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)
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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.




Myanmar’s economy has long been shaped by the Tatmadaw, the nation’s powerful armed forces, and by the shifting whims of geopolitics. (AFP)

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).

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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.




Police arrested Myanmar Now journalist Kay Zon Nwe in Yangon on Feb. 27, 2021, amid demonstrations against the military coup. (AFP)

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.




General Min Aung Hlaing sits at the helm of a junta whose tentacles are spread tightly around the levers of the Myanmar economy.  (AFP/ Myawaddy TV via AFPTV)

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


UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign
Updated 12 sec ago

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign
  • #EvacuateHer appeal says women in hiding could face Taliban revenge attacks
  • Ex-judge: ‘Afghanistan is burning and all the women are on fire’

LONDON: A new appeal to provide support to female Afghan judges, lawyers and human rights activists has been launched by UK House of Lords member Helena Kennedy QC.

The #EvacuateHer campaign demands that the UK government provide urgent sanctuary to those groups and their families.

The UK’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy no longer includes judges in eligibility measures. 

The lobbying group includes several high-profile Afghan women who fled their country and are now based in the UK.

Over the past two decades, about 270 women have sat as judges in Afghanistan, and in their positions have presided over cases that human rights groups warn place them in immediate danger of Taliban “revenge” efforts.

Female Afghan judges have played a key role in changing legal norms in the war-torn country by freeing women from forced or abusive marriages, and protecting the right of girls and women to pursue education and jobs. 

Some have also been involved in the prosecution and imprisonment of Taliban and Daesh members. 

“It was not easy to become a female judge in Afghanistan. But now the Taliban have taken everything from us – our job, our family and our security,” one anonymous judge told The Guardian newspaper.

“I cannot sleep because I am not sure if I will be alive tomorrow. The Taliban can enter my house and kill me at any time.

“They believe it is against Islam for a woman to be a judge. I want the UK government to help us today. Tomorrow may be too late for us.”

Judge Anisa Dhanji, representing the International Association of Women Judges, said: “Our efforts are focused … on the judges who remain in Afghanistan and in trying to help to evacuate them, especially those who, because of their ethnicity, type of work or their individual profiles, are at exceptional risk.

“A group from the IAWJ board and other members have been working in shifts on these efforts for more than a month now. It has been extremely difficult, and often heartbreaking, when after days of intense efforts, hopes are dashed at the last minute, because of one obstacle or another.

“As women judges, they are at particular risk because they have had the temerity to sit in judgments on men. Judges have sent us specific details of the threats they have received, some to the effect that ‘now you have no power, and we will find you’.”

One woman taking part in the lobbying effort, 42-year-old Runna Alizoy, fled Afghanistan to the UK 19 years ago, but her older sister is a senior judge in Afghanistan and is now in hiding.

“It’s hard to put into words my grief for my sister,” she said. “The lives of female judges have been stolen. They say that the Taliban have changed — they have changed. Twenty years ago they whipped women in the street and sent them home. Now they shoot them and send them to their graves.”

Another member of the appeal, UK-based Marzia Babakarkhail — a former judge in Afghanistan who was threatened twice by the Taliban — said: “Afghanistan is burning and all the women are on fire.”


After Afghans fell from plane, families live with horror

After Afghans fell from plane, families live with horror
Updated 21 min 33 sec ago

After Afghans fell from plane, families live with horror

After Afghans fell from plane, families live with horror
  • Much remains unclear about what happened in that tragic takeoff on Aug. 16, a day after the Taliban swept into Kabul
  • One victim on Aug. 16 was 17-year-old Zaki Anwari, a rising star on Afghanistan’s national soccer team

KABUL, Afghanistan: It’s a scene that has come to symbolize the chaotic end to America’s 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
A lumbering US Air Force cargo plane takes off from Kabul airport, chased by hundreds of desperate Afghan men scrambling to get on the aircraft.
As the C-17 transporter gains altitude, shaky mobile phone video captures two tiny dots dropping from the plane. Footage from another angle shows many in the crowd on the tarmac stopping in their tracks and pointing.
The full extent of the horror becomes apparent only later. The dots, it turns out, were desperate Afghans hidden in the wheel well. As the wheels folded into the body of the plane, the stowaways faced the choice of being crushed to death or letting go and plunging to the ground.
More than a month later, much remains unclear about what happened in that tragic takeoff on Aug. 16, a day after the Taliban swept into Kabul, prompting a flood of Afghans trying to escape the country.
Even how many were killed remains unknown. Videos show two dots falling from the airborne plane, several seconds apart. But two bodies landed on the same rooftop at the same time, suggesting they fell together, so the other figure seen falling in the videos could be at least one other person. Also, the US military has said it found human remains still in the wheel well of the C-17 when it landed in Qatar but did not specify how many people. At least one person, a young soccer player, died on the tarmac, crushed under the C-17’s wheels.
The US military says it has not completed its investigation into the day. It said the C-17 was bringing in supplies for the evacuation effort at the airport but was mobbed by Afghans on the tarmac as it landed. Fearing the plane would be overwhelmed, the crew decided to take off again without unloading the cargo. Videos taken by Afghans on the tarmac show hundreds running alongside it, and perhaps a dozen people sitting on top of the wheel well, though it is not known how many jumped off before the plane lifted off.
One of those tucked into the wheel well was Fida Mohammad, a 24-year-old dentist.
He had once been full of hope, his family said. He had married last year in an extravagant ceremony that cost his family $13,000. His dream of opening a dental clinic in Kabul had become a reality.
Then the Taliban seized Kabul, and all the possibilities for his future seemed to disappear, his father Painda Mohammed told The Associated Press.
The older man still struggles to understand what his son was thinking when he climbed into the wheel well. He’s wracked with guilt, fearing that Fida took such an enormous risk because he wanted to help repay the large loan his father took out for the wedding.
Burying his head in his hands, Painda says he spends hours imagining his son’s final minutes, the fear he must have felt as the earth below him began to disappear and the wheels swung in, knowing he had no choice but to let go.
On the ground, Abdullah Waiz was asleep in his home at the time and was awakened by a powerful noise. His first thought was an explosion. He rushed outside. His neighbors gestured toward his roof and told him of the bodies tumbling from the sky.
Two bodies hit in the same corner of his roof, Waiz said, pointing at the spot, where the concrete was still stained with blood. Waiz believes they were holding hands since they fell in the same location. He collected the remains on a cloth and carried it to a nearby mosque, he said.
“For 48 hours after that, I couldn’t sleep or eat,” he said.
They identified one body as Fida, as he had stuffed his father’s name and number in his pocket. Local media said the second body was identified as a young man named Safiullah Hotak.
For two weeks at the end of August as the United States and its allies wrapped up their presence in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans surged toward the Kabul airport, frantic to escape a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. A 2-year-old child died in the stampede. A Daesh group suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the crowd, killing 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel. Yet even after the explosion, thousands returned to the airport, hoping to make it inside.
The scenes were so traumatic that the US Air Force offered psychological counseling to the air force personnel who worked at Kabul airport, as well as the crew of the ill-fated C-17 flight after it landed at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Another victim on Aug. 16 was 17-year-old Zaki Anwari, a rising star on Afghanistan’s national soccer team. He would spend hours watching his hero Lionel Messi play. “He couldn’t get enough. It was all he talked about, all he did,” said his 20-year-old brother Zakir Anwari.
Zaki was too young to have known the Taliban’s harsh rule of the late 1990s. But as the militant force swept through the provinces, Zaki’s social media were flooded by rumors and horror stories purporting to tell of life under the Taliban.
Last time they ruled, the Taliban banned most sports, including soccer, and routinely rounded up young men at prayer times to force them to the mosque. Zaki was certain his dream of competing internationally on the Afghan team was over.
Zaki went to the airport with an elder brother and a cousin on Aug. 16. He was meant to just watch the car while the cousin, who had worked for an American company, tried to get into the airport. Instead, while they were gone, he climbed over the airport boundary wall.
A breathless Zaki then called his other brother Zakir. He said he was inside the airport and was soon getting onto a plane. Zakir said he pleaded with his brother to not go, reminding him he didn’t have his passport or even his ID card with him and asking him, “What will you do in America?’”
But his younger brother hung up, then called his mother. “Pray for me. I am going to America,” Zaki said. She begged him, “Come home.”
Zaki was no longer listening. He raced alongside the aircraft as it picked up speed until suddenly he was knocked from the side and fell under the wheel and died, witnesses told the family later.
Painda Mohammad, the young dentist’s father, watches over and over videos on his phone showing his son dancing at his wedding.
Through his tears, he said, “He was a gift from God and now God has taken him back.”


Germans shocked by killing of cashier after COVID mask row

Germans shocked by killing of cashier after COVID mask row
Updated 48 min 27 sec ago

Germans shocked by killing of cashier after COVID mask row

Germans shocked by killing of cashier after COVID mask row
  • Saturday evening’s killing in Idar-Oberstein hit national headlines as it’s one of the only such cases linked to COVID-19 restrictions
  • Prosecutors said the petrol station cashier had asked a 49-year old man who wanted to buy beer to comply with the rules and put on a mask

BERLIN: German politicians expressed shock on Tuesday over the killing of a 20-year old petrol station worker after an argument about a face mask.
They said that coronavirus deniers who are willing to use violence will not be tolerated.
The killing on Saturday evening in the western town of Idar-Oberstein has hit the national headlines as it is one of the only such cases linked to COVID-19 restrictions.
Prosecutors have said that the petrol station cashier had asked a 49-year old man who wanted to buy beer to comply with the rules and put on a mask.
The customer refused and left but returned later wearing a mask which he pulled down when he approached the cashier who again referred to the rules.
“Then the perpetrator pulled a revolver and shot the cashier in the head from the front. The victim fell to the floor and was immediately dead,” prosecutor Kai Fuhrmann told reporters.
The suspect later gave himself up at a police station, saying the coronavirus measures were causing him stress, said Furhmann. He is being detained.
The killing took place a week before a federal election in which the far-right AfD has tried to woo voters with an anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine campaign. The party, on around 11 percent in polls, harbors many coronavirus deniers.
On Tuesday, politicians responded to messages circulating on social media from far-right groups and so-called ‘Querdenker’ (lateral thinkers) who deny the coronavirus which showed sympathy toward the killer.
“The hate and incitement coming from these people who can’t be taught divides our community and kills people. They have no place in our society,” tweeted Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who said Querdenker were celebrating the killing.
Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said it was disgusting how the killing had been misused to fuel hatred.
“The state must counter the radicalization of coronavirus deniers who are willing to use violence with all possible means,” she said.


UK cannot accept every eligible Afghan refugee: Defense minister

UK cannot accept every eligible Afghan refugee: Defense minister
Updated 59 min 34 sec ago

UK cannot accept every eligible Afghan refugee: Defense minister

UK cannot accept every eligible Afghan refugee: Defense minister
  • James Heappey: ‘We have every confidence that we’ll be able to help those that need help’
  • Govt facing questions over Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy after Kabul evacuation

LONDON: The UK cannot accept all Afghans who helped British forces during the country’s two-decade-long war, Defense Minister James Heappey said as states across Europe accept a wave of refugees in the wake of the Taliban takeover.

In Parliament, he said it is “not possible” for everyone considered at risk to be granted assistance under Britain’s new Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.

His comments were delivered in response to MP Clive Efford, who said he knows of people who have “assisted our operations in Afghanistan” and who are eligible for the scheme, but had been denied. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this month amid Kabul evacuation efforts that the UK would help “Afghan friends of this country who guided, translated and served with our soldiers and officials, proving their courage and loyalty beyond doubt, sometimes in the heat of battle.”

But Heappey, on behalf of the government, said: “I know that’s a disappointment to many MPs who are working hard to support people who are in Afghanistan, and who they consider to be at risk. But it’s not possible for us to bring out everybody who has had a connection with the UK armed forces under the ARAP scheme. That’s why the terms were sent out as tightly as they were.”

He added that about 15,000 people, including UK service members and British and Afghan nationals, had been transported to the UK following the evacuation of Kabul. 

But hundreds of Afghans formally accepted under ARAP who were not airlifted out have been told they can travel to the UK through other means.

The British government said it will allow 20,000 Afghan refugees to “start a new life in safety” in the UK. That figure is in addition to the Afghans evacuated under ARAP.

Heappey said: “It’ll take some time for the dust to settle on exactly who’s out and who we’ve yet to bring out, but we’re still working very hard to do so. The security situation is dynamic, our partnerships in the region are being developed, but we have every confidence that we’ll be able to help those that need help.”


World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises
Updated 17 min 8 sec ago

World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

NEW YORK: In person and on screen, world leaders return to the United Nations foremost gathering for the first time in two years on Tuesday with a formidable, diplomacy-packed agenda of escalating crises to tackle, including the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic and a relentlessly warming planet.
Other pressing issues include rising US-China tensions, Afghanistan’s unsettled future under its new Taliban rulers and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region.
Last year, no leaders came to the UN because the coronavirus was sweeping the globe, so all addresses were pre-recorded. This year, the General Assembly offered leaders a choice — come to New York or remain online. More than 100 decided to appear in person in the General Assembly hall.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, who opens the weeklong event, “will pull no punches in expressing his concern about the state of the world, and he will lay out a vision to bridge the numerous divides that stand in the way of progress,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Guterres has already demonstrated that in pointed pre-meeting remarks about the virus and climate change.
By tradition, the first country to speak is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t vaccinated. He reiterated last Thursday that he doesn’t plan to get the shot any time soon, justifying his refusal by saying he had COVID-19 and therefore has a high level of antibodies.
A key issue ahead of the meetings has been COVID-19 entry requirements for leaders to the United States — and to the UN headquarters itself. The US requires a vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, and the UN will operate on an honor system whereby anyone entering the complex attests that they do not have symptoms and have not tested positive in the last 10 days.
The three most closely watched speakers on Tuesday morning are expected to be US President Joe Biden, appearing at the UN for the first time since his defeat of Donald Trump in the US election last November; Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in a surprise move will deliver a video address; and Iran’s recently elected hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.
Ahead of the opening of the General Assembly’s annual General Debate, Guterres issued a dire warning that the world could be plunged into a new and probably more dangerous Cold War unless the United States and China repair their “totally dysfunctional” relationship.
The UN chief said in an interview this weekend with The Associated Press that Washington and Beijing should be cooperating on the climate crisis and negotiating on trade and technology, but “unfortunately, today we only have confrontation” including over human rights and geostrategic problems mainly in the South China Sea.
Speaking last week about Biden’s speech, Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “the really significant question is exactly how he frames relations with China.” He predicted that Biden “won’t be as forthright in criticism of China as Trump was, especially in 2019 and 2020,” but rather will “try and cast China as a country that is challenging the rules-based world order and a country that should not be trusted with leadership of the international system.”
On the latest speakers list released earlier this month, China’s speech was supposed to be delivered on Friday by a deputy prime minister. But the UN confirmed Monday that Xi will give the country’s video address instead. His speech and any comments about the US rivalry are certain to be closely watched and analyzed: China’s presence in the world, and its relationship with the United States, affect most every corner of the planet.
Other leaders scheduled to speak in person during the meeting, which ends Sept. 27, include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president of Venezuela, and the prime ministers of Japan, India and the United Kingdom along with Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Leaders delivering prerecorded statements this year include the presidents of Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. French President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to deliver a pre-recorded statement on Tuesday, but the government said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will now deliver the country’s address virtually on the final day.
France and China have reacted angrily to the surprise announcement by Biden, alongside the leaders of Australia and Britain, of a deal to provide Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Australia had signed a contract worth at least $66 billion for a dozen French conventional diesel-electric submarines and their construction was already under way.
Le Drian told a news conference Monday that there is a “crisis of trust” between the United States and its oldest ally, France, as well as Europe, which has been excluded from the new US-UK-Australia alliance focused on the Indo-Pacific and aimed at confrontation with China. He said Europeans “should not be left behind,” and need to define their own strategic interests.