but “I didn’t receive an answer,” and since then, “[t]here is no positive feedback from the army on this dialogue […].”[The Irrawaddy]

Nonetheless, the UN special envoy added, a dialogue will hopefully start through the ASEAN and its recently appointed special envoy to Myanmar, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, who plans to visit the country after consulting with all stakeholders [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2].

17 August 2021

Bangladesh: Authorities vaccinate Rohingya refugees amid virus surge

(lm) Bangladesh began vaccinating thousands of Muslim Rohingya living in Cox Bazar’s refugee camps on August 10, as part of a national inoculation drive to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina bolstered its effort to get vaccines from other sources – particularly China – after India stopped exporting AstraZeneca vaccines to Bangladesh in April, and launched a new round of vaccinations nationwide earlier this month.

Bangladesh has been battling an alarming surge in infections and deaths in recent weeks, as the highly transmissible delta variant is driving an infection surge across the country. Around 20,000 infections and 200 deaths have been recorded so far in the southern region bordering Myanmar where the sprawling refugee camps are located. [Associated Press] [France24]

The drive is being led by the Bangladesh authorities with technical support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other humanitarian partners. Over 65,000 of the nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees will be vaccinated in the first cohort, with community leaders, frontline health care volunteers, and Rohingya aged 55 and above given priority. [UN News]

The vaccinations follow weeks of devastating monsoon rains that have pummeled the district of Cox’s Bazar, killing at least 11 Rohingya refugees and 15 of their Bangladeshi hosts. The flooding has particularly affected large parts of the Kutupalong refugee camp, displacing almost 25,000 refugees while ravaging thousands of facilities, including primary health clinics, distribution points and latrines. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

10 August 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to lay out Cambodia’s ASEAN chair plan

(nd) With respect to Cambodia taking over the ASEAN chair from Brunei in less than five months, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the challenges for ASEAN on the day that marks its 54th anniversary after its foundation on August 8, 1967, pointing to the global pandemic, as well as the rivalry between China and the US. 

Additional issues according to Hun Sen were the pace of societal transformation due to technology, climate change and degradation of the environment.

To achieve its goals, ASEAN, according the Cambodian leader, shall, after overcoming repercussion of the global pandemic, implement its five comprehensive recovery framework goals, including enhancement of health systems, strengthening of human security, maximizing the potential of the intra-ASEAN market, by broadening economic integration and improve digitalization. 

According to observers, key challenges are maintaining peace and stability amid geopolitical rivalry, as well as Mekong water issues, transnational crime and poverty. It will be the third chairmanship of Cambodia which became an ASEAN member state in 1999. [Phnompenh Post]

10 August 2021

ASEAN to grant “dialogue partner” status to Britain

(nd) In an important step in Britain’s post-Brexit mission to build strong bilateral diplomatic ties with the region, it was granted “dialogue partner” status by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Upon its exit of the European Union in 2020, Britain aimed to shift its market from Europe to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This grants Britain high-level access to ASEAN summits, furthering hopes to build cooperation with respect to climate change and security. For a deeper economic cooperation, Britain has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision marks the end of a 25-year moratorium to award third parties the bloc’s highest institutional partnership. [Reuters] [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

10 August 2021

Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi urges Southeast Asian counterparts to safeguard peace in South China Sea

(lm) China’s desire to expand its influence in Southeast Asia was on display last week at the region’s latest ministerial talks, where State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

Addressing virtually the ASEAN Regional Forum – which gathers foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, including the United States, China and Japan – Wang said interference by countries outside the region constituted the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia]

While Wang did not name the United States outright, his warning came as Washington tries to rally European allies into a coalition to isolate China. Ahead of the meeting, the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in the disputed waterway, while Germany deployed one of its frigates to the Indo-Pacific region. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Wang also played up his country’s readiness to conclude a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, announcing that both sides had completed the preamble for the nonaggression pact the two sides have been negotiating since 2017. He also said China would never make further claims in the disputed waterway and promised that his country would not take any unilateral moves to intensify disputes in the region.

After wrapping up his virtual encounter with his ASEAN counterparts, Wang held talks with foreign ministers from four Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines – over three days in the southern city of Nanping. [Associated Press]

10 August 2021

Two arrested in alleged plot to kill or oust UN ambassador from Myanmar

(lm) Two men have been charged with conspiring to injure or kill Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, federal prosecutors in the United States said on August 6.

Myanmar’s military leaders have repeatedly tried to replace Kyaw Moe Tun – who speaks for the country’s deposed civilian government and has defied junta orders to resign – and charged him with treason. But he continued to be recognized at the UN and cast a vote on behalf of his country in June in favor of a resolution condemning the military coup and calling for an arms embargo. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

Tun said earlier this week that the United States had increased his security because of a threat against him, according to a Reutersreport, which also detailed how Tun has been painted as a traitor on state television in Myanmar. [Reuters]

In the charges announced last week, prosecutors did not accuse Myanmar’s military leadership of involvement in the plot. But the scheme described in court papers involved an unnamed Thai arms dealer who sold weapons to the Burmese military and allegedly contacted one of the two defendants. 

After being contacted by the arms dealer, one of the men agreed to “hire attackers” to injure the ambassador, in an effort to compel him to leave his post, according to court documents. If the ambassador refused to step down, the dealer proposed the attackers kill him, prosecutors said. The two also agreed that the man would hire people to tamper with the tires of the ambassador’s car to cause a crash while driving, according to the documents. [The New York Times, $]

The United States on August 7 condemned the thwarted plot, saying it fits a “disturbing pattern” of authoritarian leaders and their supporters seeking to persecute opponents around the world. [Voice of America]

10 August 2021

US Deputy Secretary of State Sherman speaks with Myanmar’s shadow government

(lm) US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke on August 4 with a representative of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), marking the first announced contact between a senior US official and the shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta. [The Straits Times]

Sherman had visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in late May and early June, as part of a diplomatic tour aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

Her virtual encounter last week with Zin Mar Aung, the acting foreign minister in the NGU, came just hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and called on them to take joint action to urge the military to end violence. [see article in this edition]

Unlike many of its neighbors, Myanmar has not received COVID-19 vaccines from the United States, despite a vaccine diplomacy push from the Biden administration. Washington has imposed sanctions on the military and some of its business interests and has had little contact with the military-led government.

10 August 2021

Brunei diplomat appointed ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar

(mt/lm) Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on August 4 appointed Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as their special envoy to Myanmar, after a months-long delay in diplomatic efforts to resolve the coup crisis.

The 10-nation bloc has been under increasing international pressure to act on violence and instability in Myanmar, an ASEAN member. The regional group is hamstrung by its bedrock policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

In a joint statement published two days after a fraught five-hour online meeting, the ministers also reiterated their concerns about the situation in Myanmar, including reports of fatalities and violence. But they stopped short of calling for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue. According to reporting in the South China Morning Post, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had “pushed for tougher language” in the communique, but some of it was vetoed by the junta representative Wunna Maung Lwin. [South China Morning Post]

Erywan was among at least four candidates proposed by ASEAN, and Myanmar was believed to have preferred Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]. But Indonesia, which traditionally holds significant sway on regional matters, wanted its former Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda to be appointed.    Thus, the appointment of Erywan is seen as a compromise by Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s Rotating Chair. [The Irrawaddy]

Further, the junta’s decision to yield to the bloc’s pressure may be seen as an indication that its military rulers are still hoping to rely on ASEAN support as they face international condemnation. For last week’s discussions were held just a day after Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council announced it had become a “caretaker” government, with its current chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlang taking the title of Prime Minister [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Some ASEAN lawmakers responded warily to Erywan’s appointment, noting that he led a delegation to Myanmar in June and met only with the junta [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. The special envoy must ensure “he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game” of using ASEAN to gain international legitimacy while it continues its oppressive rule, said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. [Nikkei Asia] [The Washington Post]

According to one report, the special envoy will fly to Myanmar this week to begin talks with the various contending parties, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. He will also oversee the delivery of a humanitarian aid package, with the communique calling for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance to begin work on “policy guidance.” [The Diplomat]

10 August 2021

Myanmar diplomats alert UN to alleged military ‘massacre’

(mt/lm) Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who speaks for the country’s deposed civilian government and has defied junta orders to resign, has alerted the world body to a “reported massacre” by the military. [The Guardian] [The Irrawaddy]

In a letter sent to UN Secretary General António Guterres on August 3 Kyaw Moe Tun claimed 40 bodies had been found in various locations near a township in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region throughout July. The region has seen fierce fighting in recent months between security forces and self-organizing armed groups formed to resist crackdowns by the military [see AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1]. [The Diplomat]

The junta has denied the allegations – described by Kyaw Moe Tun as “clearly amounting to crimes against humanity” – while news agencies have not been able to independently verify the reports due to mobile networks being cut in the remote region.

In his letter, the ambassador also reiterated his call on the international community for an arms embargo on the ruling junta and “urgent humanitarian intervention” from the international community.

10 August 2021

Myanmar: Military junta offers amnesty to some protesters in hiding

(lm) Myanmar’s ruling military junta has offered to waive charges against some protesters involved in pro-democracy demonstrations or strikes if they hand themselves in to authorities, prompting a skeptical response from many of those currently in hiding and facing charges. [Reuters]

No amnesty would be offered to anyone wanted for crimes such as murder, arson or attacks on troops, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported, blaming incitement by members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy for the civil disobedience campaign.

10 August 2021

Myanmar: Junta vaccinates hundreds of inmates amid surge in COVID-19 cases

(mt) Myanmar’s military junta has launched a drive vaccinate inmates in prisons and labor camps across the country against COVID-19, as it struggles to control a third wave of infections. [Reuters]

Myanmar received 3 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines last month and has been inoculating inmates since July 28 [see AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]. According to the Correctional Department, 5,042 prisoners from 13 jails and 1,218 labor camp inmates received jabs between July 28 and August 3.

Inmates inside Insein Prison in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon staged a protest earlier this month over what activists said was a major COVID-19 outbreak in the colonial-era facility, where many pro-democracy protesters and journalists – including US journalist Daniel Fenster – are being held. The same week, a close confidante of ousted civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi – Nyan Win – died in hospital after becoming infected with COVID-19 during prison detention. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]

10 August 2021

Myanmar: ‘Shadow’ defense minister urges rebel/resistance forces to unify under one flag

(mt/lm) In an interview with Myanmar Now the defense minister of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) said his group had been in contact with most of the self-organizing armed groups fighting the junta across the country and was hoping to bring them under a unified command.

The NGU, comprised of activists, ethnic minorities and politicians from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy announced the formation of a People’s Defense Force (PDF) earlier in May to protect its supporters from military attacks and violence instigated by the junta [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]. Since then, civilian militia groups have mushroomed in all parts of the country, and some have launched deadly attacks on security forces with makeshift weapons and homemade hunting rifles [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

However, ties among the various PDF chapters have been unclear and remained unstructured. Many seemed to be acting independently, while others have more publicly aligned with the NUG.

Against this backdrop, NUG Defense Minister Yee Mon declared that efforts to unify the groups under one flag, a common structure and joint objectives and targets, and thus a chain of command have been underway. He has also joined junta soldiers to defect and join the ongoing revolution that, thanks to the multiple challenges the junta is facing with COVID-19 outbreak and international community’s pressure, is now apparently gaining momentum. [Myanmar Now]

Yet few analysts believe that even a unified PDF can pose an existential threat to the military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, as long as the officer corps remains united. As Peter Morris noted in his recent analysis for Asia Times, Yee Mon “is walking a fine line between satisfying an impassioned public’s desire for quick action and the practical challenge of a huge power imbalance between the Tatmadaw and the PDF in terms of weapons and soldiers.” [Asia Times]

10 August 2021

Myanmar: Junta expedites work on China-backed Kyaukphyu port

(mt/lm) Myanmar’s military junta has invited bids to provide legal services to two crucial infrastructure projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a 1,700-kilometer infrastructure route that promises to connect the Indian Ocean oil trade to China’s remote and underdeveloped Yunnan Province. [The Economic Times]

Theoretically designed to upgrade the deep-water port at Kyaukphyu, the CMEC passes through Myanmar’s major economic hubs — first Mandalay in central Myanmar, then east Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ) in Rakhine State.

The junta’s invitation to tenders comes as China is pressing Myanmar’s military junta to implement its ambitious infrastructure projects under the CMEC, despite the political turmoil created by the putsch and a surging number of COVID-19 cases. [The Irrawaddy]

Beijing considers the KPSEZ and the deep-sea port vital to its international infrastructure strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative. For they both provide Beijing a direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing Chinese trade to bypass the congested Strait of Malacca near Singapore, while boosting development in landlocked Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar. Oil and natural gas pipelines are already functioning between Kyaukpyu and Kunming in Yunnan province.

The military regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council (SAC), has made several efforts to expedite work on China’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar since their takeover in February. In March, for example, the SAC reorganized three crucial committees related to the implementation of the CMEC [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

10 August 2021

Myanmar: Protesters mark pivotal 1988 uprising anniversary

(lm) Protesters took to the streets in cities across Myanmar on August 8 to mark the anniversary of the 1988 uprising against military rule that brought now Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence, with flash mobs and marches of defiance against the ruling military junta. [Deutsche Welle] [South China Morning Post]

Protesters remembered the thousands of people that revolted against military rule 33 years ago. That uprising was crushed in a bloody crackdown in late 1988. To this day the so-called “88 Generation” of students, who led that uprising, have a special status in Myanmar. Many of them spent up to two decades in prison, where deprivation and ill-treatment robbed them of their health, but not their fighting spirit.

The uprising also launched Aung San Suu Kyi — who had returned to Myanmar just before protests kicked off to care for her ailing mother – as a pro-democracy icon. She was known for being the daughter of General Aung San who had fought for independence from the British empire. After “the Lady” made her way to the top of the elected government, however, some of her former associates, accused her of having betrayed the 88 movement and its veterans. 

3 August 2021

UN warned of ‘dire’ COVID-19 situation in Myanmar; junta seeks international support

(mt/lm) During an informal UN Security Council discussion meeting on Myanmar, the United Kingdom’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward warned that about half of coup-wracked country’s population of 54 million could become infected with COVID-19 in the next two weeks.

The British envoy emphasized that the country was not only facing a deep political and economic crisis, but also a healthcare one, as many doctors who joined the Civilian Disobedience Movement are unable to work in military hospitals, all the while oxygen and other important medical supplies to cure people infected are lacking across the country. [The Irrawaddy]

The United Kingdom also urged the Council to ensure Resolution 2565, which demands ceasefires in conflict zones to allow the safe delivery of coronavirus vaccines, is respected in Myanmar as the UN estimates that only 40 per cent of the healthcare facilities across the country are still concretely able to function to address the crisis and that at least 260 military-led attacks have been carried out against medical personnel and 67 medical officials detained. [Aljazeera] [Mizzima]

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military junta is seeking help from the international community to tackle the latest surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant, state-owned media said on July 28.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing last week reportedly called for more cooperation on prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19, including with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and “friendly countries”, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported, without giving further details. [Reuters]

Specifically, the commander-in-chief was cited as saying that vaccinations needed to be increased, through both donated doses and by developing domestic production, aided by Russia. He also said Myanmar would seek the release of funds from the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund. [Frontier Myanmar]

A first batch of 736,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Myanmar on July 22 to help fight a growing outbreak in the border area. China has also supplied more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccines to the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic armed organization operating in Myanmar’s far north near China’s southern border, as Beijing seeks to halt an influx of cases from the country. [AiR No. 30, July/2021, 4]


3 August 2021

Myanmar rights group complain to OECD over Telenor, M1 deal

(mt) 474 Myanmar-based Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) against Norwegian state-owned telecommunications company Telenor.

The complaint was submitted to the Amsterdam-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, a not-for-profit group that operates on behalf of CSOs. However, the Myanmar-based rights groups that endorse the complaint have remained anonymous because of what they called “extreme rights abuses” by the country’s military junta since it ousted the government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. [Myanmar Now]

The groups allege that Telenor is “irresponsibly” withdrawing from its operations in Myanmar and failed to act in accordance with OECD and United Nations’ principles on business and human rights when it sold its local business to M1 Group for $105m this month. The Lebanese investment conglomerate is known for doing business with corrupted regimes that openly neglect and violate human rights. [Associated Press] [Mizzima]

Of the telecom companies operating in Myanmar, Telenor was generally considered as the most committed to transparency, and human rights in the lead-up to and following the military takeover. The company published junta demands to interrupt services or block access to content before being ordered by the regime to stop doing so. [Financial Times]

This deal could now very easily result in a further deterioration and greater vulnerability of civilians’, anti-regime activists’, and reporters’ freedom who have already been witnessing junta’s close control on mobile communications and an ever more limited internet access. 

Only a week ago, journalists and reporters were calling on Norway to take action to prevent its Telecoms company to sell its operations in Myanmar to the shady Lebanese group in the spirit of European and Norwegian value of human rights beyond the dimension of its shareholders’ profit.

3 August 2021

Myanmar: Military junta uses disinformation on social media to divide anti-coup opposition forces

(mt) Pro-military social media accounts are disseminating disinformation in an apparent attempt to cause rifts between ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy activists but seem to struggle to break the unity of the anti-coup opposition. [Frontier Myanmar]

As communities increasingly take up arms to protect themselves against the military, alliances with the country’s various ethnic armed groups have emerged as key to any potential long-term success. Over the course of recent months, groups like the Kachin Independence Army, Karenni Army and Karen National Liberation Army have sheltered dissidents, trained would-be revolutionaries, and even fought alongside civilian militias against the junta. [see e.g., AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

It is against the backdrop of these deepening partnerships that the military junta launched a coordinated campaign of spreading disinformation on social media, to discourage prospective trainees from entering ethnic-controlled territory.

Specifically, many of these posts viewed accuse the ethnic armed organizations of killing or in some way mistreating their civilian trainees. Other posts leverage on the 1988 uprising events when ethnic groups killed young people who went to them in the hope of gaining training to fight the military power at the time, but some were killed or tortured on suspicion of being military-sent spies.

However, no evidence has been provided so far to support such accusations, and civilians who are now fighting for the People’s Defense Forces trained by various armed groups have denied such allegations. On the contrary, they declared that this time things are different and that the unity between civilians and armed groups represents something never witnessed before in the country. [Frontier Myanmar]

3 August 2021

Myanmar: Six months after military takeover, strike holdouts keep up junta defiance

(mt) Myanmar has endured six months of turmoil since the military ousted the civilian Aung San Suu Kyi-led government and ended the country’s decade-old experiment with democracy. But the junta is yet to quell public anger as the country is at risk of becoming a super-spreader COVID-19 state that fuels outbreaks across the region. [Nikkei Asia]

Though street protests against the military takeover have significantly decreased since the regime began its running crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators – killing nearly 1,000 people so far – there is little sign that opponents of military rule have given up the fight.

On the eve of the six-month anniversary of latest military rule in Myanmar, also small protests took place across the city of Mandalay on July 31. Protests were held by student groups and university students reaffirmed their rejection of any opening to negotiate with the junta, asking for a return to civilian rule. [The Straits Times 2]

Moreover, tens of thousands of civil servants and other workers have either been sacked for joining protests or are still on strike in support of a nationwide civil disobedience campaign, in an effort to deny the junta legitimacy, manpower and resources. This has led to disruptions in hospitals, schools, but also in the energy sector where people have stopped paying their bills to the state-owned energy provider, and in tax collection operations as people are refusing to work for the financial benefit of the Tatmadaw. [The Straits Times 1]

On top of the deep political and economic crisis, the country is facing its most severe outbreak of COVID-19 yet. The vaccination campaign has ground to a standstill, testing has collapsed, and government hospitals are barely functioning. Against this backdrop, allegations are growing that from residents and human rights activists that the military government is using the pandemic to consolidate power and crush opposition. [Associated Press] [The Guardian]

3 August 2021

Myanmar: Junta forms ‘caretaker’ government with Min Aung Hlaing as Prime Minister

(mt) Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council (SAC) announced on August 1, it had become a “caretaker” government, with its current chairman Sen. General Min Aung Hlang taking the title of Prime Minister, exactly six months after the military toppled the country’s elected civilian government. [Reuters]

The move involves not only the creation of a Cabinet to be headed by Min Aung Hlaing and his Deputy, Vice-Senior General Soe Win, but also changes the leadership at the state and regional level. [Myanmar Now]

New cabinets were appointed for the states and regions, which will each include a chief minister, six ministers, and an attorney general. Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s two largest cities, will also have ministries in their respective regional governments, with their mayors acting as ministers. Further, the SAC appointed army officers with the rank of colonel to head each state or region’s ministry of security and border affairs, while police colonels will head the ministries of transportation.

The announcement came after the junta leader earlier the same day repeated his pledge to hold multi-party elections at an unspecified future date. He also promised to lift the state of emergency by August 2023 – extending the timeline given in the aftermath of the military takeover. [The Straits Times 1] [The Guardian]

The commander-in-chief also said his government would accept the dispatch of any special envoy named by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He also said his government had agreed to select Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat, adding that “for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards.” [Bangkok Post] [see also article in this edition]

Prior to the televised address, the junta on July 26 cancelled the results of last November’s general election that the National League for Democracy of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide, claiming the polls were “not free and fair”. According to the military-appointed Union Election Commission, investigations had uncovered more than 11 million cases of fraud in the election [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times 2]

Initial reaction to the promise to hold an election was mixed, with anti-coup figures citing Myanmar’s long history of past military regimes that defied popular and international pressure to restore democracy and clung to power for years. [Financial Times] [The Irrawaddy] [Voice of America]

3 August 2021

Bangladesh: Thousands displaced as floods hit Rohingya camps

(lm) At least 11 Rohingya refugees were killed by landslides or drowned in flooding after heavy monsoon rains inundated refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district last week, turning settlements into fast-flowing rivers overnight. [The New York Times] [The Guardian] [The Straits Times]

The flooding has particularly affected large parts of the Kutupalong refugee camp, which has existed since the early 1990s but was expanded on uneven, landslide-prone terrain in 2017, when it became the world’s largest refugee camp for the more than 730,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic group escaping military massacres in Myanmar. Initial reports by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) revealed that more than 21,000 refugees had been “affected” by the flooding, while nearly 4,000 shelters had been damaged or destroyed. [UNHCR]

After repeated lockdowns, recent coronavirus outbreaks and a major fire that killed at least 15 people and left tens of thousands homeless in March [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4], there is a sense among refugees that they are being increasingly forgotten by the world.

3 August 2021

US Secretary of State Blinken participates in five ASEAN-related virtual ministerial meetings this week

(mt/lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting virtually with his counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week, as the Biden administration seeks to show the region is a priority while also addressing the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. These will be the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. [U.S. Department of State] [Reuters]

Both sides held their first encounter via videoconference on July 14, after Blinken had to cancel the initial meeting over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. During the virtual meeting last month, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

The virtual encounters come after the Biden administration in its early days was seen as paying little attention to the region of more than 600 million people, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia. Still, analysts say a vital US engagement cannot only rely on military considerations but will also have to provide an economic perspective

But Washington has failed to introduce any large economic projects in the region after the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was nixed by the previous US administration in 2017. It has also excluded itself from one of the world’s biggest trade pacts – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises of fifteen Asia-Pacific economies and has been enthusiastically embraced by China [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The New York Times]

Against this backdrop, US top US officials have made a string of visits to the region in recent months: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week; and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam next month. [see articles in this edition]

3 August 2021

ASEAN foreign ministers discuss special envoy, aid to Myanmar

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met virtually on August 2 for their annual gathering with the selection of a special envoy for Myanmar and finalizing an emergency plan to help control a coronavirus outbreak that many fear is spiraling out of control high on the agenda. [Associated Press] [Kyodo News]

The meeting was held a day after Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing said that his government would accept the dispatch of the special envoy agreed in April by ASEAN to mediate among the parties and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the country. [see article in this edition]

The dispatch of the special envoy was one of five items agreed upon at an extraordinary ASEAN summit held in Indonesia in late April to discuss the troubles unfolding in Myanmar. The so-called Five-Point Consensus also included the need for the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

Of the three original nominees for the ASEAN special envoy, Min Aung Hlaing said, his government had agreed to select Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon, adding that “for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards.”

Other nominees include Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002 [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].

People familiar with the discussions said the 10-member bloc wants to designate Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, but are waiting on approval from Myanmar’s military regime. Yusof, who is currently serving as ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, had previously visited the country on June 3 for talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [Al Jazeera]

In their virtual meeting, foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc were also looking to finalize a plan to bring in medicine and medical equipment to Myanmar through the regional bloc’s disaster-response center with the military leaders’ approval. They were also expected to announce some progress in four years of painstakingly slow negotiations with China to craft a “code of conduct” aimed at preventing conflict in the disputed South China Sea.

27 July 2021

Myanmar: Protests break out at prison in country’s biggest city Yangon

(mt) Inmates inside Insein Prison in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon held a protest on July 23, singing popular songs opposing the military junta and chanting political slogans. The show of defiance took place in an annex jail that houses detained anti-regime protesters and striking civil servants, imprisoned for their involvement in the Civilian Disobedience Movement. [Myanmar Now] [The Straits Times]

After the incident, military vehicles entered the compound and soldiers were stationed outside, according to witnesses. [The Irrawaddy]

Inside the colonial-era prison sentiment is escalating quickly due to prisoners’ poor conditions, which are heavily exacerbated amid spiraling cases of COVID-19.

In light of the incident, Thailand-based activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has called upon the diplomatic community to act to safeguard striking and protesting prisoners concerned over torture and shadow practices of additional charges placed on political prisoners in order to keep them detained for as long as possible. [Mizzima]

27 July 2021

Myanmar: Chinese vaccine arrives to mitigate devastating third wave of COVID-19 cases

(mt) A first batch of 736,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Myanmar on July 22 to help fight a growing outbreak in the border area. [Channel NewsAsia]

As cases surge in the coup-wracked country, Myanmar has bought four million doses from China, and Beijing has pledged to donate a further two million.

Beijing has also supplied more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccines to the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic armed organization operating in Myanmar’s far north near China’s southern border. The type of vaccines is unknown, but the donation testifies Beijing’s commitment, as a spike in infections in the Southeast Asian country has already spilled over into parts of southern China. [Frontier Myanmar]

Earlier this month, state media reported junta leader Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to buy two million vaccines from Russia – another major ally – without specifying which shot. However, widespread anti-junta sentiment is keeping civilians away from military-run hospitals, grounding the country’s inoculation drive to near halt [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3].

Meanwhile, the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) – whose armed wing sporadically fights against the military – is now vaccinating people in northern Shan State with doses also imported from China. The vaccination program was initiated after the military left the state out of support in fighting the virus outbreak. [The Irrawaddy]

27 July 2021

Myanmar: NLD leader dies of COVID-19 in detention, as junta releases more prisoners

(mt/lm) A close confidante of ousted civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi died on July 20 after becoming infected with COVID-19 during prison detention.

Nyan Win, a senior member of the Central Executive Committee of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had been held in Yangon’s Insein Prison after being arrested when the military seized power on February 1. He was transferred to a hospital on July 11 where he died less than ten days later. Win is one of the first political prisoners to die of COVID-19, as the country struggles with a spike in infections and fatalities from a devastating third wave of coronavirus. [Al Jazeera] [The Irrawaddy]

As the country’s overcrowded prisons are especially susceptible to the spread of the virus, the military junta on July 20 announced that prisoners who had been charged under 11 criminal offences before February 1 would soon be released. All criminal cases against those facing gambling, drug-related, or prostitution charges would be dropped, according to the announcement. The move has been widely criticized by pro-democracy activists since those scheduled for release do not include political prisoners who are also at risk of getting infected with Covid-19. [Eleven Myanmar]

This is the third time the junta releases prisoners after it had freed more than 2,000 detainees from prisons earlier this month, including peaceful protesters and local journalists jailed who had been held in detention for months on incitement charges for taking part in protests [see AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1]. That move came after more than 23,000 prisoners were granted amnesty in April, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military as well as to cause chaos in communities [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3].

27 July 2021

Myanmar: Senior NLD figure Win Htein indicted on sedition charge

(mt) A key figure of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party was indicted on a sedition charge by a special court inside a Naypyitaw detention last week. He faces up to twenty years in prison for sedition under Section 124a of the Penal Code. [Eleven Myanmar]

Win Htein, who is widely viewed as the right-hand man of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested in the city of Yangon three days after the February 1 military takeover, following media interviews in which he accused military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing of acting on personal ambition in his seizure of power.

He has been held in the detention center for the past five months and has been denied bail despite suffering from serious health issues as well as visits from his lawyers until a court hearing in mid-May.

During the hearing on July 23, Htein declared himself innocent in court and justified his answer to the judge by explaining that he acted upon his role and responsibility towards the ruling party and the political situation at that time. [Myanmar Now]

The judge has asked a full list of witnesses that will be called to testify from both the persecution and the defense. The next court hearing is scheduled for July 31.

27 July 2021

Australia to negotiate agriculture work visa for ASEAN nations

(nd) After years of resistance, pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby succeeded to create a new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations. Depending on the vaccination progress, applications might start from November 2021 respectively early 2022. The opposition against it was based on negative experiences in the US, Europe and Gulf states. While Australia wanted to avoid to become a low-skill worker society, a seasonal worker visa was already introduced in 2010, and as of 2021, overseas students were allowed to work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry. Main problems of low-skill guest worker visas are high risks of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks as well as racism. Additionally, foreign workers can present competition to unemployed local in the same sector. Disadvantages for the workers will likely exist with the new visa given the power of the Australian farm lobby. While employers might pay for English testing and the visa itself, travel costs will remain with the workers, and there are frequent reports of workers being forced to pay inflated accommodation rates. These issues are accelerated by the very common creation of labor-hire companies, which calls for effective regulation. Employers with a record for exploiting workers or hiring undocumented workers should be excluded. Additionally, it is argued, minimum wages should apply as well as all relevant information provided to the workers upon arrival. Especially, a complaint mechanism shall be put in place, consisting of industry, union and government body representatives. Union membership of the worker is desirable, also an independent review of the new visa a year after its imposition. [East Asia Forum]

27 July 2021

US boosting efforts to repair its ties with ASEAN

(nd) The upcoming visit of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to ASEAN this month is in line with efforts of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Biden administration to enhance estranged relations with ASEAN nations. While Blinken emphasized cooperation with respect to security in the Indo-Pacific, rejecting once again “unlawful” Chinese claims in the South China Sea, he urged the bloc for a coordinated response to the coup in Myanmar. The mission of Austin highlights the US’s commitment to counter Chinese activity in the disputed waters, visiting frontline states Vietnam and the Philippines, and the regional hub of Singapore, where he is expected to elaborate on US military strategy in the South China Sea. Contrary to Trump, who participated in 2017 but sent lower-level representatives for the following years, Biden will participate in the ASEAN summit later this year. As a mixture of Trump’s neglect of the region and the necessity for aid amid the global pandemic, regional states became more dependent on China. [Channel News Asia]

Yet, an annual survey by the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute found that 61.5% of respondents preferred closer ties to the US than to China. Therefore, the US has been vocal on resolving the situation in Myanmar, has stepped up efforts for its own version of vaccine diplomacy by donating vaccinations, and reassured its commitment to a “free and open Mekong region”, accusing China of destabilizing downstream countries and harming the environment. Reactions by regional leaders after the US-ASEAN summit earlier this month were very positive, calling it a sign of “refreshed commitment” to the region. President of long-time ally Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has long been criticized for his China-friendly stance, which he has modified subsequently with respect to upcoming elections, most notably with reference to the 2016 Arbitration Tribunal award rejecting Chinese maritime claims as well as with frequent actions by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) chasing away Chinese ships operating within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This raises the hope of the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a large-scale, rotational American military presence in the Philippines, before he leaves office. [Asia Times]

27 July 2021

Myanmar junta replaces envoy to United Kingdom who broke ranks

(mt) Myanmar has appointed an interim chargé d’affaires to lead the country’s mission in the United Kingdom after the ambassador was ousted from the embassy for breaking ties with the military junta that took over the country on February 1.

The former ambassador, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was locked out of the London embassy by the military attaché in April after publicly condemning the coup and calling for a return of the ousted Aung San Suu Kyi-led government. Kyaw Zwar Minn remains in the United Kingdom and has urged the British government to refuse to recognise any envoys appointed by the junta and to send them back to Myanmar. [AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]

A British-based rights group said the appointee for the London job was Htun Aung Kyaw, who served as a fighter pilot during a long army career, but the matter could not be confirmed. As per the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the appointment of the new temporary head of Myanmar’s embassy did not require London’s consent. [The Straits Times]

In related developments, Myanmar’s military junta is again seeking to replace the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who opposed their February 1 takeover of the government. Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin says in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he has appointed Aung Thurein, who left the military this year after 26 years in service, as Myanmar’s UN ambassador. [The Associated Press]

The junta’s s previous attempt to oust Tun failed and there has been no reported action on the foreign minister’s letter, which is dated May 12. The 193-member United Nations General Assembly is in charge of accrediting permanent representatives. A request for accreditation must first go to its nine-member Credentials Committee, which this year comprises Cameroon, China, Iceland, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Trinidad and Tobago, Tanzania, United States and Uruguay. [AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2] [The Diplomat]

27 July 2021

Russia on track to deliver fighter jets to Myanmar

(mt/lm) Russia is going ahead with plans to supply Myanmar’s military with Su-30 fighter jets and Yak-130 training aircraft, a top defense cooperation official was quoted as saying last week. [Deutsche Welle, in Russian], [Reuters][The Moscow Times]

While other countries had suspended trade deals and delivery of weapons after Myanmar’s military ousted its civilian government earlier in February, Russia has continued to strengthen military trade ties with the military junta.

Moscow had agreed to sell six Su-30 aircraft to Myanmar in 2018, when the army was in the middle of a military offensive against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that has been declared as ethnic cleansing and genocide by various UN agencies.

Last month, Russia hosted Myanmar’s coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for discussions about defense relations, during which Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told the junta leader that he was personally committed to increase military ties between the two countries [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4].

That visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a Myanmar delegation led by the country’s air force chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw, which included a visit to Russia’s top helicopter exhibition, and discussions with Russian officials for planned procurement of military hardware [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

The Russia connection is giving Myanmar’s generals options, lending the junta recognition, and counterbalancing its reliance on China for weapons and other support while the United States and other Western nations try to isolate the military-led government. Meanwhile, Moscow is seizing an opportunity to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia and prop up a friendly regime, while thwarting Western democratic designs.

As such, Russia’s position stands in contrast with China, Myanmar’s neighbor, biggest investor, and main weapons supplier, which has kept its distance and expressed concern about stability since the February coup.

27 July 2021

United States renew call on Myanmar junta to free journalist amid COVID-19 fears

(mt) The United States has renewed calls on Myanmar’s military junta to release American journalist Danny Fenster as the country’s overcrowded prisons are especially susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. [The Straits Times]

Fenster, a managing director for news publication Frontier Myanmar has been held in detention since May, when he tried to board a flight out of the country [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. He faces charges under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code which purports to address “incitement” and carries up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.

The US was granted consular access to Fenster during a July 15 procedural hearing. The US journalist is due to appear before court again on July 28.

His family voiced concern over his health earlier this month, saying Fenster had been displaying COVID-19 symptoms but has not been tested for the virus. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

By then, US officials who are closely monitoring the situation hope that new and more precise details around his case will be disclosed also to proceed with the most effective diplomatic strategy for his release as it had already happen with the case of Japanese ex-detained journalist Yuki Kitazumi [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

20 July 2021

Myanmar junta rejects UN resolution on Rohingya

(mt/lm) Myanmar’s military junta has rejected a United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) resolution condemning human rights violations against the persecuted Rohingya and other minorities, and calling for a process of reconciliation.

The resolution, brought forward by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, was approved without a vote in the UN HRC. China, one of the 47 Council members, said it could not join the consensus but nonetheless did not insist on bringing the text to a vote. [Frontier Myanmar]

The resolution was “based on false information and one-sided allegations,” Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry said, slamming “one-sided allegations” over its treatment of the stateless Rohingya community. [The Straits Times]

Hundreds of thousand Rohingya currently languish in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar after a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that now sees the country facing genocide charges at the International Court of Justice [see AiR No. 26, June/2021, 5].

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, earlier this month decried the “widespread, systematic attacks against the people” since the military takeover five months ago. Some of the acts, he said, “amount to crimes against humanity”, while also slamming the international community for failing to “end this nightmare”. [AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]

20 July 2021

United States urge ASEAN members to act on Myanmar, rejects China maritime claims

(mt) Addressing a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 14 urged the group to take joint action to help end violence, restore a democratic transition and release those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]

The virtual session marked the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25, but Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, cancelled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting.

Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with Washington, had wanted the session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

The meeting comes amid rising concerns that the Biden administration has done little to engage ASEAN since taking office in January, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

During the virtual meeting, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. The ASEAN has been showing limits in firmly doing so both due to internal disagreements among group members, but also key foundational principles of the group of non-interference and consensus [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. The US official also asked for the release of all those “unjustly detained” in the country, and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic transition. [Voice of America]

Blinken also emphasized his country’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea at the meeting and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”. [The Diplomat]

The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did hot on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea [see also AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].   On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found that Beijing’s claim to “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” established in the “long course of historical practice” in the disputed waterway were inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.

20 July 2021

Myanmar: Ethnic armed organization accuses junta of hatching divisive scheme to disunite Karen people

(mt) The armed wing of a prominent ethnic political organization has denied rumors about an alleged assassination plot to kill leaders of the organization, calling it a divisive scheme by the military junta to disunite the ethnic Karen people. [Mizzima]

The Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Defense Organisation (KNDO) have been fighting for decades in the country’s eastern border region to gain more autonomy from the central government. Earlier this month the KNDO suspended Brigadier General Saw Nerdah Mya, as it investigates an alleged massacre of civilians on its territory [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].

20 July 2021

Myanmar: US journalist appears in court for second time

(mt) Danny Fenster, a US journalist working for the news publication Frontier Myanmar appeared virtually for a second time in a special court hearing. [Mizzima]

Fenster has been held in detention since May, when he tried to board a flight out of the country [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. He faces charges under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code which purports to address “incitement” and carries up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine. A complaint letter filed with the court earlier this month confirmed that police arrested Fenster because they believed he was working at independent news service Myanmar Now, despite having resigned from the media outlet in July of last year.

US officials have noted that the Myanmar military junta has signaled that it will handle Fenster’s case in a similar manner to the case Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi, who was arrested in mid-April under a criminal provision that penalizes the dissemination of information that could agitate or cause security forces or state officials to mutiny [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]. Kitazumi was released a month later, after charges against him were dropped as a diplomatic gesture [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. [The Detroit News]

However, US officials have received no details from the military as to the timeline for Fenster’s case.

Meanwhile, Fenster’s family voiced concern over his health, saying he was displaying COVID-19 symptoms earlier last week but has not been tested for the virus. Myanmar is currently facing a surge in coronavirus cases, with a public health system in tatters due to the political turmoil. Insein Prison – where Fenster is being held – began a two-week lockdown on July 8 due to the virus surge. [CNBC]

20 July 2021

Myanmar: Healthcare system on the brink of collapse as country plunges into third COVID-19 wave

(mt) Since the beginning of this month, Myanmar has reported daily record-breaking numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in what constitutes a rapidly deteriorating third wave of COVID-19 infections. One third of all people tested in Myanmar are testing positive for the virus, compared to the 5 percent that the World Health Organization has said shows an outbreak is being brought under control. [The Diplomat 1]

The Ministry of Health and Sports reported 5,200 new cases and 281 confirmed deaths on July 19, but accounts from medics and funeral services point to the death tolls being much higher. The total official death toll has risen 50 percent already this month to 5,000 with the spread of the Delta variant that has also surged elsewhere in Southeast Asia. [Eleven Myanmar 1]

This situation is worsened by a shortage of medical workers, many of whom have been detained or have gone underground to avoid arrest because of their involvement in anti-military coup protests. As a result, COVID-19 vaccination, testing and prevention measures have all stalled, all the while citizens refuse to cooperate with military authorities. [AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2

For many locals, the third wave is being exacerbated by rising prices for pharmaceuticals and a shortage of medicines and other essentials, including face masks and oxygen. In addition, the spread of COVID-19 from Shan State into a Chinese border town prompted Beijing on July 8 to shut all trade gates with Myanmar, putting at risks billions of dollars in bilateral business. [Frontier Myanmar 1] [The Diplomat 2]

Making matters worse, the country’s inoculation drive has ground to near halt due to a vaccine shortage, with currently less than four percent of the population of about 55 million having received one vaccine dose. Myanmar’s vaccination rollout, started by ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi in January, faltered as India restricted exports by the Serum Institute of India – which had a contract to supply 30 million doses – and deliveries from the global COVAX facility never materialized. [Nikkei Asia]

New vaccine doses are expected to come from China, as the Myanmar junta is set to receive six million COVID-19 vaccines by August. Myanmar has “bought four million” doses and Beijing will donate a further two million, according to officials. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

20 July 2021

Myanmar: Anti-coup activists hold protests on Martyrs’ Day holiday

(lm) Pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar held demonstrations across the country on July 19 to coincide with a public holiday to commemorate slain independence heroes, including the father of the country’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the country’s largest city, Yangon, military authorities held a tightly controlled ceremony for Martyrs’ Day at a mausoleum dedicated to Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and a former prime minister, who was assassinated alongside six members of his Cabinet – including his brother – on July 19, 1947. His political rival, U Saw, interned in Uganda during World War II, was later executed for his part in the killings. [Reuters]

In Monywa, west of the city of Mandalay, anti-junta demonstrators held a march where they chanted “Martyrs never die. We are going to wash our feet with the blood of war dogs”, in a reference to soldiers, photographs on social media showed. In Meiktila in central Myanmar, protesters held a banner in front of the Martyrs’ Day memorial paying tribute to four other “martyrs” who had died in their district during recent demonstrations against the coup.

20 July 2021

ASEAN and the EU’s AI legislation

(nd) According to a recent analysis, the EU’s recent draft legislation to harmonize artificial intelligence (AI) rules is unlikely to have direct impact on similar legislation in Southeast Asia. Still, there might be some repercussive effects of it since the objectives of the legislation, risk mitigation for AI systems, is relevant for the region as well. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competitively-priced technology has already been exported through Chinese companies, namely Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua and ZTE, notably in the area of face recognition, raising concerns about security risks and the danger of importing norms and values from the system providers.

Regionally, AI-based systems are not produced largely yet, with the exception of Singapore having launched a national AI strategy for AI-based solutions in the global market. One obstacle therefore for implementing EU rules directly is the lower degree of integration of markets and regulations in the regional bloc as opposed to the EU. Nevertheless, in its first Digital Ministers’ Meeting early this year, ASEAN adopted a Digital Masterplan 2025 with the aim of a regional policy for best practice guidance on AI governance and ethics. A key issue will be regulating cross-border data flows among member states which have localization requirements for personal data. 

The recently adopted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership missed this chance and still enables parties to restrict cross-border data flows, with the sole requirement of non-discriminatory application. Of the signatories, only Singapore and Vietnam implemented the “gold standard” digital trade provisions supporting cross-border data flows. Since most ASEAN members have already formed a national AI strategy, it could be beneficial for the bloc to focus on a sector-based approach to subsequently build a common framework for AI policy consolidation. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Cambodia to chair ASEAN in 2022

(nd) For the upcoming Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN, some core issues were identified in a recent analysis, which in part had been already identified for its last chairmanship in 2012. Back then, Cambodia was criticized for siding with China over conflicting territorial claims at the South China Sea. Cambodia is a non-claimant state to the disputed waters and repeatedly referred to its neutrality, yet ASEAN has to address the desperately needed Code of Conduct issue, which needs a central and united approach of the bloc. 

Similarly, the aftermath of the coup and the situation in Myanmar are yet to be solved, with the violence continuing amid a spike in Covid-19 and unlikeliness of a successful implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus reached during its special summit in April. Additionally, Cambodia itself is criticized for its poor human rights record and has a less strict attitude towards the coup than other bloc members. Another unsolved cross-border issue is the environmental situation in the Mekong Delta region caused by a multitude of big dam projects at the Upper Mekong River.

With all three issues, the growing US-China rivalry is putting even more pressure on the bloc’s members, driving division within and making a united stand harder to achieve. This applies especially given Cambodia’s high economic and military involvement with China. For months, tensions were simmering due to the alleged establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia opposed by the US. While Chinese vaccinations have come under criticism and some bloc members have stopped using Sinovac, Cambodia is exclusively using Chinese vaccinations, showing their high dependence on China. [East Asia Forum]

13 July 2021

Myanmar junta is committing ‘crimes against humanity’, UN rights expert says

(mt/lm) A United Nations human rights investigator has called for international coordinated action to stem abuse by Myanmar’s military leaders against its people, urging countries to impose economic sanctions on the country’s oil and gas sector to cripple the junta. [Reuters] [Voice of America]

Speaking before the United Nations Human Rights Council on July 7, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, decried the “widespread, systematic attacks against the people” since the military takeover five months ago. Some of the acts, he said, “amount to crimes against humanity”, lamenting the fact that more had not been done to rein in the violations. [The Straits Times]

In his report to the Council, Andrews called for forming an “Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar”, essentially a group of states which could impose sanctions and “significantly reduce the revenue that the junta needs to continue its reign of terror”. To this end, Andrews proposed a series of five key measures he said would impose significant costs on the junta, and thereby bring the country’s generals into compliance with international human rights norms.

First and foremost, Andrews criticizes that no state so far has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s oil and gas sector – which he referred to as “a financial lifeline for the junta” – although some had slapped them on military-controlled enterprises and revenue from gems, timber and mining. The junta, Andrews explained, finds itself in need of these revenue streams as it has been experiencing a financial deficit.

These remarks resonate with the findings of a Global Witness’ report published earlier this month, which had advised the international community to place sanctions on Myanmar’s jade trade business. [AiR No. 27, July/2021, 1]. They are also in accord with recent reports, which have suggested that the military junta is now demanding ransom from family members of activists detained on suspicion of involvement in the pro-democracy movement. [The Irrawaddy]

Andrew’s plan also calls for the pursuit of universal jurisdiction cases and filing charges against Myanmar’s senior security officials. Other measures include ensuring that humanitarian aid goes directly to the people of Myanmar, and the denial of any claims of legitimacy by the junta, such as the false claim that it is recognized by the United Nations.

“There is no guarantee that this approach will succeed,” he acknowledged, but “there is overwhelming evidence that the current path leads to even greater impunity, a humanitarian disaster, and a failed state”.

13 July 2021

Myanmar: Head of ethnic insurgent groups’ coordinating body resigns

(mt/lm) The head of the Peace Process Steering Team, a joint body of ten ethnic armed organization, has resigned, the group announced on July 7, the fourth and final day of online consultations between the groups’ stakeholders. [The Irrawaddy]

The PPST was formed in 2016 to negotiate with the ousted National League for Democracy-led government, after both sides the previous year had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which set the tone for the future establishment of a Burmese federation.

General Yawd Serk assumed the role as the PPST’s leader in March 2019, after the Karen National Union (KNU) leader General Saw Mutu Sae Poe stepped down. He is also the founder and current chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a signatory to the NCA.

Relations between PPST members have been strained since the military takeover in February, with some holding talks with the junta’s governing body, the State Administrative Council. In early May, KNU chairman Saw Mutu Sae Poe said that his organization would also continue political negotiations and uphold the principles of the NCA [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

There is a good case to believe that General Serk’s decision was heavily influenced by recent clashes in northern Shan State between the RCSS and the rival Shan State Army-North, the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party.

Following the resignation of General Yawd Serk, Nai Aung Min, Vice-Chair of the New Mon State Party, was appointed as the interim leader of the PPST, and Colonel Khun Okker and Colonel Sai Ngin were appointed as members. They said they would work to resolve the current political crisis in Myanmar based on the essence of the NCA. [BNI Multimedia Group]

13 July 2021

Myanmar: Ethnic armed group suspends key leader in massacre investigation

(mt/lm) A prominent ethnic armed organization (EAO) in Myanmar suspended one of its key leaders last week, as it investigates an alleged massacre of civilians on its territory. [Bangkok Post] [The Straits Times

The Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) have been fighting for decades in the country’s eastern border region to gain more autonomy from the central government. Since the military takeover, the KNU has clashed sporadically with the Myanmar military along the Thai border. [see e.g. AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]

State-controlled media on June 14 accused the KNDO of killing 25 construction workers near the border with Thailand after abducting them from a construction site last month – an allegation KNU has said it will investigate. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]

13 July 2021

Myanmar: Protesters mark 1962 rallies against first military junta, as COVID-19 crisis deepens

(mt) Pro-democracy demonstrators hit the streets across Myanmar on July 7 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1962 protests against the first imposition of military rule on the country, vowing defiance against its latest incarnation. [France24]

Last week’s protests were small and brief but enthusiastic, using the flash mob style that nonviolent demonstrators have adopted since government units began using lethal force to suppress them. [Associated Press]

They were held as the country battles its most severe COVID-19 epidemic since the start of the pandemic, with a high of more than 4,000 daily new cases recorded last week, according to the World Health Organization. [Reuters]

Last year, the country was able to keep the COVID-19 outbreak under control with strict restrictions imposed by then-civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, plus the use of vaccines from India and China. But since the military takeover, people have been reluctant to go to military hospitals. In addition, healthcare workers have been at the forefront of the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, placing them in a difficult bind as rising numbers of people seek medical treatment. [The Interpreter] [The Irrawaddy]

Against this backdrop, epidemic controls in the neighboring Chinese province of Yunnan were tightened over the weekend. [Mizzima]


13 July 2021

Myanmar: Introduction of new evidence in trial against former leader Suu Kyi

(mt) Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing four additional criminal charges, according to her lawyer. Filed in a court in the city of Mandalay, the new cases could see Suu Kyi tied up in legal proceedings in different cities.

Little information is available about the latest charges, except that they relate to corruption, and both were also brought forward against Min Thu, a former minister in the Suu Kyi-led government. [Al Jazeera]

Already, the deposed leader is on trial in the capital, Naypyidaw, over charges that include two counts of violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaking COVID-19 pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign; illegally importing walkie-talkies that were for her bodyguards’ use; and unlicensed use of the radios. [AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]

Cross-examination of a prosecution witness on July 12 revealed a raid on Aung San Suu Kyi’s home had been carried out illegally without a warrant. Further, a witness for the prosecution was absent due to a COVID-19 infection. [Bangkok Post]

Before, her lawyers last week argued strongly against the introduction of evidence that had not been formally listed before testimony began on June 15, saying it did not follow established judicial procedures. The hearings pertain to sedition charges, which have also been levelled against ousted President Win Myint and another senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. [Eleven Myanmar]

Suu Kyi faces additional charges that have yet to be tried, among them unspecified breaches of the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, and allegedly accepting bribes, which carry a sentence of up to 14 and 15 years in prison, respectively.

13 July 2021

Myanmar: Junta-appointed Election Commission claims fraud in nearly one-third of 2020 election votes

(mt) Following a months-long investigation, Myanmar’s military-appointed Union Election Commission (UEE) last week doubled down on claims of mass fraud in last November’s general election, saying it found nearly a third of all ballots were tainted. [Bangkok Post] [BNN Bloomberg]

According to the chairman of the UEE, the probe found more than 11.3 million fraudulent votes, citing “a number of irregularities” in advance voting, and noted the previous election commission that certified the poll issued regulations that were “against the law.”     In doing so, the findings of the investigation dubiously confirm the crucial reason the military has advanced to justify its coup d’état that deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint earlier in February. 

The UEE announced earlier in May that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) would be dissolved over the fraud allegations and its leaders prosecuted as traitors. The same month, a nonpartisan election monitoring organization found that the results of last November’s election were “by and large, representative of the will of the people,” rejecting the narrative of the widespread electoral fraud that the junta has used to justify its military takeover. [AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

Last month, then, the Commission requested Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs to review whether any of the country’s registered political parties has violated the rules stipulated in the Political Parties Registration Law – a move widely considered an attempt by the junta to provide legal cover for dissolving the NLD. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

13 July 2021

Indonesia seeks greater role for Italy in ASEAN

(sa) On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Ambassador to Italy Esti Andayani pushed for greater ASEAN-Italy cooperation in sustainable development at the ‘Italy-ASEAN Partnership for Development: A Look at Sustainable Development’. The Ambassador, who is also chief of the ASEAN Committee in Rome (ACR) noted the benefits of post-pandemic cooperation and highlighted the economic impact of Covid-19. [Antara News]

13 July 2021

Russia backs ASEAN five-point consensus on tackling crisis in Myanmar

(lm) Speaking during a visit to Indonesia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week expressed his country’s support for the Five Point Consensus agreed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the political crisis in Myanmar. [The Straits Times]

The diplomat’s comments assume added significance, coming as they did amid deepening engagement between Russia and Myanmar’s military, even as major global powers sanction its businesses and top leaders and call for a global ban on arms sales to the Southeast Asian country.

Independent news outlet Myanmar Now on July 6 reported that a 20-member Russian delegation led by two high-ranking Navy officers secretly visited Myanmar between June 13 and 19, ahead of its junta leader’s trip to Russia last month, citing a document it said it had obtained. [Myanmar Now, in Burmese]

Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Moscow on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. His visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a delegation led by the country’s Air Force Chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

Both visits lend weight to arguments that claim Russia is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Moscow – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier.

13 July 2021

United States, ASEAN to hold virtual meeting of foreign ministers on July 14

(lm) The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a foreign minister’s meeting virtually on July 14, marking the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. [South China Morning Post]

Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last month embarked on an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

The rescheduled meeting will be attended by Blinken and all foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN, including Myanmar’s junta-appointed top diplomat. Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with the US, had wanted the virtual session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

ASEAN previously held a foreign ministers’ meeting with China in Chongqing on June 7 [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] and, more recently, with Russia in Jakarta on July 6.

13 July 2021

Singapore says ASEAN to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, as grouping remains deadlocked in selection of envoy

(mt) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to expedite the implementation of the so-called ‘five-point consensus’ plan reached by their leaders to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated on July 7. [The Diplomat]

Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the 10 ASEAN member states in April announced a Five-Point Consensus for resolving the country’s state of grinding emergency. Of the five points, three refer to outcomes desired by the grouping: the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. The other two are mechanisms to achieve these outcomes: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and the dispatch of a delegation to Myanmar to meet all relevant stakeholders. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

But ASEAN leaders failed to agree on a time frame for the implementation of the consensus, and progress has been slow, even on what would appear to be the most straightforward point of consensus: the appointment of a special envoy.

A recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News suggests that there are currently three nominees: Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat; Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002. [Kyodo News]

Citing ASEAN diplomatic sources, the news outlet claims that each of the three candidates is being pushed by their respective government, and that the choice “appears to have become intertwined with the domestic and strategic agendas of the nominating countries.”

A case in point, Indonesia believes that Hassan could establish momentum towards resolving the situation in Myanmar. But the country’s military seems to be leaning toward the Thai candidate, most notably because the military junta “is [said to be] no longer interested in the Indonesian model of democratic transition but prefers the Thai model where the military wields superior political leverage and policy influence.” 

Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3], seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring its border security and commercial interests vis-a-vis Myanmar. Bangkok this week reiterated that it does not have the “luxury of distance”, and thus could not afford to be complacent about what is happening in neighboring Myanmar. [Bangkok Post]

6 July 2021

Myanmar diplomats in US and Switzerland refuse to return home after criticizing military junta

(lm) Eleven Myanmar diplomats in the United States and Switzerland are creating what is effectively an underground diplomatic corps as they seek to remain in their host countries in protest against the country’s military junta. [South China Morning Post]

Four Myanmar diplomats in Washington and three in Los Angeles are applying for temporary protected status as their diplomatic status is set to end, while four in Geneva are also asking Swiss authorities to enable them to remain there.

They are among a group of at least 21 staffers at diplomatic posts in seven countries who earlier this year announced they would not cooperate with the military-controlled Foreign Ministry [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. The other diplomats opposing the junta are in Canada, France, Germany, Israel and Japan.

The group includes Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who speaks for the country’s deposed civilian government and has defied junta orders to resign.

6 July 2021

Japan urges Myanmar to prevent repeat of raids on embassy and aid staff

(lm) Japan has lodged a protest with the Myanmar military junta after a Japanese government source revealed that a housing complex occupied by Japanese diplomatic staff had been forcibly entered by security forces in April earlier this year.

The armed personnel were apparently trying to search the premises of pro-democracy forces that oppose the military, but they withdrew once they learned the occupants were Japanese. [South China Morning Post

While the staff were not harmed, the security forces’ actions “risked the safety of the Japanese nationals” and violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a high-ranking Japanese official said on July 5. The treaty stipulates the protection of diplomats from arrest or detention and the inviolability of mission premises. [The Japan Times]


6 July 2021

Myanmar: Protesters burn army uniform during demonstrations marking fifth month since coup

(mt/lm) To mark the fifth month since the military takeover, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon on July 1, setting ablaze an army uniform and chanting calls for democracy. The protest was one of the biggest in Yangon in recent weeks, although demonstrations against the army take place daily in many parts of the South-east Asian country. [Al Jazeera] [The Straits Times]

6 July 2021

Myanmar: Clashes between resistance forces, military troops continue across the country

(mt/lm) Myanmar security forces have killed at least 41 individuals in a township in the country’s Sagaing Region since raids began in the area on July 2, causing several thousand residents to flee their homes. [Myanmar Now] [The Irrawaddy]

Youths from a local People’s Defence Force (PDF), an armed group formed to resist crackdowns by the military, took up positions to confront about 150 soldiers who had entered the village early on July 2. Residents told reporters that the security forces then opened fire on a village near the jungle hoping to flush out members of the local PDF. [South China Morning Post]

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, in turn, offered a different account of the confrontation, saying “armed terrorists” had ambushed security forces patrolling the area, killing one of them and wounding six. It said the attackers retreated after retaliation by the security forces, adding that “four mortars and six percussion lock firearms” were confiscated during the clash. [Al Jazeera]

6 July 2021

Myanmar: Military junta ‘tightens grip’ on multibillion dollar jade trade, report says

(mt/lm) Myanmar’s military has such strong control over the country’s jade trade that it would be “nearly impossible” to buy the gemstone without enriching the junta and its allies, a new report released on June 29 claims, naming the son of junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as among those who directly profit from the enterprise. [Global Witness]

The new investigation “Jade and Conflict: Myanmar’s Vicious Circle” from Global Witness, a nonprofit dedicated to investigating corruption and environmental abuse, found the military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, tightened its grip on the lucrative sector in the years leading up to its February 1 takeover.

The investigation, which builds on a landmark 2015 report, alleges the family of coup-leader and commander of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, profited from bribes as corruption of the jade industry worsened in recent years.

Myanmar accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s jade, with the highest demand coming from neighboring China. Even before the military coup, the shared border was already witnessing 70 to 90 percent of jade mined in Myanmar’s Kachin State crossing through without any accountability to the country’s formal trading system and authority.

The coup has destabilized the industry further, according to the report, triggering renewed fighting in jade mining areas. Global Witness also says that junta used the lure of jade mining rights (along with other resources, such as timber) to pacify armed groups and reward ethnic-minority militias willing to end their fight against the Tatmadaw.

Nonetheless, in the complex web of corruption and lack of accountability – other than environmentally damaging practices and alarming working conditions denounced by Global Witness – the international community has an important role to play. The organization’s report urges the United States and the international community to ban the import of jade and gemstones from Myanmar, in addition to introducing sanctions on the country’s gas industry, the largest direct source of foreign currency for the military junta at over $1 billion annually. 


6 July 2021

Myanmar: Junta releases more than 2,000 detainees, ramps up detention of activists’ family members

(mt/lm) Myanmar authorities released more than 2,000 prisoners on June 30, including peaceful protesters and local journalists jailed who have been held in detention for months. This is the second time the junta releases prisoners, after it had granted amnesty to more than 23,000 prisoners, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military as well as to cause chaos in communities [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]. [South China Morning Post]

Among those freed was Kay Zon Nway, a multimedia reporter for the independent news outlet Myanmar Now. She was arrested in February while covering a protest and spent 124 days in detention. She has been charged with incitement, which can lead to two years in jail.

While there was no reason given for the timing of the releases, there is a good case to believe that the military junta seeks to soften its international image. Western countries have demanded political prisoners be freed and condemned the military takeover. Moreover, a high-level delegation of the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) sought a commitment coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to initiate dialogue, end the violence and release detainees [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2].

US journalist Denny Fenster, who has been detained in the same prison since May, however, was not released, after he appeared in court for a second time on July 1[see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. The judge remanded Fenster for another two weeks, and his next hearing is scheduled for July 15. [The Hill]

Moreover, the Thailand-based advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners warned the release of prisoners was an attempt by the military junta to divert attention from the ongoing security crackdown. “This is not the case,” the group said. “In fact, the junta is making space for even more detainees, and even more torture victims. The people who remain in prison will be tortured more severely than those released.” [CNN]

A total of 5,224 people remains in detention, according to AAPP, which has been tracking arrests and detentions. This includes peaceful opponents of the junta, from elected politicians to medics, protesters, social media celebrities and journalists. Significantly, the participation of tens of thousands of government medical personnel in the Civil Disobedience Movement has created gaps in healthcare that striking doctors and colleagues working at private hospitals are struggling to fill. [Frontier Myanmar] [The Diplomat]

Moreover, the arbitrary detention of children of anti-regime activists seems to be a new pattern in the military junta’s dissent repression tactic. [Myanmar Now] [The Irrawaddy]

What is more, the military issued another threat against journalists the same day, warning reporters not to use the term “military junta” to refer to the regime. It also instructed media not to “quote and exaggerate the false news”, warning that “action will be taken against them under the existing laws”. [The Straits Times]

6 July 2021

Myanmar: Criminal hearings resume for deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi

(mt/lm) Myanmar’s deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared “fresh and in good health” at a courtroom in the capital Naypyidaw on July 5 for a new round of hearings on charges brought against her by the military junta that overthrew her government earlier in February. [France24]

During the first hearing, Suu Kyi’s lawyers cross-examined witnesses for the prosecution who allege she flouted coronavirus restrictions during last November’s elections that her National League for Democracy won in a landslide.

In the second hearing, which involved the case against Suu Kyi for violating the Communications Law, attorneys on both sides sparred over testimony offered by one of the three witnesses who were called to appear.

The third and final hearing of the day involved the case against Suu Kyi under the country’s Export-Import Law. Six unregistered and illegally imported walkie-talkie radios were allegedly found in a search of her home in the capital of Naypyitaw, according to police document.

Government prosecutors have been presenting evidence in the cases since June 14. They will have until June 28 to finish their presentation in the court, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3].     But with 23 witnesses still to go, lawyers have told reporters they expect the current trial to last longer. [Il Sole 24 Ore, in Italian] [Mizzima]

Before the hearings involving Suu Kyi, a hearing was held on charges brought against ousted President U Win Myint for violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaking COVID-19 pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign. [Voice of America]

29 June 2021

Cannot lodge Rohingyas for an indefinite period, says Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Hasina

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has renewed her call on the global community to ensure a timely repatriation of the more than 1.2 million Muslim Rohingya refugees currently seeking shelter in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar.

Addressing the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security via pre-recorded video message, the prime minister called the Rohingya refugees a “huge security threat to Bangladesh as well as the region”, adding that “such a huge population can’t be lodged for indefinite period.” [The Independent]

29 June 2021

British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]

This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]

The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.

The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]

Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]

The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]

29 June 2021

China holds Belt and Road conference

(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.   

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

Myanmar: Anti-junta militia battle security forces in country’s second biggest city, Mandalay

(lm) Myanmar security forces backed by armored vehicles clashed on June 22 with a newly formed guerilla group in the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, resulting in at least two casualties. [The Straits Times

While the city had been a center of anti-military resistance since the junta staged a takeover on February 1, clashes between security forces and the People’s Defense Force, affiliated with Myanmar’s ousted elected leadership, had occurred mainly in small towns and rural areas.

The shootout began after soldiers from the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, raided a building where members of the civilian resistance were sheltering, according to accounts from both sides. Both the Tatmadaw and the People’s Defense Force claimed casualties on the opposing side and denied deaths among their forces. [The New York Times]


29 June 2021

Myanmar: Deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi back in junta court

(lm) Deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in a junta court again on June 28, with the court hearing three separate testimonies on criminal charges brought against her. Journalists were barred from both proceedings. [Voice of America]

The first hearing involved two witnesses testifying on charges Suu Kyi violated the country’s Natural Disaster Management Law for flouting coronavirus restrictions during last November’s elections that her National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.   Government prosecutors have been presenting evidence in the case since June 14. They will have until June 28 to finish their presentation in the court in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]

The second hearing pertained to charges the ousted leader improperly imported walkie-talkies. During the hearing, the court sustained an objection to the defense team’s cross-examination of a police officer on grounds the question may affect the court’s verdict.

The final hearing involved charges she violated the country’s Export-Import Law.

The ousted civilian leader faces seven separate indictments, ranging from the initial charge of illegally importing walkie-talkies to the much more serious charges of breaking the Official Secrets Act and committing corruption. It is these more recent charges that pose the greatest concerns, as they hold sentences of up to 14 and 15 years, respectively.

29 June 2021

Myanmar: Shadow government prepares evidence for lawsuit against junta in international court

(lm) Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) – a shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military – has announced it was preparing to file a lawsuit against the military junta and its leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. [Radio Free Asia]

The NUG said it had compiled 400,000 pieces of evidence of atrocities committed by the military regime against civilians since its takeover earlier in February. The evidence is in the form of testimony from witnesses that the NUG and supporting groups plan to narrow down to 200 testimonies that meet international standards and are deemed the most accurate for submission to the ICC.

The latest announcement comes nearly three months after legal representatives of the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – a group of parliamentarians from the ousted government – had met with officials from the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar to discuss the modalities of dialogue and cooperation in relation to the alleged atrocities committed by the military junta. [AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]

The announcement also comes after the NUG earlier this month released a progressive policy position statement, clarifying that it intends to support the current ICC investigation on crimes committed by military forces, the so-called Tatmadaw, against the minority Rohingya community in the country’s Rakhine state.    Previously, the NUG had only mentioned that it would consider accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate the Tatmadaw’s crimes since the coup, which would not cover earlier periods of violence against the Rohingya. [AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]

However, the NUG’s attempt to bring Myanmar’s military leaders to the ICC are likely to be an uphill struggle, as the group would first have to get recognition as the official government of Myanmar and become a party to the Rome Statue, the treaty that established the ICC.

29 June 2021

Myanmar: Military junta reorganizes legal team for ICJ Rohingya genocide case

(lm) Nearly fivemonths after seizing power, Myanmar’s military junta has restructured the committee to represent its defense in the Rohingya genocide case currently being heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). According to reporting by The Irrawaddy, the new eight-member team is to be led by Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and will include other high-ranking military officials. [The Irrawaddy] [The Wire]

The case was brought to the ICJ by The Gambia in November 2019, two years after a brutal military crackdown in the country’s Rakhine state had forced hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar’s military, the so-called Tatmadaw, against the allegations of genocide when she appeared at the ICJ during the preliminary hearings in December 2019.

As the case could take years, Gambia asked the ICJ to order Myanmar to take “provisional measures” to prevent more violations. Going further than the measures requested by The Gambia, the ICJ in June of last year ordered Myanmar to report on its compliance with the provisional measures in four months and then every six months thereafter. The Suu Kyi-led civilian government submitted two reports prior to the military takeover on February 1.

In January, however, Myanmar filed a preliminary challenge to the jurisdiction of the Court and the admissibility of the Application. Specifically, it questioned whether The Gambia had the right to bring the case because it not been “specifically” affected by the alleged genocide and had brought the case not on its own behalf but as a “proxy” for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The Court then fixed May 20 as the time-limit within with The Gambia was to present a written statement of its observations and submissions on the preliminary objections raised by Myanmar, and, crucially, reserved the subsequent procedure for further decision.

22 June 2021

Myanmar junta leader arrives in Moscow for security conference

(lm) Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Russia on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, expected to be held from June 22 to 24, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February. [The Straits Times] [South China Morning Post]

Min Aung Hlaing attended crisis talks with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta in April. The summit produced a “five-point consensus” statement that called for the “immediate cessation of violence” and a visit to Myanmar by a regional special envoy. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

Min Aung Hlaing’s visit comes after the United Nations General Assembly took the rare step on June 19 of calling for a halt to the flow of arms to Myanmar and urged the military to respect the November election results and release political detainees. Russia abstained from the vote. [see article in this edition]

It also follows on a trip to Moscow by a Myanmar delegation led by the country’s air force chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw, which included a visit to the country’s top helicopter exhibition, and discussions with Russian officials for planned procurement of military hardware. [AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]

Both visits indicate clearly illustrate that Moscow is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Russia – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier. For the two decades spanning 1999 to 2018, China supplied $1.6 billion worth of military hardware to Myanmar, followed by Russia, with $1.5 billion. [Nikkei Asia]


22 June 2021

UN General Assembly demands Myanmar junta end coup and stop the killings

(ad/lm) The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders, delivering a symbolic but sharp global rebuke to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s military junta.

Historians said it was only the fourth time since the end of the Cold War that the General Assembly had passed a resolution condemning a military coup, and was a rare occasion in which the body also called for an arms embargo. [The New York Times]

The 193-member body adopted the resolution by majority vote with 119 countries in support on June 18. Belarus – a major arms supplier to Myanmar – requested the text be put to a vote and was the only country to oppose the resolution, while 36 countries abstained, including Myanmar’s neighbors China, India, and Thailand, along with Russia. The remaining 37 UNGA members did not vote. [Financial Times]

The resolution was the outcome of extensive negotiations that included diplomats from the European Union and other Western nations, as well as from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – excluding Myanmar [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1].

The yes votes included one from ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam. Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who speaks for the country’s deposed civilian government and has defied junta orders to resign, also voted yes. Prior to the vote, he called for “effective collective measures” against the military junta. [The Straits Times]

Justifying its decision to abstain, Thailand said the resolution failed to acknowledge the historical context of the conflict, and thus could adversely affect the chances of arriving at a peaceful settlement, as well as magnify the security challenges the country faces if the conflict is further prolonged. Bangkok also said it considers the ASEAN to be in the best position to take steps to bring about swift and lasting peace. [Bangkok Post]

Bangladesh also abstained from supporting the resolution, because it did not include recommendations and actions regarding the repatriation of Muslim Rohingya. [The New Age]

China, in turn, argued external pressure could aggravate the situation but has not ruled out an arms embargo in future.

Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry on June 19 rejected the legally non-binding resolution, describing it as being “based on one-sided sweeping allegations and false assumptions.” Naypyidaw also sent letters of objection to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the General Assembly’s president. [South China Morning Post]

The passage of the resolution came after UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, behind closed doors briefed the Security Council on her bleak assessment of what is happening in the country. Schraner Burgener – who recently returned from an extended trip to the region – warned that by next year, absent a humanitarian intervention and other remedial steps, half the country could be living below the poverty line [see also AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]. [UN News]

However, diplomats so far considered that a Security Council resolution had little chance of passing because permanent members China and Russia, the Myanmar military’s two biggest arms suppliers, have veto power.

The last Security Council meeting on Myanmar took place on April 30. In a unanimous statement, the Council’s 15 member states called for an immediate end to violence in Myanmar, and the appointment of a special envoy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as stated in the bloc’s “five-point consensus” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]. 


22 June 2021

8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus

(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.

Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]

The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.

The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]

The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]

22 June 2021

Myanmar: US journalist appears in special court

(lm) A US journalist detained in Myanmar since May appeared in a special court on June 17, where he faces charges under a law that criminalizes encouraging dissent against the military. He was remanded in Yangon’s Insein Prison after the hearing and is scheduled to appear in court again on July 1. [The Straits Times]

The journalist, a managing editor for media outlet Frontier Myanmar, was detained by local authorities on May 24 as he tried to board a flight out of the country [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. He faces charges under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code which purports to address “incitement: and carries up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.

Earlier this month a Myanmar journalist working for another outlet was jailed for two years under the same law, which the junta revised soon after the coup to include spreading “fake news” as a crime.

In related news, another journalist and US citizen – who was detained by the Myanmar junta in March and also faced charges under Section 505(a) – was released on June 14 after the charges were dropped, and has left the country for the United States.


22 June 2021

Myanmar: Militia group halts attacks on troops; village burnt after fighting

(lm) An ethnic armed group that has been fighting security forces in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands has pledged to investigate allegations by the junta that its forces killed 25 workers after abducting a group of 47 people last month. [The Straits Times 1]

The Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) have been fighting for decades to gain more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government, and is among the ethnic armed organizations that have opposed the military takeover.

State-controlled media on June 14 accused the KNDO of killing 25 construction workers near the border with Thailand after abducting them from a construction site last month [see AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]. The KNU issued its response to the allegations in a letter dated June 16, denying the military regime’s allegations and claiming that the men it killed were undercover soldiers sent to spy. [The Irrawaddy]

The same day, the Karenni National Defence Force – a militia group in the eastern state of Kayah – announced it had temporarily suspended attacks on military targets, after appeals from local communities to cease fighting that had damaged homes and displaced more than 100,000 people [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [The Straits Times 2]

Also on June 16, security forces set ablaze a village in the central Magway region after clashing there with members of a local self-defense force, leaving at least two elderly people burned to death. [South China Morning Post]

Against this backdrop, the United Nations on June 17 said it was “alarmed at recent acts of violence that illustrate a sharp deterioration of the human rights environment across Myanmar”.

15 June 2021

Indonesia receives deported citizens from Malaysia and Rohingya refugees 

(sa) Indonesia is preparing to receive around 7200 illegal migrants from Malaysia [Reuters 1]. The development comes as Malaysia grapples with a recent spike in Covid-19 cases that saw the country enter lockdown on June 1 [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. 

The 7200 people are expected to be mostly of vulnerable status as Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Human Development Femmy Eka Kartika Putri clarified that in their communications with Malaysia, that Indonesia desired groups such as women and children, who are usually held in detention centres, to be repatriated first. [Reuters 1]

Besides the repatriation of its own citizens, Indonesia also received 81 Rohingya refugees who set off from Bangladesh’s shores as the refugees landed on Idaman Island in Aceh. The refugees have been at sea for 110 days and initially started with 90 refugees on February 11 when it set sail. Indian Coast Guards had found 8 people dead when it tracked the vessel in February. [Reuters 2]

The fate of the refugees in Indonesia are unknown as Wahyu Sisilo, founder of the Migrant Care, an Indonesian non-governmental group, remarked that Indonesian authorities are ill-prepared to receive the planned influx of 7,200 to-be-repatriated Indonesian citizens. According to him, “there are no specific mitigation efforts post-deportation”.  [Reuters 1]

15 June 2021

Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism

(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]

At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]

What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.


15 June 2021

Thailand: Myanmar journalists and crew members arrested in Thailand now ‘safe in third country’

(pr) Three Myanmar journalists and two activists who illegally crossed into Thailand to flee the military crackdown are now safe in a third country, after facing possible deportation, their news station said on June 7. [Prachatai English]

The group of five was arrested in the northern city of Chiang Mai in May and charged with illegal entry soon thereafter. A Thai court earlier this month convicted them of illegal entry with seven-months imprisonment but had their sentences suspended for one year and fined them $128 each. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]


15 June 2021

Ethnic armed group in Myanmar to abide ceasefire agreement

(lm) The chief of staff of the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) said on June 9 that he would uphold the principles of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the organization had signed in 2015 with the ousted National League for Democracy (NDL) government, along with several other insurgent groups [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The Irrawaddy]

The statement of the leader of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) assumes added significance, coming as it does a month after the KNU’s chairman, General Saw Mutu Sae Poe, urged all stakeholders to follow the negotiation channels offered by the military junta to solve the country’s “arising political problems”. [AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

The general’s statement followed on multiple airstrikes carried out by the military since late March in retaliation for attacks on military outposts by the KNLA, displacing more than 30,000 people in the area. [AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]. It therefore prompted mixed reactions, including strong criticism from Karen communities.

15 June 2021

Myanmar: Junta accuses ethnic armies over bombings

(lm) Myanmar’s junta on June 12 accused some of the country’s two-dozen ethnic armed groups of providing training to its opponents to carry out a wave of bombings that it said had targeted public buildings, including schools. [The Straits Times]

In the four months since the February 1 military takeover, cities across the country have been rocked by more than 300 bomb blasts, and the ruling junta and its opponents are trading blame over the explosions and the rising death toll. Just throughout May, more than 100 schools and other education facilities were attacked, according to new data from a child rights organization. [Al Jazeera]

Experts believe that both sides of the conflict appear responsible for the attacks, but resistance fighters claim that they only target the military and would not harm civilians. The junta, in turn, claims the bombings are all carried out by protesters to incite fear and instability.

In related news, Myanmar’s junta-controlled media o June 14 accused the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) of killing 25 construction workers in the east of the country after abducting a group of 47 people last month. [Reuters]

Fighting has intensified in eastern Myanmar since the coup and clashes have driven thousands of people from their homes. The KNDO, which has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people since 1947, is among the ethnic armed groups that have strongly opposed the military takeover.

Against this backdrop, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said on June 11 Myanmar has plunged from a “fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe” – pointing with particular concern at the escalating violence in Kayah State, Chin State and Kachin State. 

State-run television later condemned Bachelet’s comments, saying that the international body “should not be biased”. [UN News]

15 June 2021

Myanmar: Pro-Rohingya social media campaign gathers mass support

(lm) Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s anti-military government protesters on June 13 flooded social media with pictures of themselves wearing black in a show of solidarity with the Rohingya, a minority group that is among the most persecuted in the country. [Al Jazeera]

The move assumes added significance, coming as it did a day after Myanmar’s military junta announced that it does not recognize the identity of the Rohingya people or their right to return home, and thus clearly indicates social and political reconciliation between Rohingya and other Myanmar people. [The Straits Times]

Though the situation remains formidable both for Rohingya in Myanmar and for those who seek to return from Bangladesh, that is, certain social and political fault lines that have been present throughout Myanmar’s recent history seem to be shifting.

The emerging reconciliation was also visible offline, when Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) – a shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military – earlier this month released a progressive policy position statement lauded by many observers. The NUG’s statement declared its intent to do away with Myanmar’s problematic and outdated 1982 citizenship law, and to ensure birthright citizenship to all people born in Myanmar as well as to the children of Myanmar citizens.

This would effectively mean the acknowledgement of existing citizenship rights for the Rohingya.

The June 3 statement also clarified the NUG’s position regarding the current International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation on crimes committed by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya. Previously, the NUG had only mentioned that it would consider accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate the Tatmadaw’s crimes since the coup, which would not cover earlier periods of violence against the Rohingya. According to the June 3 statement, however, the NUG intends to “initiate processes to grant the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed in Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities” – a commitment that offers hope for full accountability.

15 June 2021

Myanmar: Junta trial of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi hears first testimony

(lm) The trial of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi heard its first testimony in a junta court on June 14, more than four months since the military’s putsch removed her government in February. 

On the first day of the evidence hearings, Suu Kyi’s defense team cross-examined witnesses over charges she improperly imported walkie-talkies and flouted coronavirus restrictions during last November’s elections that her National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. Government prosecutors will have until June 28 to finish their presentation in the court in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [South China Morning Post]

Days before evidence hearings commenced, the junta also formally charged Suu Kyi and other officials with corruption, one of the most serious of the now seven cases against the civilian leader since her detention in February. Senior government officials face a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted on corruption charges. [The Straits Times]

According to the notification, the Anti-Corruption Commission alleges it found Suu Kyi had illegally accepted $600,000 as well as gold from the former Yangon region chief minister. The charges also accuse her of abuse of power in leasing a Yangon property as headquarters of a non-profit charity she founded in 2012, resulting in the state losing out on $3.15 million in revenue. [Bloomberg]

A separate case started on June 15, where she is charged with sedition alongside ousted president Win Myint and another senior member of the NLD. Earlier this month, the junta moved Suu Kyi and Win Myint from their residences in the capital to an unknown location [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2].

Suu Kyi also faces criminal charges under the Burma Official Secrets Act, which carries up to 14 years in prison [see AiR No. 14, April/2021, 1]. If convicted of all charges, Suu Kyi faces more than a decade in jail.


15 June 2021

UN Rights envoy warns of risk of starvation in Myanmar’s Kayah State

(lm) Myanmar’s eastern state of Kayah could suffer a “massive” loss of life, a UN human rights investigator warned on June 9, as more than 100,000 people have fled their homes to escape conflict. [The Straits Times]

Myanmar’s military has been battling on multiple fronts to impose order, more than four months after its takeover against leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected government sparked nationwide protests. Kayah State, which borders Thailand, is one of several regions where volunteer People’s Defence Forces have clashed with Myanmar’s well-equipped army, the Tatmadaw, which has responded with artillery and air strikes.

According to the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, “indiscriminate attacks by security forces against civilian areas” have triggered an exodus into nearby forests, with an estimated 100,000 people forced to flee their homes. The UN official also warned that “mass deaths from starvation, disease, and exposure, on a scale we have not yet seen since the February 1 coup, could occur in Kayah State absent immediate action”. [The Straits Times 1]

In related news, international medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned on June 9 of “life-threatening” consequences for thousands of HIV and tuberculosis patients in Myanmar after it was ordered by the junta to stop work in the southeastern city of Dawei. Since February, Dawei – the hometown of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing – has seen near daily protests since the putsch, and brutal crackdowns by security forces. [The Straits Times 2]

The previous day, the International Red Cross said it was urgently ramping up efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of 236,000 people in Myanmar, already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic before the coup struck. The announcement came after the charity’s president was granted a rare meeting with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on June 3 and made the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2].


8 June 2021

Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees protest against living conditions on remote island

(lm) Several thousand Rohingya refugees on May 31 staged “unruly” protests against living conditions on the remote island of Bhasan Char, with some suffering baton injuries. [Reuters]

Since last December, Bangladeshi authorities have shifted 18,000 out of a planned 100,000 people to the island to ease chronic overcrowding in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, where more than 1.2 million Muslim Rohingya have taken shelter.

But many refugees fear they will be exposed to torrid conditions during the impending monsoon season, and are struggling with “inadequate” health and education facilities, according to a recently published Human Rights Watch report. [Human Rights Watch]

The protests coincided with an inspection visit by a two-member delegation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which also visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar the following day, before returning to Dhaka to meet with senior government officials. [Al Jazeera]

In statement issued after the visit, the UNHCR observed that the refugees currently on the island “have protection and assistance needs. That is, access to meaningful livelihood opportunities, skills development, education, health and access to cash to facilitate their daily lives,” adding that it proposes further discussions with the Bangladeshi government for the agency’s operational engagement on the island. [Arab News]

8 June 2021

European Union to impose new sanctions on Myanmar junta, companies

(lm) The European Union will impose a new round of sanctions on Myanmar’s military junta and its economic interests, the third batch introduced since the military ousted the democratically-elected government in February. The move was announced by the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, who was in Indonesia on June 3 to meet with envoys from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [Reuters]

Since the coup, EU sanctions have frozen assets or applied travel bans on 21 military and civilian members of Myanmar’s junta. The bloc’s last round of sanctions in April targeted military-controlled conglomerates Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), barring EU investors and banks from doing business with them [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5].

During three separate auctions in late May, meanwhile, the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) – a state-run entity which controls all timber sales across Myanmar – sold over 10,200 tons of timber for around $5 million, with industry insiders saying the income was low due to limited competition in the bidding. The international Environmental Investigation Agency reported last month that the junta is seeking “to line its pockets” by selling off thousands of tons of illegal timber, including some 200,000 tons seized under the ousted government [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. [The Irrawaddy]

8 June 2021

ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement

(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]

On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]

The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.

Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]

In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]

The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.

ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

8 June 2021

China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers 

(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.

High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]

With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

8 June 2021

Thailand: Court hands jail sentences to Myanmar journalists fleeing junta

(lm) Three Myanmar journalists who illegally crossed into Thailand to flee a military crackdown have been fined and could face deportation, a member of their legal team said last week, warning the trio’s lives will be in danger if they are sent home. [The Irrawaddy]

The journalists were arrested along with two Myanmar activists in the northern city of Chiang Mai in May and charged with illegal entry [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. 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.

A court on June 1 sentenced them to a one-year probation period and fined them $128 each. The court also said they will face seven months in prison if they were to commit the same offense again. By law, they can be deported within 72 hours after sentencing, but the legal team submitted an appeal letter later the same day, which stops immigration authorities from deporting them immediately. [France24]

8 June 2021

Myanmar: To disband ousted NLD, junta to probe possible ‘violations’ of parties’ registration pledges

(lm) Myanmar’s junta-appointed election commission has requested the Ministry of Home Affairs to review whether any of the country’s registered political parties has violated the rules stipulated in the Political Parties Registration Law. [The Irrawaddy]

Observers believe the move to be an attempt by the junta to provide legal cover for dissolving the National League for Democracy (NLD) of ousted civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For the move comes after the chairman of the Union Election Commission last month said the NLD would soon be abolished for alleged voter fraught in last November’s election. He also threatened action against “traitors” involved [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

8 June 2021

Myanmar: Deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, four others, to face court next week ‘unrepresented’

(lm) Myanmar’s military junta will begin presenting its case against deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi in court on June 14, according to a member of her legal team, almost one month after she first appeared in person at a court hearing on May 23 [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]. [Associated Press]

Government prosecutors will have until June 28 to finish their presentation in the court in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw, where she is being tried on five charges, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case.

The decision was made after it was earlier revealed that Suu Kyi, initially under house arrest at her official residence in the capital, has been transferred from her home to an “unknown location”. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]

She and her two co-defendants – ousted President Win Myint and former Naypyitaw Mayor Myo Aung – are charged with spreading information that could cause public alarm or unrest. Suu Kyi also faces two counts of violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaking COVID-19 pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign; illegally importing walkie-talkies that were for her bodyguards’ use; and unlicensed use of the radios [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3].

A sixth charge that Suu Kyi faces is the most serious one: breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment [see AiR No. 14, April/2021, 1]. It has been handled separately from the other charges and recently transferred to the Union Supreme Court in Naypyitaw.

Her legal defense team has voiced concern that Suu Kyi and four others, including her Australian economic adviser, had no legal representative listed in the case against them. [Reuters]


8 June 2021

Myanmar: Demonstrations, defiance, as country marks four months since coup

(lm) Pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in towns across Myanmar on June 1 to denounce the country’s military, marking four months since it overthrew elected leader Aug San Suu Kyi. Despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, the junta is still struggling to impose order amid protests and strikes, and fighting on multiple fronts in border regions as civilians take up arms against the junta. [Reuters 1]

The same day, schools officially reopened across Myanmar for the first time since the coup, but turnout was low due to security concerns and a boycott over the junta’s last month’s suspension of tens of thousands of teachers opposed to its rule [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]. [Reuters 2]

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s two dozen ethnic armed groups, the same day launched an artillery attack on an airport located in the northern state of Kachin, where fighting has intensified since the KIA seized control of a strategic hilltop base on the Chinese border in late March [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5. [The Irrawaddy 1]

In the eastern state of Kayah, retaliatory shelling and air strikes against the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF) – one of dozens of civilian defense forces to emerge since late March – forced residents to flee and join thousands of others displaced by recent fighting in the region [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. [Myanmar Now] [The Irrawaddy 2]

The following day, fighting between security forces and a combined force of ethnic armed groups and a local People’s Defense Force (PDF) in the state of Karen left 32 junta troops dead. Fighting continued on June 3. [The Irrawaddy 3]

At least 20 people were killed by security forces in the Ayeyarwady river delta region on June 5 after villagers armed with catapults and crossbows fought back against troops searching for weapons. It was some of the worst violence since the coup in the region, an important rice-growing area that has large populations of both the Bamar majority ethnic group, and the ethnic Karen minority. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, two journalists last week were sentenced to two years in prison for incitement and spreading false information. Since seizing power four months ago, the military junta has shut down several independent media outlets and arrested more than 80 journalists, at least 45 of which are currently imprisoned. [Radio Free Asia] [Reuters 3] [The Irrawaddy 4]


1 June 2021

Malaysia, UN Sec-Gen discuss situation in Myanmar and Palestine

(tcy) In a telephone call on May 27, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin discussed cooperation between UN and ASEAN in searching for a resolution to the political crisis in Myanmar, focusing in particular on the Five-Point Consensus reached during the ASEAN Leaders’ Conference. [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4] Muhyiddin also mentioned that the appointment of a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair is being finalised in the effort to seek a peaceful solution in the interest of the people of Myanmar.

Both leaders also discussed the issue of Palestine and regretted the violence inflicted by Israelite army on the Palestinians, hoping that a solution to ensure lasting peace for both sides would be found to end the conflict. Muhyiddin also stressed the consistent stand of Malaysia in the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian nation from the occupation of Israel through the two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. [Bernama]

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry has also joined other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in stating that they want the Human Rights Council (HRC) to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to ensure accountability and humanitarian support for the Palestinians. [Malay Mail]


1 June 2021

ASEAN member states want to drop proposed UN call for Myanmar arms embargo

(lf) All ASEAN member states, excluding Myanmar, have proposed watering down a UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country, in a bid to win the unanimous support, “especially from all countries directly affected in the region”. Observers believe that ASEAN member states are afraid sanctions would restrict the influence the bloc could have on Myanmar’s military leadership. [The Straits Times]

The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, European Union and United States. A previous vote on the non-binding resolution scheduled for May 18 was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

While many western nations have put targeted sanctions on junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a combined 38 senior figures and also black-listed military conglomerates, ASEAN nations have so far largely avoided measures that would hit the junta’s finances. 

The Myanmar junta in late April rebuffed a plan by ASEAN leaders to help end violence in the country, saying any “suggestions” would need to fit with its stated road map and come after “stability” is restored. Leaders of the nine countries, together with coup chief Min Aung Hlaing, had earlier appeared to reach a five-point “consensus” during a special summit that included an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special emissary to mediate talks between all parties in Myanmar [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

1 June 2021

Total, Chevron suspend payments to Myanmar junta from gas projects

(lf/lm) French oil and gas group Total and United States energy company Chevron have suspended cash distributions from a gas joint venture comprising of three foreign energy companies and state-owned energy producer Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), reflecting a shift in corporate dealings with the Myanmar’s junta. [The Straits Times]

But the move suspends less than five percent of the military’s overall gas revenues, which amounted to more than $3.3 billion in 2020, according to UN data. Neither does it affect the military’s share of gas revenues, royalties from the country’s gas field operations or taxes from the pipeline, which together constitute the vast majority of payments to the junta facilitated by the foreign energy companies. International rights watchdogs, thus, urge governments and energy companies to take stronger action. [Human Rights Watch]

Specifically, the decision announced by Total and Chevron concerns a 15 percent dividend paid by a pipeline company, Moattama Gas Transportation Company (MGTC), from profits from transportation fees it earns from moving gas from Myanmar’s offshore Yadana fields to power plants in Myanmar and Thailand.

Total is the biggest shareholder with 31.24 per cent, while Chevron holds 28 per cent. Thailand’s state-owned gas company PTTEP and MOGE hold the remainder. Total acts as the “operator” of the Yadana wellheads and MGTC’s pipeline infrastructure. The suspended payments are dividends to these companies based on their ownership share. [Nikkei Asia]

French daily newspaper Le Monde earlier this month published an article alleging that Myanmar’s military has received hundreds of millions of dollars through a finance scheme linked to the Myanmar-Thailand pipeline. [Le Monde, in French]

So far, neither the United States nor European Union have imposed sanctions on MOGE, although they have targeted some military-owned conglomerates and businesses, as well as individuals linked to the junta. Indicating the effectiveness of these sanctions, recent reports suggest that the junta is seeking to auction off large quantities of illegal timber that had been seized by the government prior to the coup. [The Irrawaddy]

1 June 2021

Myanmar military unilaterally declares ceasefire, as rise of civilian groups fuels fears of full-scaled civil war

(lf/lm) The Myanmar military announced on May 30 the extension of its non-operation period against ethnic armed groups to the end of June. The extension is meant to facilitate talks with the ethnic armed organizations to strengthen the peace process as envisioned under the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and aims for a peaceful reopening of schools on June 1. [Nikkei Asia] [Xinhua]

The announcement comes as fighting between Myanmar’s military, the so-called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed groups and anti-junta protesters continues to intensify, with communities increasingly taking up arms to protect themselves from a relentless campaign of military violence.

The number of internally displaced people in the country’s northern Sagaing Region has reached about 20,000, after more than 1,500 residents from a village fled their homes following a raid by security forces on May 26. In eastern Kayah state, in turn, tens of thousands of people have been displaced over the past week by intense fighting between the military, the newly formed Karenni People’s Defence Force and the Karenni Army, an established ethnic armed group. [Myanmar Now] [The Irrawaddy 1] [The Irrawaddy 2]

At least 58 defense forces have formed across the country, of which 12 are active, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-profit that tracks conflict. These groups are formed at a local level and are not necessarily officially linked to the NUG. Groups have revealed little about the nature of their training, but their resources and intensity vary.

One of the ethnic armed organizations (EAO), the Chin National Front, on May 29 signed an agreement with the National Unity Government (NUG), becoming the first EAO to take sides with the country’s shadow government formed to topple the military regime. Importantly, the group – which represents the mainly Christian Chin minority in western Myanmar – is one of the eight EAOs that in 2015 signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the with the ousted National League for Democracy government. [Al Jazeera]

Another group, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, on May 31 launched an attack on security forces in a township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Importantly, the tripartite alliance – comprising of the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – was in the process of signing bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar military in the leadup to the coup on February 1 [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. The talks have collapsed since then. [The Irrawaddy 3]

1 June 2021

Myanmar: US journalist detained

(lf) A US journalist working as managing editor for media outlet Frontier Myanmar was detained by local authorities on May 24 as he tried to board a flight out of the country. The news organization said the journalist had been transferred to Insein Prison – one of Myanmar’s most notorious prisons – known for its deplorable conditions. [CNN]

He is the fourth international journalist who has been arrested. [Reuters]

1 June 2021

Myanmar: Tribunal orders 20-year jail term for torching Chinese-financed factories

(lf) A military tribunal has sentenced 28 people to 20 years in jail with hard labour for torching two factories during unrest in the city of Yangon in March. During the unrest in the city’s suburb area, a total of 32 Chinese-invested factories were vandalised, with property losses reaching $36.9 million. [Reuters]

25 May 2021

Bangladesh orders lockdown in Rohingya camps as COVID-19 cases jump

(lm) Authorities on May 20 ordered a strict lockdown in five of the 34 sprawling Rohingya refugee camps Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District after test results showed a higher rate of transmission of the coronavirus. [Reuters]

The government has said it will include Rohingya refugees in the nation’s vaccine roll-out, but vaccination efforts have been hit hard after neighboring India halted its exports in April. Bangladesh was supposed to receive about 30 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) from India this year, but has only received 7 million, and has so far vaccinated just 2 percent of its 170 million people.

Against this backdrop, Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) has requested the UN Refugee Agency and held meetings with the World Health Organization to initiate a vaccination campaign in the sprawling camps in southeastern Bangladesh. The country’s Foreign Ministry also asked Canada and China to provide COVID-19 vaccines. [Anadolu Agency]

Separately, the Organization for Migration (IOM) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on May 28 launched a $943 million plan to “safeguard the well-being and dignity” of the more than 880,000 Rohingya refugees and 472,000 Bangladeshis in the surrounding host communities in Cox’s Bazar District. [UN News]

25 May 2021

Thailand military warns Myanmar counterparts over mortar shots

(pr) The Thai Army has announced it would submit a letter to demand its Myanmar counterparts not to extend their operations into Thai territory, after three mortar shots landed on Thai soil. [Bangkok Post]

The northern Thai province of Mae Hong Son borders with Myanmar in the east. Large sections of the territory across the border are being 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.

Earlier in March and April, the group took control of three military outposts near the Thai-Myanmar border, killing nearly 200 soldiers and wounding another 220. The Myanmar army then launched multiple airstrikes on Karen villages in retaliation for the attacks on military outposts, displacing more than 30,000 people in the area. [AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]


25 May 2021

Myanmar air force chief in Russia for military expo

(lm) The chief of Myanmar’s air force, General Maung Maung Kyaw, and other high-ranking military officials have visited Russia last week to attend an exhibition displaying combat helicopters. Sources in Myanmar added that the delegation members will discuss with their Russian counterparts over 20 megaprojects including procurement of arms and military hardware. [Reuters]

Russia said in March it wanted to strengthen military ties with Myanmar despite the coup. Moscow’s deputy minister of defence was the highest-ranking foreign official to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw, where he also met with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

After China, Russia is the country’s second-largest supplier of arms, being the source of at least 16 percent of weaponry procured by Myanmar from 2014 to 2019. The regime is now awaiting delivery of six Su-30 fighter jets ordered in 2019, and in January 2021 the two sides signed contracts for the purchase of a Russian air defense system and a suite of surveillance drones. [AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]

Joining the delegation was well-known Myanmar tycoon U Tay Za, Founder and Chairman of the Htoo Group of Companies. Once described as “a notorious regime henchman and arms dealer” by the United States, Tay Za is considered a close associate of General Than Shwe, former chairman of the now-defunct State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which ruled Myanmar between 1988 and 2011. [The Irrawaddy]

25 May 2021

Myanmar’s military junta moves ahead with projects under the Belt and Road Initiative

(lm) Myanmar’s military regime has reorganized three crucial committees as it pushes ahead with plans to implement giant infrastructure projects under the umbrella of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), despite a looming civil war and protests against Beijing’s suspected support for the junta. [The Irrawaddy]

In March, the junta ousted all civilian government members of a joint committee supervising the implementation of the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor (CMEC), a 1,700-kilometer infrastructure route that promises to connect the Indian Ocean oil trade to China’s remote and underdeveloped Yunnan Province. Theoretically designed to upgrade the deep-water port at Kyaukphyu, the CMEC passes through Myanmar’s major economic hubs — first Mandalay in central Myanmar, then east Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State.

The CMEC Joint Committee now includes not only key economic ministers appointed by the coup leaders, but also members of its governing State Administrative Council in the states and regions that the CMEC will pass through. The regime has also removed the clause that encourages the participation of Myanmar people in the establishment of CEMC, one of the main functions of the committee under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government.

Moreover, the junta has also reorganized both the central committee and the working group committee for the implementation of a framework agreement on the establishment of cross-border economic cooperation zones (CBECZ). A part of the CMEC, the CBECZ are planned to be constructed in the eastern border region of Myanmar, in the states of Shan and Kachin.

25 May 2021

UN special envoy remains hopeful Myanmar junta will allow her into the country

(lm) The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said on May 24 she still hopes to visit the country after seven weeks spent in the region waiting for the junta to allow her in.

While meeting on the sidelines of last month’s summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Jakarta, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing “didn’t say that he doesn’t want to speak with me anymore,” Schraner Burgener said at a virtual press conference in Bangkok, where she has spent most of her time since early April. [South China Morning Post]

The Swiss diplomat met with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on May 14, after the Thai premier had skipped the ASEAN summit [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. Schraner Burgener said she would travel to Japan on May 25 for meetings with officials there.

Asked about the draft UN resolution proposed by Liechtenstein, and supported by the United States and the European Union, that includes “an immediate suspension” of all arms shipments to Myanmar, the envoy expressed caution, emphasizing that is was vital “to show unity in the General Assembly”.

A UN General Assembly vote scheduled for May 18 on a non-binding resolution calling “for an immediate suspension of the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer of all weapons and munitions” to Myanmar was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

A meeting is expected to take place this week between the drafters of the text and the Asian countries, but the latter want the paragraph relating to an arms embargo to be removed and language linked to the field of human rights to be reduced.


25 May 2021

Spiraling conflict in Myanmar sends thousands fleeing to neighboring countries as military targets rebels

(ad/lf/lm) People displaced by an upsurge of fighting in Myanmar’s state of Chin have voiced concerns over shelter and supplies, as the country speeds toward collapse and thousands of refugees pour into India, Thailand and China. [The Washington Post]

In the past week, most of the 12,000 residents of the north-western town of Mindat were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys after the army advanced into the town following days battling local militias, using artillery bombardments and helicopter attacks [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. Displaced people hiding in the jungles are facing extreme hardship, including a lack of food as well as a shortage of oils and fuel for motorcycles. [Reuters 1]

The exodus threatens to push more people over the nearby border into the northeast Indian state of Mizoram, where influx began in late February [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. India said on May 18 that more than 15,000 people had so far crossed the border to seek refuge, adding that it expected the numbers to increase. [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

Making matters worse, assistance from United Nations agencies to refugees in other areas of the country has dwindled, as access has been cut off with the spreading unrest. [Radio Free Asia]

25 May 2021

Myanmar: Junta scraps retirement age for military chiefs

(lf) The military junta has eliminated its mandatory retirement age of 65 for military chiefs, thus enabling junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who turned 65 last month, to continue in his post. Importantly, the ministry did not set a new age limit, meaning Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Vice Senior General Soe Win can remain in their post until they are toppled or step down voluntarily. [The Irrawaddy]

Previously, the military chief’s mandatory retirement age was 60, and Min Aung Hlaing– whose period had been extended for five years beyond that age – was originally due to step down as commander-in-chief in July this year. But the Ministry of Defense scrapped the age limit for commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief on February 4, just three days after Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a coup.

25 May 2021

Myanmar: More than 125,000 teachers suspended for opposing coup

(lf) More than 125,000 schoolteachers — nearly a third of the total — as well as almost 20,000 university staff have been suspended by the military authorities for joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), just days before the start of a new school year. [The Straits Times]

Since late in April, the junta has been issuing arrest warrants against teachers and education staff who joined the CDM on charges of incitement. As of May 18, 220 teachers, including professors, headmasters and headmistresses, education officers and officials, have been put on the list. But despite the pressure, an estimated 60 percent of educators and administrative staff, alongside with 80 to 90 percent of students, continue their anti-junta action. [The Irrawaddy]


25 May 2021

Myanmar: Election chief considers dissolving Suu Kyi’s Party

(lf/lm) Myanmar’s junta-appointed election commission said on May 21 it will consider dissolving deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party for alleged involvement in electoral fraud and having its leaders charged with treason. [Voice of America]

The chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEE) said an investigation of last November’s elections that would soon be completed showed that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had illegally worked with the government to give itself an advantage at the polls. That day, political parties were called to discuss the junta’s plan to change the country’s election system from “first past the post” to proportional representation. Almost all the major parties — including the NLD — refused to go attend the UEE’s meeting, as they regard the body as illegitimate. [Reuters 1]

Importantly, a nonpartisan election monitoring organization on May 17 said that the results of last November’s election were “by and large, representative of the will of the people,” rejecting the narrative of the widespread electoral fraud that the junta has used to justify the coup. The Asia Network for Free Elections in a report said in a report that it “lacked sufficient information to independently verify the allegations of voter list fraud” because the election law did not allow it access to voting lists, but that it had not seen any credible evidence of any massive irregularities. [The Irrawaddy]

The European Union on May 23 therefore denounced the proposal to dissolve the NLD, underscoring that the party’s victory had been confirmed by all independent domestic and international observers. [Reuters 2]

In its report, however, the group also noted that Myanmar’s electoral process is “fundamentally undemocratic” because its 2008 constitution, written during army rule, grants the military an automatic 25 percent share of all parliamentary seats, enough to block constitutional changes. Large sectors of the population, most notably the Muslim Rohingya minority, are deprived of citizenship rights, including the right to vote. [Associated Press]


25 May 2021

Myanmar: Junta releases former ultranationalist party leaders

(lf) The junta has released two pro-military ultranationalists who were arrested under the ousted National League for Democracy-led government for sedition in late January. Michael Kyaw Myint, the General Secretary of the ultranationalist Yeomanry Development Party and a central executive committee member of the YDP said on May 18 that charges against them were withdrawn at the instruction of the State Administrative Council, the military regime’s governing body. [The Irrawaddy]

Kyaw Myint has been a vocal supporter of the military since before the elections, despite singing up his own party Union Development Party for the elections. Importantly, he was among the representatives of 34 political parties that had met with coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in August of last year, in the run-up to the November elections.


25 May 2021

Myanmar: Fighting surges in growing anti-junta conflict

(lf) The military junta is fighting a growing number of conflicts, as resistance to the coup is intensifying beyond street protests and civil disobedience and some of the ethnic armed groups that have waged war for decades to demand greater autonomy have been joined by new groups opposed to the coup.

Forces of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on May 18 attacked tanker trucks in the northern state of Shan, which is home to several armed ethnic armies, on suspicion that they were carrying aviation fuel for Myanmar’s junta. For the military has been using jet fighters to retake control of a strategic hilltop base on the Chinese border in the neighboring state of Kachin, which was seized by the KIA in late March [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]. [The Irrawaddy 1]

On May 22, then, members of the KIA attacked military positions at a township in the north-western jade-mining area of Sagaing, marking an advance into new territory by the ethnic armed group. According to unconfirmed reports, the site attacked was near a mining venture that involves the Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL), a conglomerate controlled by Myanmar’s military. [The Straits Times 1]

More than a dozen members of the country’s security forces were killed on May 23, after heavy fighting with rebel fighters opposed to the military junta in Myanmar’s eastern fringe near the border of Southern Shan and Kayah states. The same day, a gun battle erupted between security forces and members of the KIA and three other ethnic armed groups in Muse, one of the main crossing points to China. [Arab News] [The Straits Times 2]

While the junta is struggling with new conflicts on several fronts, a militia allied to Myanmar’s military has been recruiting villagers in the state of Kachin to fight the KIA and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), a civilian anti-junta movement recently established the shadow government that fights back against security forces with homemade weapons [AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]. [The Irrawaddy 2]

Moreover, members of the military, widely known as the Tatmadaw, have been harassing and looting from villagers in a township in the Mandalay region, since they raided the area on in mid-May, causing thousands of locals to flee to distant villages. [The Irrawaddy 3]


25 May 2021

Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi appears in person in court for the first time

(lm) After weeks of delay to her legal case, Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in person at a court hearing on May 23, the first time since her government was overthrown by the military in a February 1 coup. [Channel NewsAsia]

Before, in a virtual interview with a Hong Kong-based broadcaster, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said on May 22 that Suu Kyi was healthy at home and would appear in court in a few days. During the interview, Min Aung Hlaing also reiterated that the army had seized power because it had identified fraud in an election won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in November. He also said that the army would hold elections and potential changes to the constitution had been identified and would be made if they were “the people’s will”. [The Straits Times] [The Voice of America]

Prior to May 23, multiple court hearings in the capital Naypyidaw had seen Suu Kyi attending via video link from under house arrest. Since the coup, the de facto leader has been charged with six alleged crimes, including flouting COVID-19 restrictions during last year’s election campaign and possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]. Most seriously, she is charged with violating the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act – a case that is pending in a court in the city of Yangon. A conviction could carry a sentence of up to 14 years.

18 May 2021

Myanmar reporters, activists face possible deportation after being arrested in Thailand

(lf) Three journalists and two activists from Myanmar have been arrested in Thailand for illegal entry and face possible deportation. The five were arrested on May 9 in the northern city of Chiang Mai and appealed to Thai authorities not to deport them to Myanmar, saying their life would be in serious danger if they were to return. Thai authorities, however, have stated that the five will be deported in accordance with Thai law. For 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. [Reuters 1]

Separately, a journalist working for an independent media company was jailed for three years last week for incitement, after he had reported on anti-junta demonstrations. At present, at least 40 journalists are imprisoned in Myanmar, according to preliminary investigations by independent watchdogs, the majority detained during newsroom raids or while covering anti-coup street protests. [Reuters 2]

Meanwhile, a Japanese journalist arrested while covering the aftermath of the Myanmar coup is to be deported, Tokyo said on May 14, after charges against him were dropped as a diplomatic gesture. The journalist was arrested in mid-April under a criminal provision that penalizes the dissemination of information that could agitate or cause security forces or state officials to mutiny [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]. [The Straits Times]

18 May 2021

UN special envoy discusses situation in Myanmar with Thai Prime Minister

(pr/lm) On 14 May, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, met with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to discuss the situation in Myanmar after the Thai prime minister had skipped the recent summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Jakarta. During the meeting, the Schraner Burgener and Prime Minister Prayut discussed the exchange of information and provision of humanitarian assistance for the people affected by the situation including refugees that have fled to Thailand. [Associated Press]

The Thai premier also promised that his country would not force back people fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar. Last month, at least 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 military junta. At the time, 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 [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]

The UN envoy plans to stay in the region and remain in close contact with ASEAN member states to support “the timely and comprehensive implementation” of the five-point consensus, an agreement concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April [see, AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]. An organization that has always prioritized non-interference and respect for sovereignty, ASEAN, has so far refrained from involving itself in Myanmar, despite spillover effects impacting Thailand and close ASEAN partners India and China. It does not come as a surprise, then, that there is still no sign of an ASEAN envoy, three weeks after the bloc’s members agreed to appoint a special emissary to go to Myanmar to talk to all parties involved in the turmoil.

The Thai Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES), meanwhile, has denied a new report that suggested a secret communication channel between Prime Minister Prayut and Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. Citing sources from the prime minister inner circle, the report claimed that Prayut was using direct links between member of the Thai military and counterparts in the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, to shape Bangkok’s security policy towards neighboring Myanmar. [Nikkei Asia]

According to the MDES, an initial investigation had found that the source cited in the article was a former official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a standpoint opposing the prime minister’s. [The Nation Thailand] [Thairath, in Thai]


18 May 2021

UN vote on call to stop arms supply to Myanmar postponed

A UN General Assembly vote on May 18 on a non-binding resolution calling “for an immediate suspension of the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer of all weapons and munitions” to Myanmar was postponed indefinitely after the authors apparently lacked the support to pass the text. [France24] [Reuters]

The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States. It came after more than 200 nongovernmental organizations earlier this month called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to declare a global arms embargo on Myanmar [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]. Significantly, with South Korea, whose support came after several weeks of negotiations, only one Asian nation signed on.

The draft resolution, which would have been non-binding but politically powerful, calls on the Myanmar military to end a state of emergency, stop all violence against peaceful protesters and respect the will of the people as expressed in the results of a November election. If adopted, the text would also urge the military to allow a visit by the UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, and implement a plan by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the crisis.


18 May 2021

Myanmar: Leader of Karen organization backs talks with military junta

(lf) The chairman of a political organization representing the Karen ethnic minority in a public statement urged stakeholders to follow the negotiation channels offered by the military junta to solve the country’s “arising political problems”. General Saw Mutu Sae Poe, Chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU), said on May 10 his organization would continue political negotiations and uphold the principles of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) the group had signed in 2015 with the ousted National League for Democracy (NDL) government, along with several other insurgent groups [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Irrawaddy]

In fact, at present, only half of the KNU’s seven brigades are actually taking part in the fighting against the military regime, according to observers, with the organization’s headquarters staying out of the armed engagement. However, other leading members of Karen organizations alongside with young Karen, in particular, came out questioning whether political negotiation could stop the military’s crackdown on protesters.

Indeed, the most active armed engagements were in area of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the KNU’s armed wing. Earlier in March and April, the KNLA took control of three military outposts near the Thai-Myanmar border, killing nearly 200 soldiers and wounding another 220. The Myanmar army then launched multiple airstrikes on Karen villages in retaliation for the attacks on military outposts, displacing more than 30,000 people in the area. [AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]


18 May 2021

Myanmar marks 100 days of junta rule with protests, strikes

(lf/lm) Protesters rallied in towns and cities across Myanmar on May 11 to denounce its military rulers, 100 days after the generals of the country’s military, widely known as the Tatmadaw, saw their position threatened and seized power in a coup, pitching the country into its biggest crisis in decades. [Reuters 1]

The coup incited huge street protests involving hundreds of thousands of Burmese which, after showing no abatement after several weeks, resulted in the army widely stepping up its patterns of violence, detaining thousands of civilians. As of May 17, more than 800 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. [The Straits Times 1]

Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the vast Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) remains largely peaceful, but the junta’s brutality has caused some demonstrators to fight back, albeit mostly with makeshift weapons that are no match for the military’s arms. Young people in particular – who have had a significant taste of freedom – are quietly seeking military training from some of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups that have battled the Tatmadaw on-and-off for seven decades; they are also publicly courting these organizations to escalate their attacks against the military and express solidarity with the unarmed urban opponents of the coup. Fighting against the military by anti-government protestors started in a small town but has spread across the country since then. [Irrawaddy 1] [Irrawaddy 2]

Earlier this month, then, the “National Unity Government” – an anti-junta coalition that has declared itself Myanmar’s legitimate authority – announced the creation of a “People’s Defence Force” (PDF) to protect its supporters from military attacks and violence instigated by the junta. The NUG said the new force was intended as a precursor to a “Federal Union Army”, referring to a long-touted idea of bringing anti-coup dissidents together with Myanmar’s ethnic rebel fighters into an army. [AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]

In recent days, the north-western town of Mindat has emerged as a hotspot for unrest, where Myanmar’s military battled some residents on May 15 that had earlier formed an anti-junta defense force. Before, the junta had imposed martial law in the hill town on May 13 and since then launched attacks on what it called “armed terrorists”. By May 16, fighters of the local militia had retreated into the jungle after military reinforcements advanced with artillery bombardments and helicopter attacks, killing at least six opposition rebels. [The Straits Times 2] [The Straits Times 3]

The fighting in Mindat underlines the growing chaos in Myanmar as the junta struggles to impose authority in the face of daily protests, strikes and sabotage. As of May 11, more than 11,00 academics and other university staff had been suspended from colleges and universities offering degree after participating in an anti-junta protest. One university student was tortured to death in custody last week after being arrested during a raid by military forces on a village in Mandalay Region on May 12. [Irrawaddy 4] [Reuters 2]

It is the dramatic collapse of the economy, which is yet another tragedy of the coup, as Myanmar has been witnessing levels of impoverishment since the coup that were last noted in 2005. International investments and project have been stopped or halted, leading to food shortages and rising poverty risk among the population. A case in point, a number of commercial tenants last week decided to move out or review their leases of a high-tech office building in Yangon that is owned by the military. [Irrawaddy 3] [Reuters 3]

Myanmar’s military largely finances its operations through military owned enterprises in the gemstone business and gas industry, international cooperation still in business with the military have been under large criticism by the international community. The United States, United Kingdom and Canada on May 17 imposed new sanctions targeting the military junta, the latest in a series of limited sanctions applied since the coup. [Reuters 4]

In the face of increasing pressure, the junta has been pressing ahead with plans to promote Chinese tourism to the country, despite strict entry restrictions to foreigners. However, anti-Chinese sentiments have risen in the population since the coup earlier in February, for many see China if not responsible for the coup as at least backing the military. [Bangkok Post] [Irrawaddy 4]

In sum, over 100 days after the coup large parts of the population continue to take part in marches, motorcycle convoys and flash protests to evade security forces, despite massive and violent crackdowns by the military. The demonstrators are unwilling to go back to military governance, after a decade of experiencing semi-democracy a step back under military rule seems impossible to accept for many.

There is a good case to believe that Myanmar’s military has underestimated both the popularity of the ousted NDL, as well as the widespread condemnation for military rule. This has come as a surprise to many experts, considering that the Tatmadaw with its estimated 350,000 soldiers, vastly outnumbers armed ethnic troops — believed to be between 75,000 and 100,000 — and enjoys high levels of unity and institutional cohesion.

Myanmar stands at the brink of state failure, civil war and collapse, a blood-drenched and tormented country sliding into an abyss. The coup, that is, has only raised the prospect of Myanmar not becoming another autocratic state, such as Cambodia under Hun Sen or Thailand after the 2014 coup, but “Asia’s Syria”: a place of unrestrained destruction and irreconcilable division between a ruling clique and the broad mass of the citizenry. Like Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Syria, the leaders of the Tatmadaw may realize they are in too deep to waver from their current course, even if that means presiding over a failed state rather than give way to a solution that allows for better governance but dilutes the military’s power. [National Public Radio] [Sunday Guardian Live]

11 May 2021

More than 200 NGOs urge UN Security Council to declare arms embargo on Myanmar

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) faces a call from more than 200 nongovernmental organizations to declare a global arms embargo on Myanmar. Citing the continuing violent crackdown by the military on protesters, the groups called on the United Kingdom, the UNSC’s designated drafter of Myanmar’s text, to “immediately open negotiations at the Security Council on a draft resolution authorising an arms embargo”. [Al Jazeera] [Human Rights Watch] [South China Morning Post]

The appeal echoes a February 24 declaration by more than 100 non-governmental organizations, which urged the Council to act swiftly to halt the flow of weapons to the military government. The Security Council has issued several statements since the coup, calling on the military to restore democracy and halt the excessive use of force against protesters.

The appeal for an arms embargo came as a shadow government of deposed Myanmar politicians said on March 5 it has set up a “people’s defence force” to protect civilians in the face of the police and military deploying deadly arms against anti-coup protesters. [see article in this edition]

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States told the US Congress on May 4 that Washington should slap sanctions on the state-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). MOGE operates offshore gas fields in joint ventures with international firms, including US-based Chevron and France’s Total, while MFTB provides foreign exchange-related banking to Myanmar’s government and state enterprises. [The Straits Times]



11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Myanmar: Junta bans satellite television, charges Japanese journalist under fake news law

(lm/lf) Myanmar’s state-run broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) announced a ban on satellite television receivers on May 4, alleging that outside broadcasts encouraged people to commit treason and threatened national security. [Reuters]

With mobile data service, the most common way of connecting to the internet, largely cut off, Myanmar has increasingly appeared headed back to the state of isolation that preceded a decade of democratic reforms. Since early April, authorities have also confiscated satellite dishes used to access outside new broadcasts. [Committee to Protect Journalists]

Separately, authorities on May 3 charged a detained Japanese journalist under a criminal provision that penalizes the dissemination of information that could agitate or cause security forces or state officials to mutiny. The journalist had been arrested in mid-April; if convicted, he could face up to three years in prison. [The Straits Times]

At this stage, at least 40 journalists are currently imprisoned in Myanmar, according to preliminary investigations by independent watchdogs, the majority detained during newsroom raids or while covering anti-coup street protests.


11 May 2021

Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in court for first time on May 24, according to lawyer

(lm/lf) A judge on May 10 ordered Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in person in court for the first time on May 24, her lawyer said, after weeks of delays in her case. Multiple court hearings in the capital Naypyidaw have seen Aung San Suu Kyi – who attended via video conferencing from under house arrest – express frustration at the pace of the proceedings. [South China Morning Post] [Voice of America]

Since the coup, the de facto leader has been charged with six alleged crimes, including flouting COVID-19 restrictions during last year’s election campaign and possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]. Most seriously, she is charged with violating the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act – a case that is pending in a court in the city of Yangon. A conviction could carry a sentence of up to 14 years.

The current regime also accuses her of corruption, alleging that she received bribes of gold bars and cash, but has not brought an official charge [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].


11 May 2021

Myanmar: Junta designates shadow government as a ‘terrorist’ group

(lm/lf) Myanmar’s junta has designated a group of lawmakers running shadow government a terrorist group, blaming it for killings, bombings and arson, state-controlled media announced on May 8. [Deutsche Welle]

The “National Unity Government” was established last month by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), an array of groups opposed to the junta which had agreed to abolish the military-drafted 2008 constitution, replacing it with a federal democratic system [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. Previously, the junta had declared the CRPH and NUG as “unlawful associations” and said interacting with them would be akin to high treason. However, their new designation as a “terrorist organisation” means anyone speaking to them – including journalists – can be subjected to charges under counterterrorism laws. [South China Morning Post 1]

The announcement came a few days after the NUG on May 5 announced the creation of a so-called “People’s Defence Force” (PDF) to protect its supporters from military attacks and violence instigated by the junta. The NUG said the new force was intended as a precursor to a “Federal Union Army”, referring to a long-touted idea of bringing anti-coup dissidents together with Myanmar’s ethnic rebel fighters into an army. [The Straits Times]

The announcement allows comes after five people, including an ousted lawmaker and three police officers who had joined the civil disobedience movement, were killed by a parcel bomb on May 4. State media the following day said the people had been building a bomb, and wire, batteries and a damaged phone were found at the scene. [South China Morning Post 2]


4 May 2021

China to donate vaccines to Myanmar

(nd) China has donated 500,000 doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the Myanmar junta, amid an ongoing boycott of millions of civilians and health workers of the regime’s vaccine program. China commented the donation was to show “Paukphaw” [fraternal] friendship between China and Myanmar. The vaccines were promised to ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in January by foreign minister Wang Yi, which also led to the signature of agreements on the economy, trade and technical cooperation and the faster implementation of infrastructure projects with respect to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Social media users posted skeptical content about the vaccines. Anti-China sentiment grew since the coup, following China’s repeated veto against UN Security Council sanctions. [Irrawaddy]

Meanwhile, the junta opened a private hospital, whose nightly room rates are much below what an average Burmese can afford to pay. It is yet unclear how involved coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his family are. [Irrawaddy 1

Over the weekend, security forces arrested HIV/AIDS patients at a HIV care center in Yangon, which was founded and run by elected lawmaker and National League for Democracy (NLD) member Daw Phyu Phyu Thin. [Irrawaddy 2]

4 May 2021

Russia’s plans in Myanmar

(nd) Russia never denounced the military coup in Myanmar but expressed hope for a “a peaceful settlement of the situation through the resumption of political dialogue”, calling the military the only viable guarantor of the multi-ethnic country’s unity and peace. Together with China and India, they blocked harsher actions by the UN Security Council. Deputy Minister of Defence, Alexander Fomin, was the highest-ranking foreign official to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw, and his speech emphasized the strategic partnership of the two countries.

Since the 1950s, Russia has maintained a close relationship with the military, proving military training. Following China, Russia is the second largest arms provider to Myanmar, and is currently awaiting the delivery of fighter jets and an air defense system, including surveillance drones. Due to its already strained relation with the West, Russia’s support for Myanmar comes at no diplomatic costs.

Still, it is unclear whether and how Russia will coordinate with China on this issue. China’s relation to the military is complicated due to supporting ethnic Chinese insurgency groups in Myanmar’s Western border with China. Additionally, while Russia maintains one-dimensional military ties, eyeing access to the Indian Ocean, neighboring China has to consider social and economic interaction as well. [East Asia Forum]

4 May 2021

Myanmar: A “new Cold War”

(nd) A recent statement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying they “instructed their foreign ministers to hold their meetings with the People’s Republic of China and the United States as soon as possible”, suggests the bloc being entangled between two poles of global competitors, prompting names such as a “new Cold War”. Other dialogue partners like Japan, Russia and India were not mentioned.

The statement also contained the “five-point consensus” reached during a special summit last weekend, suggesting the bloc to move away slowly from its principle of non-interference. It was agreed on the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to mediate. So far, the results of the meeting have not been put into action, with fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups further escalating and continued reports of killed protesters. So far, Christine Schraner Burgener, UN special envoy to Myanmar, has yet not been allowed into the country. ASEAN has a reputation to lose if the junta does not comply with the agreement and has already been criticized for inviting the junta and no representative of the National Unity Government, thereby legalizing the coup.

China and Russia’s veto in the UN security council are still prohibiting further action against the junta. The comparison with the Cold War also highlights, that US President Joe Biden’s dichotomy of democracy and autocracy will not be an easy choice for ASEAN, with its members leaning towards both directions. [Nikkei Asia]


4 May 2021

Western countries to demand release of prisoners in Myanmar 

(nd) 16 western countries and the European Union urged Myanmar’s military regime on World Press Freedom Day to immediately release arrested media personnel. Since the coup on 1 February the junta cracked down on media, closing outlets, targeting and arresting journalists, with more than 80 remaining detained. Access to the internet is severely restricted. During the civilian-led government of ousted Aung San Suu Kyi, media was relatively free, with the exception of reports on massacres against Muslim Rohingyas. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Meanwhile, the junta charged a Japanese journalist with spreading fake news. Japan, one of Myanmar’s top donors, has so far not imposed sanctions but been pressing for the journalist’s release. [Channel News Asia] Additionally, the US urged ASEAN to push for the implementation of the agreement reached during a special summit of the bloc with the military junta last week. The United States urged ASEAN to press Myanmar to implement actions agreed at a regional summit. The Junta said it would “consider” it, and the killing of civilians continued. [Radio Free Asia 2]

4 May 2021

Myanmar: Ethnic-urban alliance broadening

(nd) According to the UN, half of Myanmar’s population could be living in poverty next year, due to a combination of the pandemic and the political crisis caused by the military coup, reversing progress which has been made since 2005. The massive protests following the power grab were met with a brutal crackdown on civil society, killing almost 800 people and arresting over 4,500. 30,000 have been displaced, a third of which has fled to bordering Thailand. The Civil Disobedience Movement has crippled large parts of the economy. Armed ethnic groups in Karen and Kayin state have clashed heavily with the military. Over the weekend, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shot down a Myanmar military helicopter while conducting air strikes.

The yet unacclaimed attacks on military targets, including a recent one on an airbase, are according to analysts likely to be the joint work of an alliance between ethnic rebels and pro-democracy protesters. This, in turn suggests an spill-over effort of ongoing civil wars with minority groups from the periphery to major cities and the majority of the country, causing a broader coalition against the military junta.

Analysts have drawn parallels to the situation after the coup in 1988, when young urban dissidents formed the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), and fought alongside ethnic rebels in the frontier areas equipped with arms from Thailand. With growing ties between Myanmar and Thailand, however, such acquisitions are less feasible, the latest ethnic-urban alliance has been using hunting rifles and homemade explosives, with more and more local resistance emerging, which the military seems yet ill-equipped to answer. However, military insiders have hinted that veterans of previous ruling juntas, namely the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), are starting to be annoyed of Min Aung Hlaing’s actions and decisions deemed ineffective. [Asia Times 1] [Radio Free Asia] [Irrawaddy] [Asia Times 2]

4 May 2021

Myanmar: Detained protest leader charged

(nd) Recently detained co-protest leader Wai Moe Naing will foreseeably be charged with murder and treason. He was arrested two weeks ago when security forces rammed his motorcycle leading a motorbike protest with their car. The 25-year-old emerged as one of the most high-profile leaders of opposition to the coup.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG) ruled out to talk to the junta prior to the release of all political prisoners. An agreement reached between the ASEAN and the junta over a special meeting in Myanmar inter alia provides a dialogue for a peaceful situation. NUG, which was not invited to the meeting, doubted the agreement and urged the ASEAN to engage with it as the legitimate representative of the people. Since the original wording, which included the release of political prisoners, was washed down and the military already announced to merely “consider” the agreement, critics say the ASEAN has fallen short of providing a viable way out of the violence. [Reuters] [Asia Times]

US senators from both parties have urged President Joe Biden to impose more sanctions, including cutting off royalties from US businesses to Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, supplying individuals already sanctioned. [Reuters]

4 May 2021

Myanmar: Ongoing fighting, protesters seeking training by ethnic armies

(nd) Following refueled fighting between the military and Karen state fighters, thousands of ethnic Karen villagers are considering to flee to Thailand. As of last week, 2,267 civilians had crossed the border to Thailand, according to a foreign ministry spokesman.

The two have clashed near the Thai border for weeks now, with fighters last week overrunning an army unit at the border, which was answered with air strikes by the military. Last week, two air bases by the military were attacked, with the attackers yet unclear. The government also clashed heavily with Kachin forces in the north. Both Karen and Kachin and other insurgent groups have expressed support for the pro-democracy protesters. [Reuters] [Asia Times]

Reportedly, protesters have turned to the ethnic fighters for being trained to fight back, according to one of the oldest and largest ethnic armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU). They added, ethnic Karenni, Rakhine and Shan rebel groups were doing the same, further fueling fears of civil war, voiced by UN representatives, as the fighting is dripping into Myanmar’s middle and ethnic majority, the Bamar. Some seem to have given up on peaceful resistance amid the death toll of at least 750. The public and private sector remains crippled by the Civil Disobedience Movement, with hunger and displacement rising. [Voice of America] Due to the crackdown by the junta and a lack of support, social support groups are forced to cease their activities. [Radio Free Asia 1]

Last week, the 10 ethnic armed groups that have signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, organized as the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), announced to reach out to non-signatory groups. This raises the possibility for greater coordination also with the anti-coup movement and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of parliamentarians from the ousted National League of Democracy government, who recently founded an interim National Unity Government (NUG). While the aims of the different groups remain divided, few are willing to cooperate with the military. Efforts by the military to revive talks with ethnic armies were unsuccessful. [The Diplomat] [Radio Free Asia 2]


4 May 2021

Myanmar: AAPP threatened by military

(nd) The junta announced severe action against the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), alleging the group inaccurately accounts for the fatalities of the military forces. News media, international governments and the UN rely on their numbers. Its numbers are close to lists documented by local media. While AAPP listed 726 deaths until April 15, the junta only counted 258, accusing AAPP of not giving documents on their numbers and inciting fear and unrest.

AAPP was founded 2000 in Thailand, advocating the release of political prisoners. It started working inside Myanmar after the civilian government was installed in 2011. [Irrawaddy]

27 April 2021

Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

(nd) Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released the World Press Freedom Index, revealing an increased repression and attacks on free press worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has globally been used as a pretext to impose repressive legislation and narrow the range of permitted speech for the sake of public health. According to the index, which evaluates 180 countries, journalism is seriously impeded in 73 nations and constrained in 59 other, making up 73 percent of the countries evaluated. 

Vietnam, 175th place, only above Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, has intensified its crackdown on dissent leading up to the five-yearly congress in January 2021, arresting and sentencing bloggers and journalists. Malaysia fell 18 places to the 119th, prompted by the passage of an “anti-fake-news” ordinance to contain criticism on the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the state of emergency, as well as an investigation against media outlet Al Jazeera for a documentary on the situation of migrant workers during the pandemic, and proceedings against online news portal Malaysiakini, which was found guilty of contempt of court. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

A similar “anti-fake-news” decree designed for the pandemic was issued by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last March, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his crackdown on civil society and the press with similar new powers to hinder reporting. The Philippines continued its “war on drugs”, which is also directed against media, suspending the license of the country’s largest TV broadcaster, ABS-CBN, for its critical reporting, and targeting its editor, Maria Ressa, with judicial campaigns. Myanmar, 140th place this year, but likely to drop to the bottom due to the February 1 coup and the deadly crackdown on civilians, was commented to be set back 10 years by these events. 

Contrarily, Timor-Leste made it to the 71st place, with RSF noting that “no journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in Timor-Leste since this country of just 1.2 million inhabitants won independence in 2002.” [RSF] [The Diplomat]

27 April 2021

Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges

(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.

Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.

The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.

Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.

At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]

Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”. 

The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]

In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]

27 April 2021

UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia

(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.

Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia. 

Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]


27 April 2021

Agreement during ASEAN summit to prompt anti-coup activist call for continuation of protests

(lf) The long-awaited summit between the ASEAN member states on the crisis in Myanmar has been concluded with an agreement on five points: to end the violence, hold a constructive dialogue between all parties, send an ASEAN envoy, accept aid of and enable entry for the ASEAN envoy. Furthermore, the states agreed on a constructive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, as well as a strong ASEAN role in the further development of the crisis. However, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, did neither set a timeline for the end of violence, nor did he specifically agree to end the killing of civilians immediately or to release political prisoners. The meeting was the first international cooperation on the crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations, the US and China view ASEAN as the adequate body to best deal with the situation. [Reuters 1]

Myanmar’s anti-coup protestors were disappointed by the outcome. Activist groups stated that the agreement did not reflect the realities of the ground in Myanmar, and did not make up for the around 750 people killed by the military since the coup began. While the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, commenting he discussed the country’s “political changes”, they made no mention of the consensus on an end to violence. [Voice of America] Activists were in particular disappointed over the weakened stance on the release of political prisoners, as a draft paper prior to the summit featured the release of political prisoners as one of the consensus points. Since the coup over 3,000 people have been detained. Therefore, activist have called for a continuation and deepening of the Civil Disobedience Movement and protests. Activists urge civilians to boycott schools and to stop paying their electricity bills and agricultural loans.  [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

Already before the summit, the ASEAN bloc received widespread criticism for only inviting the military and in particular the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to the table for a discussion on the situation, and not a representative of the National Unity Government. State leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Rodrigo Duterte did not attend the summit. [South China Moring Post]

Shortly after the meeting, the junta announced to “positively consider” the agreement. On Monday already, one man was shot dead in Mandalay. [Reuters 4]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: KNU clashes with the military

(nd) On Tuesday, the Karen National Union (KNU) clashed with the military, attacking and burning down a military base in the East, close to the Thai border. Last month’s attack by the KNU prompted retaliatory airstrikes by the military, the first in over 20 years. KNU has been very vocal against the coup and sided with the protest movement as well as the National Unity Government. Clashes have intensified, forcing more than 24,000 civilians, so flee, including some 2,000 seeking refuge on the Thai side. [Bangkok Post]

27 April 2021

Shift in Myanmar’s perception of the Rohingya

(lf) Two appointed ministers of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government have issued a public apology to the Rohingya Muslim minority and other minorities, acknowledging mistakes made by the former civilian government, especially for ignoring human right violations. The apology echoes a public statement made by students from Yangon by the end of March, apologizing to both the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people for the brutality they suffered in the last year. 

The military’s extreme violence towards civilians including those from the Bamar majority seems to have changed the perception of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities including the Rohingya, accounting for a major turnaround. [Benarnews]


27 April 2021

Myanmar’s Healthcare close to collapse 

(lf) Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), causing most of Myanmar’s health system to come to a standstill.  Around 80% of Myanmar’s healthcare is provided through highly subsidized public hospitals and clinics. Since the coup, medical personnel feel strongly conflicted between providing healthcare for their patients and their need to oppose the junta. 

In addition, striking medical workers have been met with violence from the military: Workers have been beaten, arrested and evicted from their accommodation close to the hospitals. Still running public hospitals have been occupied by military. Medical staff have been providing free healthcare in voluntary facilities, but given regular raids many civilians are too scared to access the facilities. 

The failing health system is not only worrisome in regard to the ongoing pandemic, with testing and vaccination having largely been abandoned, but also to diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, which are on the rise again. [BBC]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: Tatmadaw firing shots at Thai border boat

(lf) Along the Northern Thai Myanmar border, Burmese security forces have shot at a Thai boat carrying border patrol officers. Thailand has been keeping the borders closed to thousands of ethnic Karen, who are fleeing from airstrikes carried out by the Tatmadaw. According to humanitarian aid groups, this is not the first time fire has been opened on boats on the border river, stating that the military has fired shots at boats carrying aid across the river. The Tatmadaw has been trying to keep aid from reaching internally displaced people [Bangkok Post]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: More Sanctions 

(lf) The US has imposed sanctions on two more state-owned enterprises to increase the pressure on the military junta. This comes in addition to last week’s decision taken by the EU to impose a travel ban on nine military junta leaders, as well as freezing their financial assets. The sanctions that several countries across the world have implemented are targeting one of the main ways in which the Tatmadaw has been funding itself, through state-owned enterprises, in particular in the natural resource market. [Voice of Asia] [Reuters]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: Hunger crisis to worsen

(lf) Since the coup, the food security situation, already dire prior the coup, has gradually worsened. The United Nations have stated that around 3.4 million are expected to go hungry in the coming three to six months, with urban areas affected the most. Not only have market prices for food risen drastically, but also many have lost their jobs in recent months. As a repercussion to the military coup on February 1, the banking system has been brought to an almost standstill, causing many businesses and people to be unable to withdraw cash and make payments. This comes after the coronavirus had already taken a toll on the economy. [Reuters]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: Arakan Army not to welcome Civil Disobedience Movement in Rakhine state 

(lf) On its 12th anniversary, the Arakan Army (AA) announced that it does not welcome the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Rakhine state. The AA announced that the presence of the CDM in their territory would hinder their aim for greater autonomy, however, the AA also stated that it would support all groups to attain their political goals. In addition, the AA voiced their grief over the death of the hundreds of civilians that have been killed since the coup. [Irrawaddy]

27 April 2021

Myanmar: Tatmadaw extorting money from civilians

(lf) The Tatmadaw has increasingly been robbing and extorting money from civilians during raids for potential anti-junta protestors. In addition to taking money when ransacking houses, security forces also have demanded money for the return of bodies of 57 people who were killed in Bago to their families. In Yangon, the forces have demanded money for the release of detainees. [Radio Free Asia


20 April 2021

Medical staff targeted by the Tatmadaw

(lf) In a protest led by medical staff, several protestors got shot by security forces, killing one person and injuring several others. Several medical staff members have been at the forefront of the protests. 19 government doctors, including the director of the health ministry, have been charged with inciting civil disobedience among medical staff. 

Medical staff have been a target group since they joined Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) on February 3 and were arrested in large numbers. The movement has forced several ministries, hospitals, government offices and banks to stay close since then. Doctors that are part of the CDM have offered free treatment to patients at private clinics, including those injured during the protests. [Reuters] [Irrawaddy]


20 April 2021

Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi asks to meet her lawyers

(lf) Aung San Suu Kyi has asked a court for a personal meeting with her lawyers. The former de-facto leader of Myanmar has been in detention since the coup on February 1. This comes after a new charge was filed against her in her second court hearing on April 12. This brings the total number of charges against her to six. Her first court hearing was last week, where a new charge was laid against her, the next hearing will be on April 26. [Reuters], [AiR No. 15, April/ 2021, 2] [France 24]

20 April 2021

Myanmar: New Year Amnesty for prisoners

(lf) In an amnesty celebrating Burmese new year, the military junta has released 23,184 prisoners, barely any of them are from the thousands that have been arrested in the last month since the coup. 137 foreigners among the released will be deported. The military is still hunting for another 832 people to be arrested for having connections to the anti-coup protest. Many of the wanted are known figures and activists that have publicly spoken against the military junta. [Reuters]


20 April 2021

Myanmar: The situation in Rakhine remains largely peaceful 

(lf) While several armed ethnic groups have taken the heat of the Tatmadaw, the coup has had the opposite effect on the Rakhine state. After the coup, the army removed the categorization of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation. This comes after two years of fighting between the two groups. For ethnic Rakhine this has been a relief, however, they have been framed as collaborators and traitors by the majority Bamar population. 

For many ethnic Rakhine, the elections have not felt legitimate: After fighting worsened before the elections in November 2020, the elections were cancelled on a large scale in the region. After the coup, the Arakan National Party is the only ethnic group that has accepted an offer by the Tatmadaw to join the State Administration Council. This divide-and-rule policy has caused great tension between ethnic groups across the country. [The Diplomat 1]

A worrisome development in the state, however, is that a militant jihadist group, Katibe al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan, has been framing the state as the next place for a jihadist struggle. The newly-emerged group is part of a long, ongoing anti-state struggle within the Muslim population in Rakhine state, however, their specific violence and allegiance to the Islamic State are a new development. [The Diplomat 2]

20 April 2021

Myanmar: National Unity Government announced by the opposition

(lf) The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which consists largely of elected lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD), has announced a National Unity Government (NUG). The oppositional government includes members of ethnic groups and leader of anti-coup protests, as well as ousted lawmakers. The Defence Minister announced they were aiming to form a People’s Defense Force in order to fight the military regime, probably drawing personnel from the ethnic armed groups. Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, who have both been detained since the coup on February 1 have been named state counsellor and president, the positions they held before the coup. [Reuters][Asia Nikkei 1] The NUG understands itself as legitimate representative of Myanmar and urged the international community and ASEAN not to meet with coup maker Min Aung Hlaing, but invite it to a meeting leaders of the 10-member ASEAN in Jakarta. [Nikkei Asia 2]

Meanwhile, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all actors to take strong action against the military coup, and especially referred to the Council “using a range of tools at [its] disposal.” Additionally, ASEAN should at least send a high-level delegation to Myanmar. [The Diplomat]

20 April 2021

Myanmar: Prominent protest leader arrested

(lf) The military arrested one of the primary protest leaders, Wai Moe Naing. The 26-year-old was hit with a car by security forces during a protest before being detained. The anti-coup protest organizer was among the first anti-coup protesters, making noise with pots and pans, which since then has become a daily occurrence. Several other prominent protest leaders have already been arrested, all of them stating that the arrests would not stop the protests. [Myanmar Now] [Reuters]


20 April 2021

Myanmar: Ongoing airstrikes against ethnic minorities

(lf) Airstrikes against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have been escalating over the last weeks, with the Tatmadaw using Russian-built attack helicopters on Kachin and Karen state. In particular, civilians have been terrorized by the ongoing attacks, while the use of heavy force is meant to show a strong signal that opposition to the military coup will not be tolerated. This comes after it became clear that ethnic armed forces largely sided with the anti-military protestors. The usage of airstrikes has taken the fight between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups to another level of brutality.  [Nikkei Asia] [Irrawaddy]

In particular, civilians have been impacted by the dropping bombs, a novelty in the fighting. The Free Burma Rangers reports of thousands of displaced people in Karen state alone and a high number of death cases among civilians. [Voice of Asia]

20 April 2021

Japan and the coup in Myanmar

(nd) The Myanmar military has detained a Japanese journalist in Yangon on Sunday. The Japanese government is seeking his immediate release. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group, 737 people have been killed by security forces since the coup and 3,229 remain in detention. [Reuters]

Japan did experience criticism by Western governments and media outlets for its slow response to the coup, although the government was quick and frequent to denounce it. Moreover, since Japan is gravely concerned with Myanmar possibly drifting more into China’s orbit, they are aware of the geostrategic significance of Myanmar in the region. Japan was a central actor within the military’s political reforms and opening up of Myanmar in 2011, which was prompted by fears of a growing influence of China. Japan facilitated diplomatic contacts with the West and — upon the condition of further democratization — provided a loan to Myanmar to clear its debts with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, in order for them to start development aid. Additionally, Japan has invested much in the partnership with ASEAN, both for economic reasons and due to similar security issues, such as the South China Sea. [East Asia Forum]

20 April 2021

UN concerned with potential civil war in Myanmar

(lf) The UN human rights office voiced its grave concern over the situation in Myanmar, warning for the escalation potential of the situation. The office warned that the situation may deteriorate into a similar situation as in Syria. It has adhered to the international community and the state of Myanmar to not commit the same deadly mistakes as in Syria. [Reuters]


20 April 2021

ASEAN leader to meet on April 24

(lf) The leaders of the members of ASEAN have finally agreed to meet in Jakarta on April 24 on the situation in Myanmar. The ongoing violent conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed group causes the neighbor country to worry about a civil war. Coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. [Thai PBS world]

ASEAN has long struggled for a cohesive response to the situation. It is rooted in ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference, which was invoked frequently by members, and it therefore lacks a mechanism for regional action. While the international community has condemned the coup with some imposing sanctions, the responses have not been successful yet. [East Asia Forum]

Ahead of the meeting, Southeast Asian states were discussing the possibility of sending a humanitarian aid mission, in order to foster dialogue between the military and the protestors. [Reuters]

13 April 2021

Committee to present proof of human rights violations to ICJ

(lf) The Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a Burmese government in exile,  has announced that it has gathered 180,000 pieces of evidence for rights abuses by the Tatmadaw and the military junta against its own people. The evidence has been gathered in hope of pressing charges against the high-ranking generals at the International Criminal Court (ICC). There are concerns that the evidence, while they in the future may lead to justice, might complicate the dialogue between the generals and the protestors. [The Diplomat]

13 April 2021

Myanmar: Protestors to take up arms in Northwest 

(lf) While so far, the demonstrations across the country have been largely peaceful in response to which the Tatmadaw answered with extreme violence, this weekend picked up homemade guns, knives and bombs in North-western Myanmar. The military has moved more troops into the area of Kalay, which resulted in the death of eleven protesters. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) announced that they could not stop people from protecting themselves against the Tatmadaw and taking up arms. Since the coup on February 1, over 600 protestors have been killed. Concerns over a civil war in the country remain high. 

The area is not new to confrontations between the Tatmadaw and insurgency groups. With its closeness to the Indian border, the area offers easy movement for fighters across the border. [Reuters] [Nikkei Asia]

Meanwhile, a military tribunal in Myanmar has sentenced 19 people to death for killing a member of the military and wounding another. Reportedly, this is the junta’s first use of the death penalty since declaring martial law last month. [Nikkei Asia]

13 April 2021

Myanmar’s military to use Chinese drones

(lf) According to the British intelligence magazine Jane International Defence Review, Myanmar’s Airforce seems to have been using Chinese drones to monitor and potentially intimidate protestors. The drones, that had been manufactured by the Chinese state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Cooperation had been delivered to Myanmar between 2013 and 2015. It is assumed that the Tatmadaw owns around 10 to 12 drones. The delivery had been made with the intention of monitoring the ongoing insurgency movements in Myanmar’s border region. However, until now there has been only one confirmed sighting of the drones in 2016. [Radio Free Asia]

13 April 2021

Myanmar: Economic situation worsening due to coup

(lf) Since the coup on February 1, military controls and restrictions on Myanmar’s major transportation roadways have disrupted the flow of food, as well as other goods in Myanmar’s major metropolitan areas. In addition, reports of military and security forces confiscating cargo along the routes, as well as cash from the drivers have been made. Plundering seems to have become a by-product of military rule. The situation has caused many to stop transporting goods altogether. 

This has worsened the already dire economic situation of Myanmar as a whole, particularly in Yangon. Food shortages have already occurred due to the pandemic, but as the city is dependent on food deliveries from outside, this new development has aggravated the situation. In addition, to the food shortage, the prices have tripled. [Radio Free Asia]

Striking workers and the emerging parallel government comprised of National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw’s (CRPH) move to stop collection of electricity bills have disturbed the military’s control of the power grid, resulting in electricity shortages and blackouts. Combined with an investor reluctance due to international sanctions, this situation could result in a nationwide power blackout, hurting particularly the manufacturing and garment industries. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration was working against the power gap, resulting from misrule, issuing tenders in 2019 for five electricity generation projects, as well as several solar energy projects, which were all won by Chinese companies. In 2019, the World Bank expected the country’s power demand to increase by 15% every year. [Asia Times]

With smedicl workers striking, nearly all testing and treatment for Covid-19 has stopped, prompting the UN’s acting resident country coordinator, to comment, Myanmar’s health system “has practically collapsed”. [The News Lens]

13 April 2021

Myanmar: State of Freedom of the Press

(lf) Since the beginning of the coup at least 60 members of the press have been arrested by the military, three journalists are currently facing trial after being arrested in late February for covering the anti-military protests. Some journalists have gone missing, and families have been struggling to locate their family members as prisons have been closed to the public. The journalists are charged under Article 505 (a) which prohibits the spread of information that may hinder the military to fulfil their duty. The military has started a severe crackdown on the press as well as to significantly limit access to the internet. The newspaper Mizzima has had their licence revoked by the government, while simultaneously one of the co-founders has been arrested. These tactics form part of a larger campaign to keep the anti-military protests under control. [Asia Times 1], [Asia Times 2]


13 April 2021

International Reactions on coup in Myanmar:  Sanctions and UN envoy

(lf) The UN special envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener is expected to tour Asia in order to help facilitate diplomatic actions to handle the mounting crisis in Myanmar. Burgener is expected to visit neighbouring Thailand and China, and was earlier denied entrance to Myanmar. [Asia Times]

The US has imposed sanctions against the four major gemstone company in Myanmar, deemed as “a key economic resource” for the military regime and connected to the military. As a primary source for jade in the world, these sanctions will have a severe impact on government funding. Among the four sanctioned companies, Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE) contributes to about half of the military’s revenue. [BBC 1]

Russia, on the other hand, has been opposing further international sanctions, stating that it is worried the actions taken might lead to a civil war in the country. Russia was one of the eight countries to send a delegate to Myanmar’s annual military parade, which turned out to be the deadliest day of the protests. [South China Morning Post]

China announced to have been in contact with all sides of the conflict, having spoken both to the generals as well as members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). The CRPH represents lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Tatmadaw has declared the CRPH as an illegal organisation. China aims at playing a peace-promoting force in the crisis and has so far not condemned the violence or coup. China might be the most influential force, having previously been one of the few countries that had contact under the last military rule. [Reuters 1]

Malaysia has defended their ambassadors meeting with the generals, for which it had received a major backlash. Besides Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia have voiced their concerns over the growing violence in Myanmar. [Reuters 2]

In the UK the former ambassador of Myanmar Kyaw Zwar Minn to the UK has been locked out of the embassy by the military attaché after publicly condemning the coup and calling for a return of the former government. The British foreign ministry has accepted the change in the staff of the embassy, consequently ending the job of the former ambassador. The UK government has been asked to not recognize the new ambassador send by the military to take a diplomatic stance against the coup. Bound to the Vienna conventions for diplomacy this puts the British government in a dilemma: According to the convention the change in ambassadors is to be accepted, however, this may result in being accused of supporting the military government. Nonetheless, Britain has allowed the former ambassador to stay. [BBC 2] [Reuters 3]

6 April 2021

Bangladesh: Authorities take foreign envoys to new Rohingya camp

(lm) Ten Dhaka-based foreign diplomats on April 3 visited the remote island of Bhasan Char to get an idea of the living conditions of the more than 18,000 Rohingya refugees who have been relocated there since December of last year. [Anadolu Agency]

Bangladesh plans to relocate in phases 100,000 of the more than 1.2 million Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, where a major blaze in four conjoined camps earlier this month left at least 15 people dead and nearly 50,000 homeless [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. The government has repeatedly justified the move by saying it would ease chronic overcrowding, ignoring concerns about the low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2].

The first-ever trip to the island by foreign dignitaries was preceded by a United Nation (UN) delegation’s three-day visit to the remote island. 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].

A five-member delegation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also went to Bhashan Char days after the UN visit. At the time, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen had urged the OIC to help start the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their home country Myanmar. [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]


6 April 2021

Singapore’s Foreign minister to visit China

(py) Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan recently made a two-day visit to Fujian where he met China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. During the visit, the two have discussed a way forward for post-Covid recovery and the mutual recognition of health certification, which is hoped to enable cross-border travel between the two countries besides the existing “fast lane” scheme for business and official proposes. Dr Balakrishnan also shared Singapore’s concerns over the ongoing bloodshed in Myanmar. Though they both hope for de-escalation and constructive dialogues between the military junta and the people, Dr Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed that they should hold fast to the principle of non-interference of domestic matters. 

Singapore’s response to the events in Myanmar is getting louder. Experts pointed out how the statements are using harsher language to describe the situations and actions of the military junta. Some argued that Singapore’s growing concerns were due to the amount of investment in Myanmar, to which Singapore currently is the largest investor. [Reuter] [Channel News Asia 1] [Channel News Asia 2

6 April 2021

Thailand to give humanitarian support to refugees from Karen State

(nd) Thailand announced to provide humanitarian assistance to 1,200 people who fled the military strikes in Myanmar’s Karen State. Most are children, women, elderly, and patients. This followed an unusual statement of Thailand, expressing grave concern about the violence in Myanmar.

Immediately after the air strikes, about 3,000 people fled to Thailand, but many of them returned, and according to Thai authorities did so voluntarily. Recently, the military announced to attack border positions in Shan State, bordering with Thailand, letting fear rise among the thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) housed in camps. [Radio Free Asia]

6 April 2021

Japan to stop aid payments to Myanmar

(nd) Myanmar’s top donor Japan announced to stop issuance of new aids in response to the coup, but will not impose sanctions. Sanctions were imposed so far by Britain, the EU and the US, targeting specific persons as well as military-owned companies. Japan traditionally entertains close ties to Myanmar and is reportedly the fifth-largest foreign investor in the country. [Channel News Asia]

6 April 2021

Myanmar: Second month of anti-military protest raises concerns for possible civil war

(lf) Protests continue against the military takeover, with the death toll rising to unprecedented numbers. Over 500 civilians have been killed, including 43 children, with the youngest victim only 6 years old. The international community, human and children’s rights groups have voiced their outrage over the casualties of children. In consequence, the US has decided to abandon all trade with Myanmar. The trade between the two countries makes up around 1,4 billion $. The UN envoy has expressed great concerns that the country might spiral into a civil war and urges the UN security council to take actions. [South China Morning Post], [The Diplomat 1], [Radio Free Asia],[Associated Press

Myanmar’s envoy to the UN, who infamously defied the junta’s orders last month, urged all foreign investment to be temporarily stopped. [Nikkei Asia]

Workers for the Red Cross have been arrested, intimidated and injured on the front lines while trying to treat mounting civilian casualties. Not verified videos show security forces assaulting medics. [Reuters 1]

As the violence rises, thousands are trying to flee the country into neighboring India or Thailand. Following increased fighting in the north with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), people fled to India, where an order to send back refugees was withdrawn after a public outcry. The airstrikes, the first of such in 20 years, then targeted territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU), which earlier seized a military base, forcing some 7,000 people to flee their homes. People fled to Thailand and were reportedly sent back, with Thai authorities speaking of a voluntary return. UN officials were not granted access. [Reuters 2] [Bangkok Post 1] [Bangkok Post 2]

There is a chance looming for the formation of a federal army amid the support of many ethnic armed organizations for the Civil Disobedience Movement. Most notably though was the silence of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — the nation’s largest armed militia, which is under Chinese control and often supplies other EAOs with arms mostly from China — and the Arakan Army (AA). The AA already did not respond to the disputes following the general elections in November. This suggests that the AA is rather looking for a deal of conditional autonomy with the Tatmadaw. [Asia Times]

On Thursday, the military has widened the internet cut, maintaining only fixed line internet services and cutting wireless access, which is used by most people in Myanmar. Access via mobile data has been cut since the beginning of the protests. [Reuters 3] Being faced with a complete cut of internet access, protesters started the FederalFM Radio Station on April 1. The station aims to inform about the current events and educate on federalism, countering military propaganda. It will first be reachable in Yangon only but is planned to be expanded further. Since the station does not dispose of a license, Actions are likely taken against it according to a state-run newspaper report.  [Voice of America]

China has declared its support for ASEAN’s efforts to positively influence the situation in Myanmar. This comes after a Chinese representative had attended last week’s military parade, which resulted in the deadliest day since the coup. ASEAN’s common response remains weak. The member states remain split over actions to be taken, despite the situation being potentially destabilizing for the whole region. [The Diplomat 2], [The Diplomat 3], [Deutsche Welle] [Reuters 4]

Meanwhile, the group of deposed lawmakers from the National League for Democracy, the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), announced a new civilian government to run counter to the junta. CRPH also announced a new federal constitution, which will also meet the longstanding autonomy demands of the regional ethnic groups. The “unity government” declared the military-drafted 2008 constitution void upon the release of their interim constitution. It is an attempt to mitigate the widespread distrust between civil society and the ethnic groups of the country. Parallelly, the move is aiming to gather support against the military. [The Diplomat 4] The idea of a “federal army” is looming and would be a substantive threat to the military, but could also end in a civil war. Considering General Min Aung Hlaing’s spoken unwillingness to hand back power, this development warrants further escalation. 

Taken from most recent statements, the international community seems more determined to intervene in Myanmar, while it remains unclear how. Suggestions of “no-fly zones” to stop the military from bombings carry either a possibility for escalating tensions by upholding it or highlighting weaknesses by ignoring violations. Arms embargos would be undercut by China and Russia, while targeted economic sanctions are so far not supported by China, India and Japan. A military intervention outside the UN seems unlikely. [The Diplomat 5]

6 April 2021

Myanmar: Trial against Aung San Suu Kyi started

(lf) With the start of her trial, after two postponements, deposed de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces new charges under a colonial era official secrets law. Her lawyer stated she was of good health, after being able to meet her for the first time since her new house arrest. The new charge is of more serious nature than the previous charges laid against her, carrying a jail term of 4 years. The next hearing will take place April 12. [Reuters 1], [Reuters 2],[Radio Free Asia][AiR No. 7, February/ 2021, 3],[AiR No. 8, February/ 2021, 4]

30 March 2021

Bangladesh: Authorities defend use of fences after Rohingya camp blaze

(lm) Authorities defended on March 24 the use of barbed-wire fencing surrounding Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, after a major blaze in four conjoined camps near Cox’s Bazar had left at least 15 people dead and nearly 50,000 homeless [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

In the wake of early assessments, the United Nations (UN), aid groups and Rohingya leaders said on March 23 that the fences erected by the military had hampered rescue work and made it difficult to evacuate, though it wasn’t yet clear how significant an obstacle they were. Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner came out defending the fences, saying they were not built inside the camps to act as barriers between blocks of shanties. [The New Humanitarian] [The Straits Times]

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. An early report from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) suggested an exploding gas cylinder may have been responsible. Rohingya households receive cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking fuel as part of their aid supplies. [BRAC]

Meanwhile, the UN’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the fire destroyed a number of facilities, including key medical facilities, food distribution centers, and a market. [ReliefWeb]

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]