Suu Kyi’s party wins big in Myanmar polls

Suu Kyi’s party wins big in Myanmar polls
Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party celebrate with a cut-out figure of Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on November 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 15 November 2020

Suu Kyi’s party wins big in Myanmar polls

Suu Kyi’s party wins big in Myanmar polls
  • The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, secured 396 out of 473 seats

YANGON: Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party has won enough seats in parliament to form the next government, according to the country’s election commission, even as the military-backed opposition called for a re-run of Sunday’s polls.

“The results are clearly pointing that NLD is a winning party. It so far wins 83 percent of the seats we have approved. So they clearly have rights to be in charge of union government for five years again,” Union Election Commission spokesperson Myint Naing told Arab News.

The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, secured 396 out of 473 seats — more than the 322 needed to win Sunday’s vote — and claimed a “landslide” win that “eclipsed” the victory seen in the 2015 elections.

“We have a bigger and greater victory this time. We just need to win 322 seats in Pyidaungsu Hluttaw,” NLD spokesperson Aung Shin said, using the Burmese term for the 642-member national legislature where 166 seats are reserved for military representatives as per the constitution.

However, the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — which won 30 out of 240 seats in the national legislature — contested the results, and called on the Union Election Commission (UEC) and the military to hold an election that is free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning,” citing “irregularities” in the electoral process.

“There were many irregularities, such as the advance vote arriving late to polling stations, and voter turnout in some polling stations surpassing the actual voter list,” USDP spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint said at a press conference in Yangon on Thursday.

He urged the public to submit “evidence of the fraud” so that the USDP could challenge the UEC “through legal procedures.”

He added: “If the UEC is really independent, it should, in cooperation with the military, hold a fresh election that is credible, free and fair.”

Myint was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

The UEC, however, dismissed the “baseless accusations,” rejecting the opposition’’ call to hold fresh polls.

“There is no reason to hold a fresh election because of the baseless accusations against the commission. We practice the ultimate transparency in every single step of electoral procedures. So we challenge them to complain legally if they have any evidence of fraud,” Naing said.

More than 6,900 candidates from 92 political parties and independent campaigns contested the election this year, according to the US-based Carter Center.

The UEC’s statement was backed by local and international observer groups, including the Carter Center, which said there were “no major irregularities” in Sunday’s polls, based on their invigilation of polling stations across the country.

“The UEC took commendable steps to allow for greater participation in a challenging environment,” the Asian Network for Free Election, which observed 225 polling stations, said, adding that the “polling and counting operations were conducted diligently and transparently.”

However, the network said that Myanmar’s legal framework for elections continues to be “fundamentally undemocratic,” with 25 percent of all seats reserved for the military and “the disenfranchisement of large sectors of the population, including ethnic Rohingya and all members of religious orders.”

Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has been a litmus test for the NLD leader who is well-liked within Myanmar, but has faced intense criticism over her treatment of the Muslim minority group.

Myanmar excluded more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh from voting on Sunday, including hundreds of thousands who fled from persecution at the hands of the Myanmar military in the Buddhist-majority country.

The Rohingya endured decades of abuse and trauma in Myanmar, beginning in the 1970s when hundreds of thousands sought refuge in Bangladesh.

Between 1989 and 1991, an additional 250,000 fled when a military crackdown followed a popular uprising and Burma was renamed Myanmar.

The latest Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh resumed in August 2017 following a military crackdown on the ethnic minority group in the country.

Sunday’s elections are Myanmar’s second since the end of the military dictatorship.

The military, which was once considered the backbone of the USDP party, however, seemed to distance itself from the opposition USDP’s stance.

In a statement released on Tuesday, it said that the elections had been conducted “successfully,” and urged all parties to “respect the results.”

“The results are clear, and we are soldiers. We have nothing to do with elections. Now we are prioritizing the peace talks to accomplish the mission of building peace throughout the country,” military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told Arab News on Saturday.

He added that the military had also formed a committee to “speed up peace talks” with ethnic rebel groups after the process got stalled for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Shin said that once the government is formed, the NLD’s priority would be to work toward “building peace.”

“Peace is one of our first priorities. We need peace so that we can move the country forward. We have been trapped in a vicious cycle for a long time. So it is time to get out of it and move forward. To do this, we definitely have to bring an end to the civil war,” the spokesperson said.

In a surprise move on Friday, the NLD also requested all ethnic parties “to join them in building a federal union” to end the conflict.

The peace gesture was the first of its kind extended by the NLD since it came to power in 2015.

“There were misunderstandings between us and ethnic parties, and we would like to make it clear that we didn’t betray them. We would continue working with them because we always understand that we could not achieve our goal of building a federal union without their cooperation,” Shin told Arab News.

However, party leaders said it was “too early” to comment on the NLD’s offer and their “sincerity” toward ethnic minorities in the country.

“We welcome their offer because they are mighty. But we also witness their behavior of betraying us over the past five years. So it is too early to comment,” an anonymous ethnic party leader told Arab News.

Saturday’s poll results could also usher in renewed hope for the country’s troubled western region of Rakhine, which has been rocked by ongoing armed conflicts since 2018.

An uptick in fighting between the military and the Arakan Army (AA) — an ethnic rebel group in Rakhine — has left more than 300 civilians dead and thousands displaced in the region, resulting in the “world’s longest Internet shutdown” until August when the government finally lifted restrictions following local and international criticism.

It also led to the cancelation of elections in nine out of 17 townships in Rakhine due to security concerns, disenfranchising more than 1 million voters.

On Thursday, the AA declared a unilateral cease-fire until the end of the year so that by-elections could be held in constituencies. The group also urged the military to “halt ongoing offensives” in Rakhine.

The AA could not be reached for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

The military, for its part, welcomed the AA’s call for a cease-fire, and avoided using the term “terrorist” a the statement issued on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Pe Than, a winning candidate of the Arakan National party — the largest ethnic party in Rakhine state — said he hoped for the by-elections to be held “as soon as possible” as “war could be avoided.”

“Without elections and without their voices in parliaments, people will not trust the political system in the country. Some might even turn to armed resistance and revolution,” he told Arab News.

“So I hope there would be elections to give their representatives the ability to debate in parliament. War could be avoided if they have the rights to make their voice heard.”

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
Updated 31 min 40 sec ago

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
  • The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions

KLESZCZELE, Belarus: Exhausted and trapped in a cold, “cruel” forest, Lebanese barber Ali Abd Alwareth said he regretted his week-long bid to enter the European Union via the Belarus-Poland border.

“It’s miserable. Something that you don’t wish for your worst enemy ... A nightmare,” the soft-spoken 24-year-old with Crohn’s disease told AFP.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed of pine needles and dead leaves near the border town of Kleszczele in eastern Poland, Abd Alwareth described being a ping-pong ball for the guards.

“I tried crossing like five, six times, and every time I got caught and deported back to the border” by Poland, he said in English.

The Belarusian side meanwhile refused to let him return to Minsk to fly home.

Abd Alwareth said security forces told him: “You have only two choices: either you die here or you die in Poland. That’s it.”

One of thousands of migrants — mostly from the Middle East — who have tried to penetrate the 400-km border since August, Abd Alwareth said he left the financial crisis in Lebanon in search of a better life.

The whole journey from his home region of Bekaa cost $4,000 and involved help from a Minsk-based company he found on social media.

The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions, but the regime has put the blame on the West.

Poland has sent thousands of troops, built a razor-wire fence and implemented a three-month state of emergency that bans journalists and charity workers along the immediate border area.

During his grueling time in the woods, Abd Alwareth said he drank water off of leaves, was too cold to sleep, and was once hit on the head by either the Polish army or police.

Though “exhausted” and “devastated,” he said he understood that the border guards “are doing their job. They are protecting their country. We are illegal.”

On Friday, Abd Alwareth and his Syrian walking companions managed to get in touch with Polish activists, who met them in the forest with warm clothes and food as well as offering support when the guards arrived.

His fate up in the air, Abd Alwareth hopes to receive asylum in Poland — or at the very least, to return to Lebanon.

“Okay, you don’t want me here, you don’t want me in Belarus. Just deport me back home. That’s all I’m asking for,” he said.

“What is happening in the forest is cruel ... I feel like a puppet. It was my decision, I came this way -- but not to be treated like this,” he added.

“I refuse to die at the border. I just want to see my mum.”

Indian home minister begins first Kashmir visit since autonomy scrapped 

Indian home minister begins first Kashmir visit since autonomy scrapped 
Updated 24 October 2021

Indian home minister begins first Kashmir visit since autonomy scrapped 

Indian home minister begins first Kashmir visit since autonomy scrapped 
  • Indian Govt in 2019 scrapped Articles 370 and 35A of the country’s constitution

NEW DELHI: Security has been tightened in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Saturday as Home Minister Amit Shah began his first visit to the region since the abrogation of its autonomy in 2019.

On Aug. 5, 2019, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party scrapped Articles 370 and 35A of the country’s constitution that granted special autonomous status to the Jammu and Kashmir region, a move which divided the state into two federally administered units.

Shah, the most powerful government official after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been seen as the main architect of the 2019 developments.

His visit comes in the wake of increased violence in the region. In October alone, 11 non-Muslim civilians have been killed by suspected anti-India rebels. According to local media reports, an additional 50 companies of paramilitary forces have been deployed to Kashmir ahead of Shah’s trip. They will bolster the approximately 800,000 troops already stationed in the region.

“The Jammu and Kashmir Police are working diligently to realize the new J&K that Modi has envisioned,” Shah said in a tweet during the first day of his visit.

Upon arrival, the minister presided over a high-level security meeting in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city.

“The narrative ... is that Jammu and Kashmir is safe for everyone but these killings prove minorities and outsiders are not safe,” TV channel NDTV said, quoting Home Ministry officials. “This is a big concern for the government. So, a strategy to further reassure people was discussed.”

Kashmir’s former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti urged the Indian government to initiate confidence-building measures in the region. After Shah’s arrival, she tweeted that Modi’s government should be “lifting the siege that J&K has been put under since 2019.”

Political experts in Kashmir believe the minister’s visit could inspire a reconsideration in New Delhi’s strategy towards the region.

“They should rethink the strategy in Jammu and Kashmir like they have done in Afghanistan. Previously, New Delhi was opposed to engaging with the Taliban, now they are talking to them,” Prof. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Srinagar-based law expert at the Central University of Kashmir, told Arab News. 

“The same kind of rethinking is needed in the case of Kashmir instead of ignoring the reality and trying to create an illusion of normalcy.”

In Islamabad, a cafe serves up qahwah, the ‘language of love’ for Arabs

In Islamabad, a cafe serves up qahwah, the ‘language of love’ for Arabs
Updated 24 October 2021

In Islamabad, a cafe serves up qahwah, the ‘language of love’ for Arabs

In Islamabad, a cafe serves up qahwah, the ‘language of love’ for Arabs
  • The idea for KAF was born when the brothers met Fahim Hassan Khan at a local coffee shop

ISLAMABAD: Abdul Malik Abdullah, Wail Wasil and Fahim Hassan Khan had three things in common when they met for the first time in Islamabad earlier this year: They were all born and raised in Gulf countries, they all were stranded in Pakistan because of coronavirus travel restrictions and they all loved Arabic coffee.

Now there is one more thing that has brought the three young men together. They are co-owners of a small cafe called KAF that opened in the capital last week to serve up what they describe as a taste of home — authentic Arabic coffee.

In the outdoor seating area of the coffee shop, customers are greeted with a mural showing a beverage being poured from a curvaceous pot into a heart next to the calligraphed words: “For the Arabs, the law of love is coffee.”

“We’ve missed home, we’ve had this bad homesickness for a while,“ Abdullah, a fourth-generation Pakistani living in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News at KAF, which is located on the ground floor of Islamabad’s Roomy hotel.

“Arabic coffee is like our daily routine. To us it is like roti,” he added, referring to a type of bread that is a staple of Pakistani diets.

The golden, cardamom-infused Arabic coffee, or qahwah, is the most popular kind brewed in the Middle East. Abdullah and Wasil said that they use varieties imported from Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Ethiopia, and serve them up at KAF as they would at home — in ceramic shot glasses with a side of Saudi dates.

“It’s authentic Arabic coffee,“ said Wasil, who like Abdullah came to Pakistan in 2019 to pursue higher education but became stranded in Islamabad due to the pandemic. “We drink it day and night, it’s a part of us.”

“We are sharing it with our customers, and we are making sure it is how we like it also,” he said. “The dates I serve here, I eat at home.”

The idea for KAF was born when the brothers met Fahim Hassan Khan at a local coffee shop and the three decided to go into business together. At the time, Khan, whose parents moved to the UAE at least four decades ago, was on a visit to Pakistan that was indefinitely extended due to coronavirus travel bans.

“We became brothers fast and all had a common goal to start something of our own. And, boom, there it was, the idea to bring authentic Arabic qahwah, culture and music to Islamabad,” Khan said.

His love for qahwah grew from time spent around the nomadic Bedouin people of the UAE. “On our weekends we would drink Arabic qahwah and listen to old folk music,” said Khan, who now plays traditional Arabic music at the cafe “to give it a feel of home.”

“Even till this day, when you visit an Arab residence they greet you with authentic Arabic coffee and dates,” he said. “They say: ‘The language of love in the Arab land is qahwah.’”

Iran provincial governor slapped in a rare security breach

Iran provincial governor slapped in a rare security breach
Updated 23 October 2021

Iran provincial governor slapped in a rare security breach

Iran provincial governor slapped in a rare security breach
  • A motive for the attack in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province remained unclear
  • Later Fars news agency said the man had been upset that his wife received a coronavirus vaccination from a male nurse, as opposed to a female nurse

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: The new governor of a northwestern Iranian province found himself slapped in the face by an angry man during his inauguration Saturday.
It was an unusual breach of security in the Islamic Republic during a ceremony attended by the country’s interior minister.
A motive for the attack in Iran’s Eastern Azerbaijan province remained unclear, though it targeted a new provincial governor who once served in the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and reportedly had been kidnapped at one point by rebel forces in Syria. One report referred to it as a personal dispute.
The new governor, Brig. Gen. Abedin Khorram, had taken the podium in the provincial capital of Tabriz when the man strode out from offstage and immediately swung at the official. Video aired by state television recorded the gathered crowd gasping in shock, the sound of the slap echoing on the sound system. It took several seconds before plainclothes security forces reached him.
They dragged the man off through a side door, knocking down a curtain. Others rushed up, knocking into each other.
Later footage showed Khorram return to the stage and speak to the unsettled crowd, now all standing up.
“I do not know him of course but you should know that, although I did not want to say it, when I was in Syria I would get whipped by the enemy 10 times a day and would be beaten up,” he said. “More than 10 times, they would hold a loaded gun to my head. I consider him on a par with those enemies but forgive him.”
Another man on stage shouted: “Death to the hypocrites!” That’s a common chant used against exiled opposition groups and others who oppose the Islamic Republic. Others cried out that Khorram was a “pro-supreme leader governor.”
Though Khorram said he didn’t know the man, the state-run IRNA news agency later described the attacker as a member of the Guard’s Ashoura Corps, which Khorram had overseen. IRNA described the attack as coming due to “personal reasons,” without elaborating.
Later, the semiofficial Fars news agency said the man who slapped the governor had been upset that his wife received a coronavirus vaccination from a male nurse, as opposed to a female nurse.
Khorram had been recently nominated by Iran’s hard-line parliament to serve as the provincial governor under the government of President Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khorram had been among 48 Iranians held hostage in 2013 in Syria, later released for some 2,130 rebels, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that long has been critical of Iran. Iran had referred to those held as Shiite religious pilgrims. A State Department spokesperson at the time called it “just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel (and) technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”
The incident also comes amid anger in Iran over its precarious economic situation despite its support abroad for regional militias and others, including Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran’s economy has been hammered since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

Arab Americans poised to win in November elections

Arab Americans poised to win in November elections
Updated 23 October 2021

Arab Americans poised to win in November elections

Arab Americans poised to win in November elections
  • Arab Americans increase political presence in Michigan, Virginia
  • Boston could elect the nation’s first-ever Tunisian American officeholder

CHICAGO: Arab Americans are among the thousands of candidates across the US who are seeking election to local municipal and regional offices on Nov. 2.

Key races include campaign battles for the mayoralty in Boston, Massachusetts and in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, Michigan. In Virginia, an Arab American woman is poised to become the state’s second most-powerful office holder.

Democrat Hala Ayala, who is part Lebanese, is leading in the Virginia race for lieutenant governor over Republican Winsome Sears.

The Virginia office is important because in addition to being next-in-line to become governor in the event of a vacancy, the post also serves as the president of the Virginia Senate who runs floor sessions, and casts a tie-breaking vote over controversial issues.

This will be the first time a woman will hold the state’s second-highest office.

Ayala, a member of the House of Delegates representing Prince William County, won the Democratic primary beating out fellow Virginian and House of Delegates member Sam Rasoul.

Rasoul, also a Democrat, is seeking to keep his legislative seat representing Southwest Virginia’s 11th District, which includes parts of Roanoke. First elected in 2014, Rasoul has raised an impressive $2.1 million in his campaign funds, with significant Arab American support. Rasoul’s Republican opponent Charlie Nave has raised only $40,000.

In Dearborn, a city with a large Arab American population, the election is expected to give the city its first Arab American mayor.

“We’ve long had people of Arab descent in local public office. What’s so important in 2021 is that these young Arab Americans are proudly wearing their ethnicity on their sleeves. And each of them has a record of public service,” said Jim Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute.

“The two I’m following most closely are the mayoral races in Boston and Dearborn. I’m following Boston because it is a major American city and Anissa is an amazing candidate who is running on a platform of service and realistic solutions to that community’s most pressing problems.”

Being a minority woman is also an issue in the Boston race. There, Annissa Essaibi George, who has a Tunisian father and Polish mother, is in a run-off with Michelle Wu to become Boston’s first woman mayor.

Boston has elected all males to the powerful city executive office since 1630, but this year saw a candidate surge of women and ethnic diversity in the special election. Former mayor, Marty Walsh, resigned last March after being appointed to serve as US Secretary of Labor by President Joe Biden, creating the Boston vacancy.

George and Wu beat out five other candidates to win the run-off spots in the Nov. 2 General Election. Polls shows George running behind Wu.

If George manages to win the race, however, she will set a new record as the first Tunisian American to hold an elected public office in any district in America.

Zogby said that the mayoral contest in Dearborn is also special, although Arabs have gained seats as members of the City Council.

“Thirty-six years ago, when the Arab American Institute was just starting, the candidate for mayor ran on a platform of ‘what to do about the Arab Problem’,” Zogby recalled.

“Today, after years of work, the majority of that community’s city council are Arab Americans, as is the police chief, its state representative, several judges, and soon, God willing, its mayor, Abdullah Hammoud.”

Pollster and political consultant Dennis Denno called the Dearborn contests “a critical test of Arab American voting power.”

He added: “If our community can elect an Arab American mayor in Dearborn, it will show both political parties that our community is organized and can unite behind a smart, energetic candidate.

“And if our community is divided or doesn’t bother to vote, it will show that the Arab American community is not to be taken seriously.”

Although in nearby Detroit, the leading candidate is not Arab, Denno noted incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan has been very responsive to Arab American concerns.

“The Detroit mayoral election, which will almost inevitably lead to a landslide victory for incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan, and will be a success for the Arab American community,” Denno said.

LMayor Duggan has been open to our community, has hired Arab-Americans, and doesn’t play the tired, big-city game of dividing one ethnic group against another.”

In neighboring Dearborn Heights, the mayor there, Daniel Paletko, passed away from the COVID-19 virus creating a vacancy. On Nov. 2, voters there will cast votes for two positions, someone to fill Paletko’s remaining term in office which ends Dec. 31, and to serve a full term beginning in January.

Lebanese immigrant and former US Marine Bill Bazzi, a Dearborn Heights City Council member since 2018, was elected by his colleagues as interim Mayor following Paletko’s death. He is facing off with City Council Chairwoman Denise Malinowski-Maxwell and candidate Anthony Camilleri.

In addition to Bazzi, three of the seven Dearborn Heights City Council members are Lebanese Americans and Muslim. Dearborn Heights is 32 percent Arab American, according to the Detroit News citing 2019 census data.