Myanmar forces kill over 100 in deadliest day since coup

Myanmar forces kill over 100 in deadliest day since coup
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This handout photo taken and released by Dawei Watch on March 27, 2021 shows protesters holding homemade shields during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei. (AFP)
Demonstrators gather for the
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Demonstrators gather for the "Global Protest Revolution Day for Myanmar," at Raspberry Island in the Mississippi River on March 27, 2021 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, US. (AFP / Kerem Yucel)
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Updated 28 March 2021

Myanmar forces kill over 100 in deadliest day since coup

Myanmar forces kill over 100 in deadliest day since coup
  • Online news site Myanmar Now says the killings were spread over more than two dozen cities and towns
  • Multiple diplomatic missions to Myanmar condemned the carnage, which has exceeded 440 since security forces started killing protesters

YANGON: As Myanmar’s military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade Saturday in the country’s capital, soldiers and police elsewhere killed scores of people while suppressing protests in the deadliest bloodletting since last month’s coup.
The online news site Myanmar Now reported late Saturday that the death toll had reached 114. A count issued by an independent researcher in Yangon who has been compiling near-real time death tolls put the total at 107, spread over more than two dozen cities and towns. That’s more than the previous high on March 14, which ranged from 74 to 90.
The death toll in Myanmar has been steadily rising as authorities grow more forceful in suppressing opposition to the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup reversed years of progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule.
Figures collected by the Yangon researcher, who asked not to be named for his security, have generally tallied with the counts issued at the end of each day by the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, which documents deaths and arrests and is widely seen as a definitive source. The Associated Press is unable to independently confirm the death tolls.
Up through Friday, the association had verified 328 deaths in the post-coup crackdown.
The killings quickly drew international condemnation, including a joint statement from the defense chiefs of 12 countries.


'This bloodshed is horrifying'
US Ambassador Thomas Vajda said on social media: “This bloodshed is horrifying,” adding “Myanmar’s people have spoken clearly: they do not want to live under military rule.”
The EU delegation to Myanmar said Saturday would “forever stay engraved as a day of terror and dishonor.”
The top military officer from the United States and nearly a dozen of his counterparts joined to condemn the killings by Myanmar’s army.
Their statement said that a professional military must follow international standards for conduct “and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves.”
UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said it was time for the world to take action — if not through the UN Security Council then through an international emergency summit. He said the junta should be cut off from funding, such as oil and gas revenues, and from access to weapons.
“Words of condemnation or concern are frankly ringing hollow to the people of Myanmar while the military junta commits mass murder against them,” he said in a statement.
“The people of Myanmar need the world’s support. Words are not enough. It is past time for robust, coordinated action.”

Emboldened with friends elsewhere
Despite the Western condemnation, Myanmar’s junta has friends elsewhere.
Russia’s deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin attended Saturday’s military parade in Naypyitaw, having met senior junta leaders a day earlier.
Diplomats said eight countries — Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand — sent representatives, but Russia was the only one to send a minister to the parade on Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the start of the resistance to Japanese occupation in 1945.
Support from Russia and China, which has also refrained from criticism, is important for the junta as those two countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and can block potential UN actions.

The junta's motivation
In his speech Saturday, Min Aung Hlaing used the occasion to try to justify the overthrow of Suu Kyi’s government, accusing it of failing to investigate irregularities in last November’s general election, and repeating that his government would hold “a free and fair election” and hand over power afterward.
The military has claimed there were irregularities in the voting rolls for the last election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.
The junta detained Suu Kyi on the day it took power, and continues to hold her on minor criminal charges while investigating allegations of corruption against her that her supporters dismiss as politically motivated.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Saturday’s events showed that the military, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, should be prosecuted in international courts of law.
“This is a day of suffering and mourning for the Burmese people, who have paid for the Tatmadaw’s arrogance and greed with their lives, time and time again,” he said.

Clash with rebels
Myanmar military forces also on Saturday engaged in combat with guerrillas of the Karen ethnic minority near the country’s eastern border with Thailand.
The Karen National Union, the leading political body for the ethnic group, announced that its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, had overrun a small government military outpost, and captured eight soldiers.
In apparent retaliation, government warplanes on Saturday night carried out strikes on Mutraw district where the KNLA’s 5th Brigade that carried out the morning attack is based and where there is also a large civilian settlement. Hsa Moo of the Karen Peace Support Network, who spoke to villagers from there, said the air attack killed two people and wounded two others while also damaging several houses, Some of the survivors fled to the jungle to hide.
The KNU is one of more than a dozen ethnic armed organizations that have been fighting for decades to gain more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. There have been calls for them to band together and lend support to the fight against the country’s new ruling junta.
 


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new
omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.


Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears
Updated 28 November 2021

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed local authorities on Saturday to increase their COVID-19 preparedness and review the country’s reopening for foreign arrivals, amid global concerns over the emergence of a new coronavirus strain.
The emergence of the omicron variant comes as India has managed to control the outbreak after facing a deadly COVID-19 wave which, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May.
The South Asian nation announced on Friday it would reopen for international flights from Dec. 15, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, Modi requested that the reopening plan be reviewed.
“PM asks officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” his office said in a statement.
Modi also requested that technical support be provided to regions reporting high numbers of new infections and ordered coordination to ensure the proper functioning of oxygen plants and ventilators.
As India has so far fully vaccinated some 35 percent of its 1.3 billion population, the prime minister’s office said he had told officials to accelerate second-dose coverage.
Authorities in Mumbai, the financial center and industrial hub of India, have already announced that inbound passengers from South Africa will be quarantined on arrival and those who test positive for COVID-19 will have their samples sent for genome sequencing.
“There are concerns in Mumbai about the new variant of coronavirus,” Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar told reporters on Saturday. “There is an increased risk of COVID-19 in other nations, so those coming from abroad will have to undergo genome test.”
Prof. Rama V. Baru, epidemiologist at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said genomic sequencing may prove crucial in containing the spread and that a strategy to implement it should be introduced by the Indian Council of Medical Research — the country’s top medical research body.
“Testing can be done, but after testing you need to know what is the variant. For that you need genomic sequencing,” she told Arab News. “There has to be a design by which the ICMR comes up with a protocol because they have a network of institutions in different parts of the country. We need to be proactive and quick before the number of patients increases. Once the number increases, our capacity for genomic sequencing is very limited.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia
Updated 27 November 2021

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
Updated 27 November 2021

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
  • Analysts refute Taliban claim that Afghanistan branch of terror group poses no threat to country
  • Ismatullah Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him

ANKARA / KABUL: The US State Department on Monday imposed new sanctions on three leaders of the Afghanistan affiliate of Daesh, widely known as Daesh-K, and another man accused of operating a Turkey-based informal financial network.

The group’s leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azam and Kabul province leader Maulawi Rajab were all named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while Ismatullah Khalozai, who is blamed for operating an informal money-moving network, known as a hawala, that has financially supported Daesh-K for the last two years, was also designated.

Khalozai is known as the financial facilitator for the group and has operated a financial scheme that involved the international resale of luxury items, whose earnings were used to finance Daesh-K. The US also accuses him of engaging in human smuggling operations, including bringing a Daesh-K courier from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Last year, Washington identified another critical financial facilitator for Daesh, the Turkey-based Adnan Mohammed Amin Al-Rawi.

Andrea Gacki, director of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said of this week’s action against Khalozai: “(The) designation underscores the United States’ determination to prevent (Daesh-K) and its members from exploiting the international financial system to support terrorist acts in Afghanistan and beyond… The Biden administration is committed to rooting out terrorist financing networks around the world.”

All Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him.

Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and rapid Taliban takeover, Daesh-K has gained a wide presence in 34 provinces and has stepped up its bloody attacks. The group most recently claimed responsibility for a double bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul this month.

Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board has been regularly going after Daesh’s illegal money transfer system and it cooperates with the US to track the hawala chain system.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on violent extremism, said: “Turkey needs to open the books to the US Treasury Department and share intelligence on any terrorist networks known to operate on Turkish soil.”

He added that Turkey and the US should cooperate further to crack down on the financial roots of terror groups, regardless of any powerbroker that may benefit from the current arrangement. “So cracking down on this activity will cause some tensions,” Clarke told Arab News.

“After 9/11, the international community fell into the analytic trap of thinking that failed states like Afghanistan are the ideal safe haven for terrorist groups. However, countries like Turkey are far more valuable because they are connected to the trappings of globalization, from communications to transportation to global finance,” he added.

In 2019, Turkey disrupted another of Daesh’s illegal money transfer systems, which used Turkish and Syrian-based jewelry firms and foreign exchange offices as front companies.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said the illegal mobility of Daesh money did not appear as a result of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but was ongoing before then.

“As the US began publicly tracking and announcing the origins of these money transfers, (it) means that there is ongoing cooperation between authorities in Ankara and Washington behind the scenes to cope with global financial crimes, because both countries are obliged to respect the relevant international commitments on this issue,” Ozcan told Arab News.

Ozcan said that, when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, half of the country’s parliamentarians had Turkish citizenship because of the assets and investments they had previously had in Turkey.

“Therefore, there are great legal and illegal financial flows in Turkey that also eventually involve human smuggling and drug trafficking. It is not a surprise that some illegal groups use the hawala system through Turkey to finance (Daesh-K) because of this global ecosystem of money and human mobility that goes across borders,” he added.

During the course of the summer, hundreds of Afghans crossed from Iran into Turkey every day. Experts underline that such human flows resulted in uncontrollable money movements within the country.

Ozcan expects that, from now on, the US and Turkey, both victims of terrorism, will step up their efforts to track the roots of the illegal transactions that have fed back to terror cells.

“This latest announcement by the US Treasury is just the beginning of a new process and this bilateral cooperation against global financial crimes will not be restricted to Afghanistan but will probably spread to the regions where Daesh is gaining presence,” he said.

An official Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said Daesh-K does not pose a threat to the country. Bilal Karimi, of the Taliban prime minister’s office, said: “They (Daesh-K) don’t have any adverse effect on Afghanistan. Those names in the list are the unknown faces, and one of them has already been killed two or three years ago. So they are not familiar to anyone; overall, Daesh is not a threat for Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate government or the Afghanistan people.”

He added: “You know that this type of criminal activity happens all over the world, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan arrested several people involved in those cases, and many of them were killed. Also, we have dismantled many groups of Daesh in Kabul and other provinces. This group (Daesh-K) doesn’t have any support from the people or any other organization. All of these actions are just show-offs for the Daesh group; they are not a threat. So they cannot do anything to Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate.”

However, Ahmad Sayeedi, an international relations expert, told Arab News that Daesh-K was a significant threat to Afghanistan because it has international support. “What I mean is that they have a lot of money and financial support. Daesh will be the most significant danger for Afghanistan. They will be based mainly in Jalalabad (in Nangarhar Province), the main base of Daesh; and in the cities of Sheberghan and Baghlan.”

Qais Zaheer, another international relations analyst, agreed. “Daesh is a potential threat to Afghan peace; they are the ugly face of terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the reemergence of this group can provide an opportunity for the intervention of regional and international powers in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, due to the (return) of the group and also Taliban mistakes, the group has turned to action and, with the available financial resources of the group, it can pose threats to the Taliban regime. So putting their officials in US sanction lists can help Afghanistan and also the Taliban regime to fight and weaken Daesh-K in Afghanistan,” Zaheer added.