Anti-junta protesters ready for armed resistance as Myanmar violence mounts 

Anti-junta protesters ready for armed resistance as Myanmar violence mounts 
Anti-coup protesters flash the three-finger sign of defiance during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday, April 23, 2021. (AP Photo)
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Updated 23 April 2021

Anti-junta protesters ready for armed resistance as Myanmar violence mounts 

Anti-junta protesters ready for armed resistance as Myanmar violence mounts 
  • People have started to join combat training camps run by paramilitary groups in eastern Karen State
  • National League for Democracy members are reportedly in talks with ethnic groups to form an army against the Myanmar military 

YANGON: A 24-year-old medical student who never imagined he would ever kill anyone, as his vocation was to save lives, did so in late March after Myanmar security forces shot dead dozens of protesting civilians in one of Yangon’s neighborhoods.

“They even used hand grenades and some kinds of explosive ammunition in cracking down on us,” the Yangon University of Medicine student, Swe Min, told Arab News.

At least 739 protesters have been killed by police and military personnel since the beginning of nationwide demonstrations against the junta that ousted the country’s elected National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders in a coup on Feb. 1, according to Friday’s data from Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma.

The incident in South Dagon township, where more than 30 people were killed on March 29, happened two days after the deadliest crackdown on protesters, when security forces killed 114 people across the country.

Footage shared on social media showed how a barricade built by protesting South Dagon residents was blown up with explosives by security forces.

Witnessing the state violence was beyond Swe Min’s threshold of endurance.

“There were randomly shooting and brutally assaulting residents,” he said.

Swe Min and other protesters seized a plainclothes police officer near the main demonstration site and started beating him indiscriminately.

“Seeing the slaughter of civilians, we got very upset and angry,” he recalled.

“We were out of our minds, and we have beaten and kicked him to death.”

As night raids followed the officer’s killing, Swe Min managed to escape Yangon the next morning with a group of friends.

Earlier this month, they joined a militant training camp in the mountainous eastern Karen State that borders Thailand.

“We have joined combat training a week ago,” he told Arab News over the phone from an undisclosed location. There is not much choice left for us. We have to choose to kill or to be killed.”

Arrest, torture and the daily forced disappearances of protesters since the military regime took power have pushed many like Swe Min to take up arms as they no longer seem to believe in non-violent resistance.

The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest insurgent group fighting for the eastern state’s greater autonomy, said that thousands of people who are against the regime have sought refuge in their control area.

Padoh Man Man, a spokesperson for one of the KNU’s brigades, told Arab News that many are eager to join their combat training.

“Since they came here, most are determined to take up arms. After witnessing the momentum of brutality by the regime, it is understandable why they are in favor of armed resistance,” he said over the phone earlier this week.

The group, he added, had trained hundreds of volunteers alongside new KNU members in basic guerrilla warfare over the past two months.

“They are, therefore, more or less ready to join armed resistance,” he said.

Not only ordinary citizens but also dissident politicians are considering the option.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers ousted in the February coup that formed a parallel government in mid-April, has reportedly also been in negotiations with ethnic rebel groups in the hope of forming an army against the Tatmadaw — the armed forces of Myanmar.

However, this may not happen soon as, although opposed to the regime, ethnic minorities do not entirely trust NLD, which during its rule had alienated them, Sai Tun Aung Lwin, an ethnic affairs analyst and a researcher with the Yangon-based Pyidaungsu Institute, told Arab News.  

“Small community-based defense units have been formed across the country, but it seems only to defend themselves at the moment,” he said. “People are doing what they have to do. They are dutiful.”

Some are even ready to abandon their monastic life.

A Buddhist monk known for his charity work in Yangon’s Hlaing Thar Yar township, who now identifies himself with a changed name, Ashin Rsara, took off his religious robes and completed combat training in Karen State.

“The regime considers us their enemy, and I witnessed the merciless crackdown in Hlaing Thar Yar last month. Then I realized that we would never have peace as long as it is in power,” he told Arab News.

“Buddha teaches us to love each other in any situation. I have been trying to follow Buddha’s teachings my whole life, but I can’t this time,” he said. “I have to live with hate till the resistance prevails or I die.”


Saudi-funded campus in Pakistan’s Kashmir helps close gender gap in science

Photo taken on Jan. 14, 2022 shows an exterior view of King Abdullah Campus of the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir in Chhatar Kalas, Pakistan. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)
Photo taken on Jan. 14, 2022 shows an exterior view of King Abdullah Campus of the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir in Chhatar Kalas, Pakistan. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)
Updated 57 min 55 sec ago

Saudi-funded campus in Pakistan’s Kashmir helps close gender gap in science

Photo taken on Jan. 14, 2022 shows an exterior view of King Abdullah Campus of the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir in Chhatar Kalas, Pakistan. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)
  • The campus, hosting mainly science departments, started classes in September 2020
  • It was completed with funding from the Saudi Development Fund worth $51 million

MUZAFFARABAD: A Saudi-funded campus of the biggest university in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is fostering science education in the region and encouraging female enrollment into the male-dominated field, as nearly half of its students are women — higher than the global average.

The multimillion-dollar King Abdullah Campus in Chhatar Kalas, 22 km from the regional capital Muzaffarabad, was financed by Saudi Arabia, which has funded several development projects in the region, helping it return to normalcy after a devastating earthquake in 2005 destroyed most of its infrastructure, including the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Built on nearly 100 hectares, the campus was completed in late 2019 and started classes in September 2020.

“King Abdullah Campus was completed with financial help from the Saudi Development Fund worth 9 billion rupees ($51 million),” Raja Abdul Qayyum Khan, director of the campus, told Arab News.

The campus now hosts most of the university’s 9,000 students and is home to its science departments, including physics, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, and geology, which see a high rate of female enrollment.

Globally, only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education are women, according to UNESCO data. At King Abdullah Campus, however, women constitute 47 percent of all students.

“Out of a total 5,440 students enrolled at King Abdullah Campus, there are 2,877 males and 2,563 females. That speaks volumes about girls’ participation,” Khan said. “We would like to see that ratio further increase.”

After the earthquake destruction, many students at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir had to travel far to other campuses — some even to Islamabad — to attend courses.

With social norms and safety concerns limiting women’s mobility across Pakistan, traveling alone tens of kilometers from home was nearly impossible for them.

“The establishment of King Abdullah Campus at Chhattar Kalas has given me, and many other girls, an advantage,” 19-year-old mathematics student Samar Qayum told Arab News, explaining that traveling long distances was a major burden for them.

“The number of female students would have gone down in this region,” she said, “but this facility has made life easier for girls.”

Boys, too, are happy.

Physics student Waqar Younis said the establishment of the campus allowed him to save on transportation and accommodation, as those were major costs for the students.

“The establishment of King Abdullah Campus has greatly benefited me,” he said.

In the near future, the campus is likely to become even more attractive as $8.5 million computer science labs should be ready this year.

The nine labs will be equipped with 600 computers, allowing for the study of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“We are hopeful that by this year in August we may get the equipment,” Dr. Rabia Riaz, head of the Department of Computer Science and Information Technology, told Arab News.

“This sort of equipment and building structure is not only unavailable in Azad Kashmir but also in all of Pakistan.”

 

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Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 25 January 2022

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine
  • The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial

NEW YORK: Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said on Tuesday they started a clinical trial to test a new version of their vaccine specifically designed to target the COVID-19 omicron variant, which has eluded some of the protection provided by the original two-dose vaccine regimen.
The companies plan to test the immune response generated by the omicron-based vaccine both as a three-shot regimen in unvaccinated people and as a booster shot for people who already received two doses of their original vaccine.
They are also testing a fourth dose of the current vaccine against a fourth dose of the omicron-based vaccine in people who received their third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine three to six months earlier.
The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial.
“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address omicron and new variants in the future,” Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said in a statement.
Pfizer has said that a two-dose regimen of the original vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection from the omicron variant, and that protection against hospitalizations and deaths may be waning.
Still, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third dose of an mRNA vaccine like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has provided 90 percent protection against hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Some countries have already started offering additional booster doses, but a recent study from Israel showed that while a fourth dose of an mRNA vaccine boosted antibodies, the level was not high enough to prevent infection by the omicron variant.
BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Reuters in November that regulators would not likely require testing of an omicron-based vaccine on humans because it and Pfizer had already created versions of their established vaccine to target the earlier Alpha and Delta variants, with clinical trials continuing.
However, the debate appears to have shifted as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement on Friday that international regulators now preferred clinical studies to be carried out before approval of a new vaccine.
These studies should show that neutralising antibodies in the blood of participants are superior to those elicited by current vaccines. Another desired feature of an upgraded vaccine would be for it to also protect against other variants of concern, the EMA said.
The omicron variant has replaced the Delta variant as the dominant lineage in many parts of the world and omicron itself is now splitting into different subforms, one of which, BA2, is causing particular concern.


UK imam appointed to define Islamophobia has had ‘no meaningful engagement’ from ministers

UK imam appointed to define Islamophobia has had ‘no meaningful engagement’ from ministers
Updated 25 January 2022

UK imam appointed to define Islamophobia has had ‘no meaningful engagement’ from ministers

UK imam appointed to define Islamophobia has had ‘no meaningful engagement’ from ministers
  • Qari Asim, appointed in 2019, criticizes ‘lack of political will’ to define the term
  • ‘From the community’s perspective it’s hugely disappointing and undermines trust and confidence in the government’

LONDON: An imam appointed by the UK government to draw up a definition of Islamophobia has said he has received no “meaningful engagement” from ministers in years.

Qari Asim, who was appointed to lead an official process to define the term in 2019, told The Independent that letters sent to ministers as recently as last month have received no reply.

His intervention came as the government has become embroiled in a controversy surrounding Islamophobia after former Minister Nusrat Ghani said she was fired because her “Muslimness” made colleagues uncomfortable.

Asim said those allegations “once again demonstrate the importance of having a definition of Islamophobia.”

He added that he had been given no office, money, staff or terms of reference to assist him in drawing up a definition of Islamophobia.

“Other than an announcement and conversations (with ministers), there hasn’t been any progress, and that shows a lack of political will to define Islamophobia,” he said.

“I’m perplexed over the reasons for lack of engagement when the government time and again say they have zero tolerance to anti-Muslim hatred.”

Asim, an imam at Makkah Mosque in the English city of Leeds, said several letters sent to successive communities secretaries have gone unanswered, some as recently as November and December 2021, addressed to Michael Gove.

Gove committed to “the importance of countering anti-Muslim hatred” in Parliament in November, alluding to Asim’s efforts and a working group set up to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. A letter sent by Asim following up on those assertions went unanswered.

“I have set out my plan on how I thought a broad-based consensus can be achieved, but there has been a lack of meaningful engagement,” he said.

“Initially I didn’t pursue it during the first year of the pandemic, because I wanted to give the government the space to deal with that, but from the community’s perspective it’s hugely disappointing and undermines trust and confidence in the government. Something needs to happen.”

Asim said the government needs to recognize that Islamophobia is a “real issue” and move forward on defining it.

“Some people don’t like the term Islamophobia because they think that it’s more about protecting the faith itself, but it’s not the case,” he added.

“The faith has been critiqued since its inception — this is about protecting people and deterring those who target people because of their faith.”


France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now
Updated 25 January 2022

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now
  • Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute”

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron condemned on Tuesday a military coup in Burkina Faso, adding that the situation in the West African country had appeared calm in the last few hours.
Macron also told reporters during a trip in central France that he had been informed Burkina Faso’s ousted President Roch Kabore was “in good health” and not being threatened.
Burkina Faso’s army said on Monday that it had ousted President Roch Kabore, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the national assembly, and closed the country’s borders.
Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute.”


London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties
Updated 25 January 2022

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties
  • The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray
  • Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020

LONDON: London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if UK government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.
Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.
Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.
In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.
“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.
But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct.
“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said.