Hungary to announce new measures to fight economic fallout from COVID-19

Hungary to announce new measures to fight economic fallout from COVID-19
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves a round table meeting during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on December 11, 2020. (File/AFP)
Short Url
Updated 18 December 2020

Hungary to announce new measures to fight economic fallout from COVID-19

Hungary to announce new measures to fight economic fallout from COVID-19
  • Hungary’s economy took a big hit in the pandemic, and the government expects gross domestic output to shrink by about 6% in 2020

BUDAPEST: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Friday said he would announce new measures on Saturday to fight the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic, adding in an interview with state radio mr1 that they would take effect on Jan. 1.
Hungary’s economy took a big hit in the pandemic, and the government expects gross domestic output to shrink by about 6 percent in 2020 followed by a modest rebound in 2021.

Coup puts Myanmar’s crippling military capitalism in the spotlight

Coup puts Myanmar’s crippling military capitalism in the spotlight
Protesters gather in Yangon, main, as security forces continue to crack down on demonstrations against the coup. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2021

Coup puts Myanmar’s crippling military capitalism in the spotlight

Coup puts Myanmar’s crippling military capitalism in the spotlight
  • Travel bans and asset freezes since February’s coup draw attention to the generals’ sway over lucrative segments of the economy
  • Western countries likely to impose further sanctions on Myanmar, but Asian neighbors may be reluctant to follow suit

BERNE, Switzerland: Myanmar’s economy has long been shaped by the Tatmadaw — the nation’s powerful armed forces — and by the shifting whims of geopolitics, which together fashion the country’s global trade relations, particularly those concerning its large infrastructure projects.

Since the Feb. 1 coup, which overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government, and the violent suppression of protests which has left more than 600 dead, momentum has been building behind efforts to impose sanctions on the junta.

To date, the US and UK have placed sanctions upon Myanmar’s two big military-owned conglomerates. Several OECD countries have also issued travel bans and asset freezes on army officers involved in the coup.

Pressure is building on companies with investment in the country to sever ties with its military-owned entities. For example, pension funds are pushing South Korean steel giant POSCO to break with its army-owned Burmese joint venture partner.

Please help Myanmar. We need your urgent international help right now.
Han Lay
Miss Grand Myanmar

Meanwhile, Japan’s Kirin Beer, which had invested upwards of $1.7 billion in a joint venture with a military-owned holdings company, has split with its partner — although it plans to continue selling beer in the country.

Not all Western multinationals are on board. Total CEO Patrick Poyanne recently said the company must continue producing gas in order to maintain the country’s power grid and guarantee the safety of its workforce.

However, the oil giant said it would not pay its taxes to the military and instead intends to donate the equivalent sums to human rights organizations.

The Tatmadaw’s tentacles are wrapped so tightly around the levers of the economy, it is almost impossible for firms to do business in Myanmar without cooperating with at least one military entity.

Two organizations with direct links to the Tatmadaw hold immense sway over the economy. One is the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), the other is Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).

MEC is involved in manufacturing, infrastructure, steel, coal and gas. While its raison d’etre is supplying the armed forces with raw materials, it also holds the monopoly over Myanmar’s insurance industry.

MEHL, meanwhile, is involved in banking, mining, agriculture, tobacco, and food manufacturing. Its revenues flow directly back to the military, which shields MEHL from civilian oversight. The MEHL owns Myawaddy Bank and the military’s pension fund.

The military controls much of the country’s banking sector, which was left badly underdeveloped following years outside the international financial system under sanctions targeting the 1962-2011 military regime.

The NLD government had intended to issue banking licences to foreign banks by 2021 — an effort thwarted by the coup.

Combined, MEC and MEHL own more than 100 businesses. They benefited greatly from privatization efforts in the 1990s and 2000s by picking up entities at fire sale prices.

Business practices in Myanmar are opaque to say the least — considered the very definition of crony capitalism. In 2018, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked it 130th out of 180 counties.

Thailand is an important source of foreign currency for Myanmar, sent in remittances by migrant workers employed there. (AFP)

The first NLD government (2015-20) tried to curb the power of the military by opening several sectors to competition, but refrained from going toe-to-toe with the all-powerful Tatmadaw.

The NLD did, however, succeed in transferring power over the General Administration Department (GAD) from the military-dominated Interior Ministry to the civilian government in 2018.

This was an important step in demilitarizing the governance of the country. Given the wide-ranging powers of the GAD, from land administration and service delivery to tax collection, it was evident that taking power away from the military would eventually have ramifications for the Tatmadaw’s stranglehold over the economy.

In the 2020 election, the NLD government ran on a ticket of increased transparency and the transfer of power away from central authorities and the military — a move that would have been felt in the generals’ wallets.

Although boosting competition and transparency would no doubt have liberalized the economy and attracted foreign investment, it would also have threatened Myanmar’s long-established power structures.

Pressure is building to sanction the junta, left, with most of the country’s industries tied to the military. (AFP)

Fortunately for the generals, the Tatmadaw has powerful external friends. Myanmar is geopolitically important to many countries, who will cooperate with whoever holds power. These countries do not care who holds power; they just want to advance their political and economic interests.

Myanmar is strategically important to China, offering the rising superpower a land-bridge to the Bay of Bengal and an anchor country for its Belt and Road Initiative.

Until 2011, the Chinese government had a good working relationship with the junta, and had also come to an arrangement of sorts with the NLD government.

During his visit to Myanmar last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping revived the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) with no fewer than 33 memoranda of understanding.

The oil and gas pipeline linking China with the Bay of Bengal, the development of the deep-water port of Kyaukphyu, and the railroad linking Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean are all integral facettes of CMEC.

It is said to include projects worth $21 billion, in which the MEC and MEHL will no doubt hold substantial stakes. The NLD government, however, had concerns over China’s rising influence and Myanmar’s ballooning debts related to the CMEC.

India, meanwhile, sees Myanmar as an important bulwark against its rival, China. As such, the Indian firm Adani is involved in the construction of the port at Yangon. Delhi feels increasingly encircled by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, accounting for 24 percent of its business, followed by China with 14 percent and the EU with 10 percent.

Fellow ASEAN member Thailand is Myanmar’s fourth-largest trading partner and an important source of foreign currency, sent in remittances by the millions of migrant workers employed there.

The excellent transportation infrastructure connecting Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Rai to the Burmese border highlights the importance of trade (both legal and illicit) between the two countries. Furthermore, both countries are now run by military regimes whose generals have social, economic, and political ties.

Lastly, Russia has a long-standing relationship with the Burmese military. In 2007, Moscow entered into an agreement with Naypyitaw to establish a nuclear research center and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2016.

Russia also supplies the Tatmadaw with weapons. It was conspicuously the only country to send a ministerial-level delegate, Deputy Defence Minister Alexandr Fomin, to attend Myanmar’s armed forces’ day on March 27.

Although Western countries are likely to press ahead with sanctions on Myanmar, its Asian neighbors may be more reluctant to follow suit for myriad reasons, ranging from geopolitical considerations to neighborly and profitable business ties. Some ASEAN countries may also want to avoid being seen interfering in the internal affairs of a neighbor.

The Tatmadaw may therefore get away with overthrowing the NLD government and can go on accumulating wealth and economic clout. Likewise, many foreign entities will be willing to engage with the junta at a business level, both because it is profitable and as it is perceived to be in their own governments’ geopolitical interests.

• Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources.

Twitter: @MeyerResources

Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute

Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute
Updated 14 April 2021

Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute

Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute
  • Accuses Beijing of stoking tensions with the ‘illegal presence’ of Chinese vessels

MANILA: The Philippines said on Tuesday it had summoned the Chinese ambassador over the “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese militia vessels in the disputed waters of the Whitsun Reef, which Manila said was “stoking tensions in the region.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it had summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, to reiterate the government’s demands for China to “ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels” from the Whitsun Reef (local name Julian Felipe) and other maritime zones of the Philippines.

“The DFA expressed displeasure over the illegal lingering presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef,” it added.

The latest move comes weeks after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China over the issue.

During the meeting, DFA Acting Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso told Huang that the reef “lies within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of the Philippines” and that “the continuing presence of Chinese vessels around the reef is a source of regional tension.”

She also reiterated a 2016 ruling by a UN tribunal dismissing China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, although Beijing has refused to recognize the decision.

Beijing claims the Chinese vessels are fishing boats “escaping rough seas by moving within the lagoon, which Beijing calls Niu’e Jiao and claims as part of its territory.

“Due to maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near Niu’e Jiao, which is quite normal. We hope relevant sides can view this in a rational light,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the media last week.

In a separate message to reporters, the DFA said that “both sides agreed to lower the tensions and handle the issue diplomatically,” but added that “we have yet to see the complete removal of ships.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. tweeted on Tuesday that the National Task Force on West Philippines Sea had told him there were only nine ships at Whitsun Reef. The task force had previously said the Chinese vessels were manned by the Chinese maritime militia.

“While it may well be traditional fishing grounds, tradition yields to law and the law on the matter is UNCLOS (UN Convention for the Law of the Sea) and the Arbitral Award and the common rules of statutory construction,” he said in another tweet, before telling China it was “time to go.”

Monday’s meeting is the second time the DFA had summoned a Chinese envoy, with a similar issue raised in 2019 when a Filipino fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel, leaving the fishermen stranded at sea.

Amid the escalating feud between the two countries, a Filipino MP expressed resentment against China’s “bullying and increasingly aggressive territorial expansion in the region” before demanding that the “Chinese completely vacate” the reef.

“Why are they still there? China is becoming the region’s biggest bully,” Sen. Risa Hontiveros told a media forum hosted by the

Philippine Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

“She (China) exploited a global health crisis by executing a series of coordinated incursions into the WPS and insisting her presence even after several diplomatic actions from our end,” Hontiveros said.

The senator added that the latest intrusion “shows China will do what she wants for her own selfish interest, even if it means

threatening peace and stability in the region; even if it means attacking already vulnerable countries, including the Philippines.”

The senator explained that the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) had ordered all Chinese vessels to evacuate Philippine territory after over 200 ships gathered at the Julian Felipe Reef in March.

The DFA vowed to lodge a diplomatic protest every day until China’s vessels vacated the Philippines waters.

“At first, the Chinese Embassy claimed the vessels were just parking due to inclement weather. But Philippine authorities said there was no storm. Then it went as far as insisting that Julian Felipe Reef is Chinese territory. When will the lies, deception, and hypocrisy stop?” Hontiveros asked.

“Our coast guard should also immediately inspect what the Chinese vessels are doing there to see if our environmental and fisheries laws are being observed,” the senator added.

Hontiveros expressed outrage and anger at what she said was a “deliberate, reckless, and unlawful campaign of the Chinese government to use its military and economic might to deprive the Filipino people of the full use of the waters comprising the country’s EEZ and continental shelf.”

“This is a direct challenge to the international rules-based order that has maintained stability in the region for so long,” she

stressed, urging the DND to deploy more naval assets, including the coast guard, to “provide a protective umbrella for

fisherfolk who want to venture out to sea.”

Hontiveros said that the government must assure fishermen that the nation’s defense forces would be able to “safeguard their means of subsistence.”

“We cannot allow ourselves to be kicked out of our own backyard. The West Philippine Sea is part of the patrimony of the Filipino

people — our national dignity is at stake,” she said, urging the government to rethink its “allegiances.”

“We must be consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests. We should hold China accountable for the damage she has

done to fragile marine ecosystems within our EEZ,” she said.

She added that the government must ensure that Philippines environmental laws, not China’s, are being implemented and enforced in the West Philippine Sea.

Hontiveros also expressed her indignation against China’s “deliberate, reckless, and unlawful campaign of the Chinese government to use its military and economic might to deprive the Filipino people of the full use of the waters comprising the country’s EEZ and continental shelf.”

“The Chinese like to tell others to refrain from irresponsible behavior, but their recent behavior has been far from honest or responsible,” she said.

Hontiveros further said that President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration should stop tolerating China’s “duplicitous strategy.”

She said that to convince Filipinos of its good intentions, China has given the country its vaccines — “possibly for free, or perhaps, as many people fear, in exchange for our waters.”

Hontiveros added: “We must not allow China to shake our hands on vaccines and procurement, but stab us in the back on the West Philippine Sea. But Malacanang has tolerated China’s duplicitous strategy.

“This isn’t how a friend treats you. This isn’t even the act of a good neighbor. China is the bully pretending to be your best friend. 

It’s time to say enough is enough. Our government must rethink its current alliances — and perhaps its allegiances. We must be

consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests,” she said.

US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11

US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11
Updated 14 April 2021

US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11

US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11
  • Taliban attendance at US-backed summit in Turkey still ‘under consideration’

KABUL: President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the Al-Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, US officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came as the Taliban said on Tuesday that the group’s participation in a US-backed summit in Turkey later this week was still “under consideration.”

Dr. Muhammad Naeem, the Taliban’s Qatar-based spokesman, told Arab News: “Our lack of participation is due to the fact that consultations and deliberations are still going on.”

He added that “no agreement has been made” for the April 16 talks and that “the issue (meeting) is still under our consideration.”

On whether or not the Taliban had set any conditions for taking part in the meeting, Naeem said: “We will announce whatever decision is made based on the consultations.”

Turkey, along with the UN and Qatar, is hosting the meeting as part of an American-backed push to jump-start the stalled Afghan peace talks, which began in the Qatari capital Doha between the government and Taliban representatives in September and have been riddled with disputes.

Striking an optimistic note on Tuesday, officials from an Afghan government-appointed team said they expected to ink key agreements at the Istanbul summit, including forming a transitory administration with the Taliban.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, on Tuesday told Arab News: “Our expectation is that we will agree on major, important, and fundamental agreements which are cessation of war, restoration of the ceasefire, issues related to the transitory period, and over national and Islamic issues.

“The agenda for the talks will be set by the two sides (government and Taliban delegates).” However, he did not provide the names of government participants at the meeting.

The discussions in Turkey come ahead of a May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan based on a deal signed between the Taliban and Washington more than a year ago.

American President Joe Biden said recently that the pullout of troops by May 1 would be a “tough move” without elaborating on how long he intended to retain forces in Afghanistan, throwing the validity of the Qatar deal into doubt.


Turkey, along with the UN and Qatar, is hosting the meeting as part of an American-backed push to jumpstart the stalled Afghan peace talks.

The Taliban have warned that violence would escalate in Afghanistan if the US failed to abide by the accord, which aimed to end America’s most protracted conflict in its history, which began with the Taliban’s ousting in late 2001.

Some experts believe that the reason for the Taliban buying more time to confirm their participation in the Turkey summit was because their demands had not been met based on the Qatar accord.

Toreq Farhadi, an adviser for the former Afghan government, told Arab News: “(These include a) firm date on US withdrawal (of troops), now that we know May 1 can’t be that date, and deleting names of their leaders from the UN sanctions list.”

He said that the Taliban would “attend in the last days of the conference” and that “it is just a negotiating technique, a postponement, not a cancellation.”

Nazar Mohammad Mutmaen said that the group would not participate in the Turkey meeting “until Biden makes his stance clear on the timetable for the extension of US troops’ presence in the country, the release of remaining Taliban prisoners, and delisting of their leaders from the sanction list.”

He noted that Biden’s refusal to withdraw troops had “created doubts about the US’ intentions in Afghanistan,” adding, “the Turkey meeting won’t happen, and if it does, it will produce no major results.”

In March, Biden’s administration also proposed the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan, which would include Taliban members. This was communicated by US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been travelling the region to drum up support for a ceasefire and a peace settlement.

US-based Afghan analyst Said Azam blamed “spoilers in Afghanistan and the region who were trying to derail the peace process,” and said the “wisdom and constructivism” of the Afghan people was “the key to success.”

Farhadi added: “Peace spoilers on all sides are already busy sabotaging the post-Turkey arrangements.”

With accusations of corruption rife in the government, insurmountable debt accumulated in foreign aid, ethnic tensions, and talk of NATO and the US “losing interest in Afghanistan,” Farhadi said that the Turkey meeting was “all about passing the Afghan hot potato.”

Tameem Bahiss, a regional expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that Washington’s new administration was after a quick fix.

“It appears Biden is trying to find a quick political solution for the Afghan war. The US is proposing a conference in Turkey, where Washington wishes to see the Afghan warring sides agree on a new political roadmap for Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, this proposal by the US administration has many problems. A quick fix for the Afghan problems will not last. It is very difficult to get (Afghan President) Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban, and the Afghan political elites on the same page. I see it very difficult for the Taliban to agree to any political settlement prior to the departure of foreign troops.”

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
Updated 13 April 2021

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
  • The suspects planned to spark ‘a civil-war-like situation’ by carrying out ‘attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith’
  • Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the ‘biggest security threat’ facing Europe’s largest economy

STUTTGART, Germany: Twelve alleged far-right conspirators went on trial in Germany on Tuesday, suspected of planning attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims as part of a plot to overthrow the country’s democracy.
Eleven of the men, arrested in February last year, stand accused of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations. The 12th has been charged with supporting a terrorist group.
The suspects, known as Gruppe S (Group S) after one of the founders, planned to spark “a civil-war-like situation” by carrying out “attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith,” according to federal prosecutors.
The group’s eight founding members had the goal of “destabilising and ultimately overthrowing” Germany’s democratic order, they said.
Those on trial, aged 33 to 62 and all German citizens, had an “openly National Socialist attitude,” referring to the Nazi party, and made no secret of their hatred of foreigners, Muslims and Jews, according to prosecutors.
One of them is accused of using an offensive slur against black people and calling them “subhumans, so up for a massacre” in a Telegram chat group.
When talking on the phone, they are said to have used code words for weapons such as “battery” and “bicycle.”
Investigators say the two main ringleaders of the group, named only as Werner S. and Tony E., organized three meetings where members took part in discussions and shooting exercises.
The group is said to have arranged to buy weapons worth 50,000 euros ($60,000) through a handler known to one of the members, and several other weapons were found during raids when the arrests were made.
The group had links to several right-wing extremist networks and are accused of using their connections to recruit members “whom they considered to be fast, clever and brutal fighters.”
They were also planning attacks against politicians including Robert Habeck, one of the co-leaders of Germany’s Green party, according to prosecutors.
The trial in Stuttgart comes as concern grows in Germany over the rise of violent right-wing extremism.
The number of crimes committed by far-right suspects in Germany jumped to its highest level for at least four years in 2020, according to provisional police figures released in February.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat” facing Europe’s largest economy.
A series of high-profile attacks have also rattled the country.
In January, German neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst was sentenced to life in prison for murdering pro-migration politician Walter Luebcke.
In February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 people and wounded five others in the central German city of Hanau.
And in 2019, two people were killed after a neo-Nazi tried to storm a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The Gruppe S trial is taking place under high security at Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart and is due to wrap up in August.

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
Updated 13 April 2021

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
  • Sahayb Abu, dubbed the ‘rapping jihadi,’ sentenced to 19 years
  • Abu had expressed support for Daesh

LONDON: A British-Muslim extremist has been jailed for 19 years after being found guilty of plotting a solo knife attack during the pandemic lockdown.

Sahayb Abu, who was unemployed, was arrested last summer after he bought an 18-inch knife, a sword, balaclavas and body armor online. 

Abu denied the plot, arguing in court that he wanted to use his purchases to be a rapper like Stormzy, who wore body armor on stage at Glastonbury.

But he was found guilty last month, with his defense failing to stand up to evidence produced by the prosecution that he had discussed his terror plans with an undercover police officer on the Telegram app.

It will not be his first stint in prison, having spent two years behind bars for a commercial robbery where he was known to associate with extremists.

Dubbed the “rapping jihadi,” Abu described London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, as a “sell-out,” and talked about murdered soldier Lee Rigby.

Abu said: “I’m trying to see many Lee Rigby’s heads rolling on the ground. Man I shoot up a crowd cos I’m a night stalker. Got my shank, got my guns. Straight ISIS (Daesh) supporter. Reject democracy.”

Many of Abu’s relatives had previous links to violent extremism. His brother, sister and brother-in-law were jailed for collecting and disseminating terrorist documents online.

His half-brothers Wail and Suleyman Aweys traveled to Syria to join Daesh in 2015. They were believed to have been killed while fighting for the terror group.

In his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Judge Mark Dennis QC told Abu: “You of all people, having seen what befell your two younger brothers when they signed up to join the ISIS cause in 2015, and having seen the course other members of your family have taken … resulting in prison sentences, should have made you, at the mature age of 27, turn your back on the violent extremist cause and promote instead peace and community that underlies the Islamic faith.”

The judge added: “Instead, within weeks of your own release, you joined others committed to joining that same cause. Within no time, you were getting ready to carry out your own act of violence on the streets of this city (London).”

He said he was sure that Abu was prepared for a solo knife attack, and would have carried it out had the police not intervened.

The judge added: “All that remained for him (Abu) to decide was the time and place for him to carry out the act of violence in furtherance of the cause he supported.”