Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army
In sentencing Myanmar’s iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to prison, the country’s generals have effectively exiled her from electoral politics. (AFP/File)
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Updated 08 December 2021

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army
  • Suu Kyi, whose pro-democracy efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize, and her allies have played important roles in the past, even when sidelined or jailed by the generals

BANGKOK: In sentencing Myanmar’s iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to prison, the country’s generals have effectively exiled her from electoral politics. But that doesn’t mean the Southeast Asian nation is back to square one in its stop-start efforts to move toward democracy.
In fact, a younger generation that came of age as the military began loosening its grip on politics and the economy and has tasted some freedoms is well positioned to carry on the struggle.
A de facto coup on Feb. 1 pushed Suu Kyi’s elected government from power, throwing the country into turmoil. But erasing the gains of a decade of opening up has proved more difficult.
People took to the streets en masse almost immediately and have continued sporadic protests since then. As a military crackdown on demonstrations grew increasingly violent, protesters moved to arm themselves.
Within days, a mix of old and new guard, including elected lawmakers who were prevented from taking their seats by the takeover, announced a shadow administration that declared itself the nation’s only legitimate government. It was very consciously assembled to be a diverse group, including representatives of ethnic minorities and one openly gay member, unusual in socially conservative Myanmar.
It, not Suu Kyi, who was arrested in the takeover, has been at the forefront of the opposition — and has garnered significant support among the general population.
While no foreign government has recognized the so-called National Unity Government, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met virtually with two of its representatives. And it has accomplished a kind of standoff at the U.N., which delayed action on a request by Myanmar’s military government for its representative to take its seat. The country’s current delegate has declared his allegiance to the unity government.
“The coup and its aftermath are not so much the end of a democratization process in Myanmar as they are proof that democratization has actually taken hold of the younger generation,” Priscilla Clapp, who served as the U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. “In fact, the coup may ultimately prove to be the dramatic end to the older generation of leadership in Myanmar.”
The pro-democracy movement now faces the challenges of continuing to resist military rule, keeping up international pressure for restoring an elected, civilian government, and consolidating support from ethnic groups that have long fought the central government.
Suu Kyi, whose pro-democracy efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize, and her allies have played important roles in the past, even when sidelined or jailed by the generals. On Monday, the 76-year-old was convicted on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentenced to four years in prison, though that was almost immediately reduced to two. She faces other charges that could see her imprisoned for life.
But the younger generation may be better placed to carry the mantle anyway.
Unlike their elders, younger people in Myanmar, especially those in the cities, have spent most of their lives without having to worry about being imprisoned for speaking their minds. They have had access to mobile phones and Facebook and grew up believing the country was moving toward greater, not less democracy.
They also seem more willing to reach out to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Not only did the unity government include ethnic minority officials in its Cabinet, but it sought out alliances with the powerful ethnic militias, which are fighting for autonomy and rights over their resource-rich lands.
“Even as they are fighting against the military takeover, they are debating among themselves to determine the outlines of a new form of a more democratic and ethnically diverse political system,” said Clapp, who is also a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. “This did not happen with earlier rebellions against military rule before the people had experience with democratic institutions that gave the public a voice.”
Suu Kyi’s own reputation abroad was deeply marred by her seemingly condoning, or at times even defending, abuses committed by the military against the Muslim Rohingya minority while her government was in power. She disputes allegations that troops killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women.
The unity government has also been criticized for seeming to neglect the long-oppressed Rohingya, and it remains to be seen how its uneasy alliance with ethnic groups will play out.
But Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya is just one element that complicates her legacy.
An icon of resistance during her 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi agreed to work alongside the generals after she was freed. It was a gamble that left Myanmar’s fledgling democracy in limbo, with the military keeping control of key ministries and reserving a large share of seats in parliament.
Some overseas admirers were disappointed that during its time in power Suu Kyi’s government used British colonial-era security laws to prosecute dissidents and critical journalists, in part of “an ongoing pattern of silencing dissent,” said Jane Ferguson, a lecturer at Australian National University.
In seizing power, the military claimed there was massive fraud in the 2020 election that saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win in a landslide. It said that justified the takeover under a constitution that allows it to seize power in emergencies — though independent election observers did not detect any major irregularities. Critics also assert that the takeover bypassed the legal process for declaring the kind of emergency that allows the army to step in.
Security forces have since quashed nonviolent nationwide protests with deadly force, killing about 1,300 civilians, according to a tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Despite the risks, the verdict against Suu Kyi, who remains popular, provoked more spirited protests. In the city of Mandalay on Monday, demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs popularized during pro-democracy protests in 1988.
“In Yangon, we are seeing local residents resume banging pots and pans late at night in protest,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the U.S. Institute of Peace. “These types of moves by the junta are also a key driver and motivation for local people to join people’s defense forces.”
Those forces, which began as a way to protect neighborhoods and villages from the depredations of government troops, are also being supported by the opposition unity government that hopes to turn them into a federal army one day.
In the meantime, the military will keep trying to “terrorize the public into obedience,” said Christina Fink, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “They have done so successfully in the past, but this time the opposition is more widespread and takes many different forms so it has been much harder for the regime to achieve its goal.”


Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
Updated 56 min 22 sec ago

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
  • Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 9,905 new infections and seven deaths on Friday in the latest 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August last year when the country was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year’s spike in cases and deaths that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron case.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said the next few months will be critical because omicron is spreading “rapidly and massively.”
“Its upsurge will be extremely fast ... We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” he told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
The government has prepared mitigation measures to deal with a potential surge, including dedicating more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, ensuring adequate tracing and testing measures, strictly enforcing health protocols and intensifying vaccination efforts in all regions, Sadikin said.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly” in the city, where more than 80 percent of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year’s surge, hospitals erected plastic tents to serve as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of collapse because omicron generally causes less-severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Some health experts doubt the measures will be enough, given the lax enforcement.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave of infections is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61 percent of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation that is home to 270 million people, has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.


One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
Updated 29 January 2022

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
  • As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks

BANGKOK: At least one person was injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s southern province of Yala, police said on Saturday.
At least 13 small explosions struck the town of Yala late on Friday, mostly on roadsides in front of convenience stores, shops, a market, an animal hospital and a car care shop, said deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen.
Police on Saturday found at least three unexploded improvised explosive devices, made of spray cans and metal pipes with timers attached.
Kissana said police suspect the explosions were aimed at causing a disturbance more than damage or injuries.
A decades-old separatist insurgency in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largely ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has claimed the lives of more than 7,300 people since 2004, according to the Deep South Watch group which monitors the violence.
Rebel groups have called for independence for these provinces bordering Malaysia, which were part of a sultanate called Patani annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
Friday’s bombing came just weeks after the Thai government restarted a peace dialogue with the main insurgent group after a two-year break of talks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks.
The main rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.


Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
Updated 29 January 2022

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
  • The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday
  • About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up

BANGKOK: A beach in eastern Thailand was declared a disaster area on Saturday as oil leaking from an underwater pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand continued to wash ashore and blacken the sand.
The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday and was brought under control a day later after spilling an estimated 50,000 liters (13,209 gallons) of oil into the ocean 20 km (12 miles) from the country’s industrialized eastern seaboard.
Some of the oil reached the shoreline at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province late on Friday after spreading over 47 sq km (18 sq miles) of sea in the gulf.
The navy is working with SPRC to contain the leak and said the main oil mass was still offshore with only a small amount washing up on at least two spots along the 12-km-long beach.
About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up, the navy said.
Twelve navy ships and three civilian ships along with a number of aircraft were also working to contain the spill at sea with booms and dispersant spray.
“We and the company are still working at sea to reduce the amount of oil by cornering the spill and sucking up the oil and spraying dispersant,” Rear Admiral Artorn Charapinyo, deputy commander of the first Naval Area command, told reporters.


South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
Updated 29 January 2022

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
  • The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization

MIAMI, US: Negotiators from the US, China and 13 other governments failed to take action to protect threatened squid stocks on the high seas off South America amid a recent surge in activity by China’s distant water fishing fleet.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, is charged with ensuring the conservation and sustainable fishing off the west coast of South America.
At the SPRFMO’s annual meeting that ended Friday, Ecuador and the European Union proposed measures that would require all ships to have observers on board by 2028 and mandate they unload their catches only in ports instead of at sea to giant refrigerated vessels — both considered key tools in limiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
There were also competing proposals, one of them from China, to limit the amount of squid that could be caught.
However, none of the proposed measures were adopted during the closed-door meeting, thwarting the efforts of environmentalists and some seafood importers in the US and Europe who have been pushing for restrictions of fishing on the high seas that make up about half of the planet.
CALAMASUR, a group made up of squid industry representatives from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, attended the four-day virtual meeting as an observer and said it was deeply disappointed by the results, which it said expose the SPRFMO to being seen as “non-cooperative” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,
“This situation cannot be accepted as an outcome,” the group said in a statement.
Craig Loveridge, the executive secretary of the New Zealand-based SPRFMO, did not respond to a request for comment.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.
Biologists warn that the boom has left the naturally bountiful Humboldt squid — named for the nutrient-rich current found off the west coast of South America — vulnerable to overfishing, as has occurred in Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other places where squid stocks have disappeared in the past.
An investigation by The Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last year revealed how the traditionally lawless area has become a magnet for some of the seafood industry’s worst offenders, many of them Chinese-flagged vessels with a history of labor abuse accusations and convictions for illegal fishing.


A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers
Updated 29 January 2022

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers
  • The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in Myanmar prisons and interrogation centers
  • More than 1,500 were estimated to have been killed, some after they were placed behind bars

Nearly a year after his son was last seen being hauled away by Myanmar junta troops, 66-year-old Win Hlaing says he just wants to know whether he is alive.
One night last April, a neighbor phoned to tell him his son, Wai Soe Hlaing, a young father who ran a phone shop in Yangon, had been detained in connection with protests against the Feb. 1 military coup.
They traced the 31-year-old to a local police station, according to Win Hlaing and The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit that has been documenting arrests and killings.
Then the trail went cold. He had vanished.
Reuters called the police station but was unable to determine the whereabouts of Wai Soe Hlaing, or the missing relatives of two other people who were interviewed for this article.
A spokesman for the junta did not respond to emailed requests for comment and did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
Wai Soe Hlaing is among many people who activists and families say have disappeared since Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the military overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in prisons and interrogation centers, including Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet, while about 1,500 have been killed. Reuters was unable to independently verify the figures from the AAPP.
They say hundreds have died after being detained. The junta has said the figures are exaggerated and that the AAPP spreads false information. The junta has not disclosed the number of people in detention.

Search for loved ones
The military does not notify relatives when a person is arrested and prison officials often do not do so when they arrive in jail, so families laboriously search for their relatives by calling and visiting police stations and prisons or relying on accounts from local media or human rights groups.
Sometimes they send food parcels and take it as a sign their relative is being held there if the package is accepted, a Human Rights Watch report said.
In many cases, AAPP co-founder Bo Kyi said, the organization has been able to determine someone has been detained but not where. Tae-Ung Baik, chair of the United Nations’ working group on enforced disappearances told Reuters the group had received reports from families in Myanmar of enforced disappearances since last February and was “seriously alarmed” by the situation.
In a border town, 43-year-old activist Aung Nay Myo, who fled there from the northwestern Sagaing region, said junta troops took his parents and siblings from their home in mid-December and he does not know where they were.
He believes they were detained because of his work as a satirical writer. Among them is his 74-year-old father, left disabled by a stroke.
“There is nothing I can do but worry every moment,” Aung Nay Myo said.
Two police stations in the town of Monywa, their hometown in Sagaing region, did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
In some areas, resistance to the junta has spiralled into conflict, with fighting displacing tens of thousands of people across the country, according to the UN Thousands have fled across borders to Thailand and India.

Viral image
In the northeastern Kayah state, where fighting has been fierce, Banyar Khun Naung, director of the non-profit Karenni Human Rights Group, said at least 50 people were missing.
The group is trying to help families search, asking recently released prisoners any names they remembered.
“The families of missing people are in great pain, especially mentally, as it is exhausting not to know where their loved ones are,” he said.
Myint Aung, in his mid-50s and now living in a camp for internally displaced people in Kayah, said his 17-year-old son Pascalal disappeared in September.
The teenager told his father he was going to travel to their home in the state capital Loikaw to check on the situation, but never came back, Myint Aung said.
Instead, he was detained by security forces, Myint Aung told Reuters by phone, saying that local villagers told him. When he visited the station to deliver food, he found soldiers guarding the area and ran away.
Since then, Myint Aung has heard nothing of his son, but the rights group told him he was no longer at the police station, citing conversations with several people recently freed. Reuters was unable to independently verify this information.
Banyar Khun Naung, the Karenni rights group director, said the teenager was one of two young men pictured making the “Hunger Games” salute adopted by protesters as they were detained kneeling by the side of a road, lashed together with rope by a soldier, in an image widely circulated on social media. His sister confirmed by phone it was Pascalal.
The photo appeared in a viral post from an account that appeared to belong to a high-ranking soldier, with the caption, “While we let them do what they want before we put bullets through their heads.” The account was subsequently deleted and Reuters was not able to reach its owner for comment.
“He’s an underage civilian boy and he didn’t do anything wrong,” his father Myint Aung said.
Police in Loikaw did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
In Yangon, the family of Wai Soe Hlaing tell his four-year-old daughter her father is working somewhere far away. Sometimes, Win Hlaing said, she murmurs about him: “My papa has been gone too long.”