According to Kyodo News, a number of teachers and others engaged in education have joined the so-called civil disobedience movement to boycott work, as a protest against the junta.
Myanmar’s military government announced it will reopen public schools on June 1 but many teachers and students opposed to the coup might refuse to return. According to Kyodo News, a number of teachers and others engaged in education have joined the so-called civil disobedience movement to boycott work, as a protest against the junta. But the junta called on them to return to work and prepare for the reopening of the schools as it announced the restart on April 30. The junta also said it will dismiss those who do not follow the call, maintaining its hard-line stance against protesters since the coup. On February 1, the Myanmar military overthrew the civilian government and declared a year-long state of emergency. The coup triggered mass protests and was met by deadly violence. At a press conference in the capital Naypyitaw, junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said it will reopen public elementary schools, junior high schools and high schools on June 1, adding it has resumed classes of public graduate schools and the final year of public universities on May 5. “It is a sad thing that some instigators and extremist political activists are campaigning for the students not to go back to the schools and are trying to stop reopening of the schools,” Zaw Min Tun said. The academic year in Myanmar starts on June 1. But public schools in the country have been closed for more than a year since the ousted government led by detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi had decided not to open the schools in June last year as the country saw a surge in the coronavirus infections, Kyodo News reported. It further reported that, while the junta plans to reopen public schools amid efforts at normalizing the country, some 10,000 teachers and others engaged in education, which account for 60 percent of the total, are refusing to go back, according to teachers’ unions in the country. One teacher said he does not mind losing his job by boycotting work from June 1. “I will keep on joining the civil disobedience movement until we win against the junta,” said teacher. A female junior high school student expressed anger toward the junta, saying, “How can we go to school under the military government that has killed hundreds of people and continued firing (at protesters)?” The junta’s security forces have killed 788 people as of Saturday since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group monitoring the situation in Myanmar.
Khin Mai Aung shares how Buddhists and other allies can support Myanmar’s activists and Civil Disobedience Movement in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup.
As Myanmar spiraled into chaos after a February 2021 military coup, the international Buddhist flock and other friends of the country who had been heartened by its transition to semi-democracy watched with mounting concern. To be sure, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been backsliding on civil liberties for a few years – with an exodus of over 700,000 persecuted Rohingya Muslims, an alarming rise in religious nationalism, surging discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and targeting of political opponents with arrest.
But in the months since the coup, a widespread and rapid erosion of order and security has engulfed Myanmar, with scores of peaceful protestors gunned down, internet shutdowns, large scale targeting of journalists and media institutions, and a looming threat of all out civil war. The people of Myanmar – Buddhists and religious minorities, Bamar as well as ethnic minorities – collectively face a singular threat, the barbaric junta which has ruthlessly taken power despite a resounding loss in last year’s elections.
As international observers reflect on how to support Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement of boycotting government workers and brave protesters taking to the streets, Burmese community groups within the country’s diaspora and international Buddhist organizations have sprung into action. Partnering with vetted intermediaries in Thailand and Myanmar, these groups are dispersing aid in grants and in kind support on the ground within Myanmar.
The Clear View Project, a Buddhist nonprofit that funds social change and relief efforts from a socially engaged Buddhist perspective, is one such organization. In partnership with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), Clear View has conducted fundraising for relief projects, including for telecommunications equipment like SIM cards, personal protective equipment for protestors, medical and funeral expenses, and financial support for government workers boycotting the junta.
Clear View and INEB are also launching a new initiative specifically to support monks and nuns in the Civil Disobedience Movement. While these religious figures have not been categorically targeted, this initiative is directed at assisting those who participated in protests, some of whom are in hiding to avoid arrest. Clearview is also working with partners to organize a “Burma Spring” virtual film festival benefit in June 2021 to raise additional funds to support Myanmar activists. As of late April, Clear View and INEB had raised about $24,000 for their collective efforts, and donors can designate their preference for use of funds.
Hozan Alan Senauke of the Clear View Project recommends that American allies can also make a difference by lobbying the United States “to apply pressure on Thailand [to advocate] for humanitarian treatment of displaced people, for opening its borders, and for not repatriating them – that’s a place that via the State Department we have some agency.”
Clear View’s sister program, the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, provides targeted support to Rohingya refugees. Over the past few years, it has raised over $50,000 to support Rohingya in refugee camps and local communities. It has continued these efforts since the coup, especially as fires ravaged several camps in Bangladesh this year. Such support is critical as Rohingya refugees remain in squalid camps and are at risk of COVID without sufficient personal protective equipment, as the world’s attention has turned to the coup and conditions inside Myanmar. One bright point, Hozan Senauke points out, is that after the coup “the whole nation of Myanmar is a tuning itself into the Rohingya issue [and broader concerns about] the government and military’s brutal discrimination toward various ethnic groups.”
Buddhist temples and secular community organizations affiliated with the Myanmar diaspora and its allies have also stepped up efforts to support the people of Myanmar. Mutual Aid Myanmar is a non-partisan volunteer organization consisting of activists and academics that is raising money to disperse humanitarian aid in Myanmar via trusted civil society groups. Like Clear View and INEB, their support covers funds for food, healthcare and shelter for now unemployed Myanmar government workers in the general strike against the junta. Mutual Aid Myanmar’s vetted local partners remain anonymous for their protection. Mutual Aid Myanmar has raised and distributed an impressive $275,000 for these purposes since the coup.
Other community-based efforts have focused on non-material supports, community education, and relationship building. The Baydar Collective is a network of youth activists from the Myanmar diaspora based in North America, named after the baydar (hyacinth) flower, which is associated with resilience and resistance. According to Ashley “Aye Aye” Dun, a graduate student at Brown University and a member of Baydar’s steering committee, Baydar’s goal is to “unite people in the Myanmar diaspora to talk about the ways that ongoing events in Myanmar affect our diasporic communities, because it directly affects us too through our families, relatives, and friends in the country struggling in the resistance.”
Baydar is hosting a virtual reading series focused on topics ranging from analyzing implications of the Myanmar opposition’s new constitution (the Federal Democracy Charter), discussing ethnic and religious divides in Myanmar and its diaspora, and examining parallels between anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar with the recent surge of anti-Asian violence in the United States. To celebrate Asian Pacific American heritage month in May, Baydar is launching a virtual art circle where members of the Myanmar diaspora will come together to discuss current events, socialize, and participate in drawing and art activities. Baydar has also supported activists in Myanmar though social media campaigns and public information dispersal, and plans to build coalitions with other Asian American activists and communities of color in the United States.
Aye Aye Dun reports that one critical way for Buddhists abroad and other supporters to support Myanmar’s resistance is to attend local anti-military protests, which Burmese Buddhist monks often attend. She believes “these events are a valuable opportunity for interfaith unity.” She also pointed to strategic boycott efforts – for example recent efforts to target Chevron, an American corporate investor in Myanmar which has actively lobbied against more aggressive sanctions on the country’s military.
More abstractly, and directed at the longer term, Aye Aye Dun suggests that allies can also focus on simply educating themselves more generally about the heterogeneity of resistance in Myanmar and its diaspora. In addition to providing direct support, allies can gain a more nuanced understanding of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity and the country’s historical and sociopolitical context. They can also learn about how supporters of democracy within and outside Myanmar deploy their resistance in myriad ways, taking into account safety concerns within the country for themselves or relatives left behind. “A more sustained relationship to support Myanmar’s prodemocracy efforts requires us to always keep learning” about the situation and dynamics on the ground, says Aye Aye Dun, and “this is something we are trying to do at Baydar.”
While the situation in Myanmar is dire and likely to be protracted, these fundraising, support, and education efforts can foster a modicum of hope regarding the spirit of the people of Myanmar and its diaspora, and the diligent efforts of its diverse allies working to lift up and champion those on the frontlines of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement.
More information about the efforts described above – which are not affiliated with Lion’s Roar – is listed below in alphabetical order.
Baydar Collective is a group of young people in North America from the Myanmar diaspora that conducts community education on the heterogeneity of anti-military resistance (and how it is shaped by intersecting differences in ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and sexuality), promotes the work of vetted United States nonprofits to support the people of Myanmar, highlights issues affecting the diaspora of Myanmar, and builds affinities and coalitions with other Asian American activists and activists of color.
Buddhist Humanitarian Project provides aid and support for Rohingya communities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. It is an initiative organized by the Clearview Project, in order to call upon the global Buddhist community to take a stand against violence inflicted upon the Rohingya and to support Rohingya refugees.
Clear View Project provides Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, promotes dialogue on issues of socially engaged Buddhism, and supports communities in need, both internationally and within the United States. A successor of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Burma Project, the Clear View Project has worked in Myanmar for many years including supporting activism leading up to the 2007 Saffron Revolution and throughout the country’s political and economic reforms since 2011, supporting political reforms and community development.
International Network of Engaged Buddhists is an autonomous organization under the Bangkok-based Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, and includes both organizational and individual members from more than 25 countries across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. From this diversity, INEB promotes an understanding of socially engaged Buddhism which integrates the practice of Buddhism with social action for a healthy, just, and peaceful world.
Mutual Aid Myanmar provides humanitarian support via resources to unemployed general strike workers in Myanmar in the form of food, healthcare and shelter. Mutual Aid Myanmar and verified partner organizations provide this aid in kind and via small cash stipends. Partner organizations are vetted by their Board of Directors and are part of local civil society networks.
United Nations independent rights experts on Wednesday urged businesses in Myanmar to uphold their human rights responsibilities and apply pressure on the military junta to halt grave human rights violations against its own people.
While some businesses have reiterated their public support for the rule of law and human rights, and cut ties with the junta in the aftermath of the 1 February coup, many continue to engage in business with the military as if nothing has happened, Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and members of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said in a news
As military leaders are intensifying their campaign of repression, companies must act in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to avoid contributing to human rights violations, or becoming complicit in crimes if they continue to operate in the country, the experts highlighted.
Surya Deva, Vice-Chair of the Working Group, said that because “the risk of gross human rights violations has greatly increased in Myanmar, action by States and human rights due diligence by business, and investors, should be rapidly and proportionately heightened”.
“Businesses, both individually and collectively, should exert the maximum leverage on the military in Myanmar to halt what the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said may amount to crimes against humanity”, Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews added.
Into its fourth month, the crisis in Myanmar – marked by near daily pro-democracy protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces – has reportedly claimed at least 782 lives. Countless more have been wounded and over 3,700 people are in detention, including many in situations that may amount to enforced disappearances.
Furthermore, over 1,500 arrest warrants have been issued against civil society activists, journalists, academics and others who oppose the coup, and military authorities are reportedly taking relatives of wanted people into custody to force them to turn themselves in.
“The revenues that the military earns from domestic and foreign businesses substantially enhances its ability and capacity to carry out these grave violations”, Mr. Andrews said.
A 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar outlined several economic interests of the military in the country, including links with private and foreign companies and conglomerates.
In it, the Mission concluded that no business should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw (as its military is known), or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members, until and unless they are restructured and transformed.
Suspend operations or consider exit
The experts also reiterated the Human Rights Council’s call for home States of businesses investing in Myanmar in any way, to take appropriate measures so that those businesses ensure their activities do not cause or contribute to rights violations.
Businesses which continue to operate in Myanmar should take all possible measures to protect their employees, support the exercise of all human rights by citizens, including the right to peaceful protests, and speak up to preserve civic space and the independence of the media, they said.
“There may come a point at which businesses might need to suspend operations or even consider exit from the country if risks of involvement in human rights abuse cannot be reasonably managed, while doing so in a manner to safeguard the well-being of workers and affected communities”, Mr. Deva said.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
The suspensions come as the resumption of universities after a year closed due to the coronavirus epidemic prompts a new confrontation between the army and the staff and students who are calling for boycotts over the Feb. 1 coup.
More than 11,000 academics and other university staff opposed to Myanmar’s ruling junta have been suspended after going on strike in protest against military rule, a teachers’ group told Reuters.
“I feel upset to give up a job that I adored so much, but I feel proud to stand against injustice,” said one 37-year-old university rector, who gave her name only as Thandar for fear of reprisals.
“My department summoned me today. I’m not going. We shouldn’t follow the orders of the military council.”A professor on a fellowship in the United States said she was told she would have to declare opposition to the strikes or lose her job. Her university authorities had told her every scholar would be tracked down and forced to choose, she told Reuters.
As of Monday, more than 11,100 academic and other staff had been suspended from colleges and universities offering degrees, an official of the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation told Reuters, declining to be identified for fear of reprisals.Reuters was not immediately able to ascertain exactly what proportion of total staff that figure represents. Myanmar had more than 26,000 teachers in universities and other tertiary education institutions in 2018, according to the most recent World Bank data.
Students and teachers were at the forefront of opposition during nearly half a century of military rule and have been prominent in the protests since the army detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and halted a decade of tentative democratic reforms.
Many teachers, like medics and other government workers, have stopped work as part of a civil disobedience movement that has paralysed Myanmar. As protests flared after the coup, security forces occupied campuses in the biggest city, Yangon, and elsewhere.A spokesman for the junta did not respond to phone calls seeking comment on the suspensions.
The junta-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said teachers and students should cooperate to get the education system started again.
“Political opportunists do not wish to see such development by committing sabotage acts,” it said.
BOYCOTTSIt was not clear to what extent the 11,000 staff suspensions would hamper efforts to reopen colleges but many students are also boycotting classes.
At the public West Yangon Technological University, the student’s union published a list of 180 staff who had been suspended to hail them as heroes.
“I don’t feel sad to miss school,” said 22-year-old Hnin, a student of the Yangon University of Education. “There’s nothing to lose from missing the junta’s education.
“Zaw Wai Soe, education minister in a rival National Unity Government set up underground by opponents of the junta, said he was touched that students had told him they would only return “when the revolution prevails”.
Doubts have also been raised over the return to school of younger students, with institutions now taking registrations for the start of a new year. There are nearly 10 million school students in the country of 53 million.
Protesters daubed “We don’t want to be educated in military slavery” at the entrance of a school in the southern town of Mawlamyine last week, a phrase that has been echoed at demonstrations across Myanmar by students.
“We’ll go to school only when Grandmother Suu is released,” read a banner of students in the northern town of Hpakant at the weekend, referring to detained leader Suu Kyi. “Free all students at once,” said another sign.
Many students are among at least 780 people killed by security forces and the 3,800 in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.
At least 47 teachers are also among the detainees while arrest warrants have been issued for some 150 teachers on charges of incitement.
Myanmar’s education system was already one of the poorest in the region – and ranked 92 of 93 countries in a global survey last year.
Even under the leadership of Suu Kyi, who had championed education, spending was below 2% of gross domestic product. That was one of the lowest rates in the world, according to World Bank figures.
Students could have little expectation of progress in Myanmar this year, said Saw Kapi, a founding director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy think tank.
“When it comes to education, I would suggest that instead of thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree, you must go to the University of Life with a major in revolution,” he wrote on social media. “You can go for a Masters or PhD later.”
A high-end office block in Myanmar linked to the country’s military leaders is seeing an exodus of international organisations.
Coca-Cola, the World Bank and McKinsey have told the BBC they have moved out or are reviewing their leases at the Sule Square complex in Yangon.
The United Nations said the complex was built on land owned by the military.
Myanmar’s military seized power from the democratically elected government in February.
It has been 100 days since the early morning coup, sparking mass protests across the country in which hundreds have died.
However, even before they took power on 1 February, Myanmar’s military – which initially ruled the country for almost half a century after seizing power in 1962 – owned large areas of land and controlled companies involved in everything from mining to banking.
The land on which the building stands was leased from the military, according to a 2019 United Nations fact-finding mission report.
Last month, activist group Justice for Myanmar called on 18 tenants of the complex of offices and shops in the heart of Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon to stop indirectly supporting the army.
“Sule Square has big-name tenants that continue to lease office space in the building, indirectly supporting the army,” Justice for Myanmar said in a report.
According to news agency Reuters, six of the companies have said they have moved out or were reviewing their plans, but only one mentioned the military link. Other firms cited various reasons, including business prospects.
In a statement via email, Coca-Cola told the BBC that it would not renew its lease when it ends in the middle of next month due to “changing business requirements”.
“Our office-based employees at Coca-Cola Limited (Myanmar) will continue to work from home for the rest of 2021 as part of overall safety measures. We will be communicating our new office location at a later date,” it added.
In a statement sent to the BBC, consultancy McKinsey & Company said: “We no longer have space in a serviced office leased in Sule Square. We terminated our lease in early 2021.”
Reuters said it is not currently using its Sule Square office and was reviewing its tenancy.
A spokesperson for the World Bank Group, which also has an office in the complex, told the BBC that it was “assessing the situation in Myanmar, according to internal policies and procedures”.
Norway’s state-owned telecoms operator Telenor said it had known that the military owned the land Sule Square is built on before it moved in but it had picked the location due to a number of reasons, including safety. Telenor has not said whether or not it plans to move out of the building.
Sule Square, which is close to the historic Sule Pagoda in Yangon, opened in 2017. It was developed by a local affiliate of Hong Kong listed Shangri-La Asia, which also manages the building and a neighbouring hotel.
Shangri-La said in 2017 that it had invested $125m (£88.5m) in the development.
People’s Defense Force is precursor to planned Federal Union Army aimed at bringing together armed anti-junta groups Self-defense groups set up across country in wake of attacks, arrests, night raids by military
YANGON: A newly formed armed militia under Myanmar’s shadow government is gaining the support of community self-defense groups and ethnic armies against the military junta that seized control of the country more than three months ago.
Since the coup on Feb. 1, the junta has killed at least 772 civilians during nationwide protests against the army takeover and violence.
The National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government of former lawmakers of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who were ousted by the junta, announced on Wednesday the formation of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a precursor to the planned Federal Union Army that would bring together all groups involved in armed resistance.
The move has already been welcomed by community self-defense groups which have emerged throughout the country in the wake of constant attacks, arrests, and night raids by the military.
Zayar Win, from one of the self-defense groups in Yangon, told Arab News that in Myanmar’s largest city alone, there would be many hundreds or even thousands of people ready to take up arms.
“They are linked with each other but require leadership. With PDF leadership, I think a strong force would quickly emerge. As long as the regime is in power, there will be endless suffering of people. So, taking the military dictatorship to an end is the first priority,” he said.
Working as a construction engineer in Yangon, he used to operate a philanthropic organization that helped vulnerable groups when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit the country. In April, the organization stopped its charity work and focused on supporting and fundraising for the anti-junta resistance, including those that produced explosives to attack the military.
“Sadly, we have postponed helping poor people, and shifted our focus to supporting those who are fighting the military,” he added.
Many of the civilians engaged in self-defense groups have been trained by militants from the country’s ethnic groups which also oppose the junta regime.
The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest insurgent group fighting for the greater autonomy of the eastern Karen State that borders Thailand, and the Kachin Independence Army in the northern Kachin State and northeastern Shan State that border China, have been active supporters of anti-junta resistance.
The KNU provides military training and shelter to hundreds of dissidents and protesters who have fled army persecution.
“There are many hundreds of people receiving combat training here,” a spokesperson for the KNU’s Brigade 5 told Arab News on Thursday. “There were also many people who finished training here and returned to their places of origin waiting for this moment. The PDF would be growing very fast.”
While ethnic groups support the formation of the PDF, it is not yet clear if all of them would be willing to fight under one banner, as although opposed to the current regime, ethnic minorities do not entirely trust the shadow government whose members had alienated them when they were in power.
The KNU, however, might be willing to join the fight against the common enemy, the Tatmadaw — the armed forces of Myanmar. Since late March, the group has killed more than 200 government troops in a series of clashes.
The spokesperson said: “I personally view the PDF as the armed group representing the country’s majority Bamar ethnic people. And I personally see no hurdle in unifying the armed groups of different ethnic people to fight against our common enemy, the Tatmadaw.”
But KNU secretary-general, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, on Friday told Arab News: “There are still many issues we have to make clear before making the decision.”
In one ethnic state the decision has already been taken.
Members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), who with home-made rifles recently killed dozens of military personnel in the mountainous Chin State bordering India, said they would join the PDF.
“We welcome the formation of the PDF, and we would cooperate with them in fighting against the regime’s forces,” a CDF spokesman told Arab News.
He said that they would also engage with the Federal Union Army when it was formed.
“We, Chin people, just want a peaceful life. Once the revolution is over, we will return to our farmland,” he added.
The US-ASEAN Business Council has called for Washington to appoint a special envoy for Myanmar, saying bold US leadership could help resolve the crisis.
A US special envoy could coordinate a strategic approach involving smart, targeted sanctions and create room for effective dialogue in tandem with allies, said the business council.
It urged President Joe Biden to empower a special envoy with a support base in the region by also swiftly filling US ambassadorial posts in Singapore and Thailand and for Asean, the 10-member regional body which includes Myanmar.
The council said: “The military coup threatens to reverse the political and economic progress made, as well as the country’s future trajectory.”
Recently, the United Nations Development Programme warned that all financial reports since the coup indicated Myanmar is approaching economic collapse.
Alexander Feldman, chairman of the business council, said: “The unfolding situation in Myanmar threatens economic collapse and imperils the lives of the people of Myanmar.
“The US government must fully equip and deploy its diplomatic arsenal in ASEAN to confront this crisis, which includes filling key ambassador posts in Southeast Asia and appointing a dedicated special envoy for Myanmar,” Feldman added.
“American leadership is necessary in this critical moment to realize a viable path forward for Myanmar and ensure stability in the region,” the chairman said.
The council plays an advocacy role for US corporations operating in ASEAN. In 2019, the council visited Myanmar to expand investment in the country along with the representatives of Amazon, Google, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Chubb, Diageo, Ford, Jhpiego, MasterCard, Visa, Abbott and BowerGroupAsia.
“The sooner the situation in Myanmar is seen and treated as an Indo-Pacific challenge on all fronts – political, security, humanitarian and economic – the better off all parties concerned will be”, said Jack Myint, country manager for Myanmar on the business council.
“Beyond the scope of great power competition, what we’re really looking at is a failed state waiting to happen at the heart of one of the most dynamic regions of the world. The US must do more and do better to tackle this head-on. There’s simply too much at stake,” Myint said.
Following the coup, the US imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military leadership. Trade sanctions followed in March against the defense and home affairs ministries and military-controlled conglomerates Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited.
In April, US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a state-owned gems firm, Myanma Timber Enterprise and Myanmar Pearl Enterprise in a bid to cut financial lifelines for the junta.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has faced criticism that it has not acted strongly enough against Myanmar’s junta.
A special meeting in Jakarta on April 24 with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was widely seen as ineffective.
ASEAN’s leaders reached a five-point consensus, urging the junta to seek a political resolution through dialogue, accept the appointment of a special envoy to engage with pro-democracy groups and grant access to humanitarian assistance from ASEAN.
However, the junta responded that it would consider the proposals after the situation stabilizes and if its five-step roadmap was followed. The regime claimed its roadmap served Myanmar’s national interests.
Norway’s Telenor (TEL.OL) wrote off the value of its Myanmar operation in light of the country’s deteriorating security and human rights situation, plunging the group into a first-quarter loss and sending its shares lower on Tuesday.
While it will continue to operate in Myanmar, Telenor’s mobile business in the Asian country, where it has had a presence since 2014, remains severely restricted following the military’s seizing of power in a Feb. 1 coup. read more
The new regime imposed network restrictions for all operators, and on March 15 ordered a nationwide shutdown of mobile data that has since cut Telenor’s subscription and traffic revenues in the country in half, the company said.
However, it still added some 2 million users in Myanmar during the quarter as call volumes rose, increasing its local customer base to 18.2 million.
“Telenor calls on the authorities to immediately reinstate unimpeded communications and respect the rights to freedom of expression and human rights,” the company said in a statement.
While Telenor saw an “irregular, uncertain, and deeply concerning situation” with “limited prospects of improvement going forward”, Telenor would stay in Myanmar for now, CEO Sigve Brekke said.
“We still believe we are making a difference when keeping our operations running,” he told an earnings presentation. “We strive to continue to do so to the best of our ability.”
The company declined to comment on whether it was realistic to expect any cash flow from the Myanmar operation for the time being, with Brekke adding that the current uncertainty made it impossible to comment on future options.
“Our continued presence will depend on the development in the country and the ability to contribute positively to the people of Myanmar,” he said.
Telenor fully impaired Telenor Myanmar in its first-quarter accounts, booking a loss of 6.5 billion crowns ($783 million) and removing the operation from its overall corporate outlook for 2021.
As a result of the writedown, the Telenor group’s net earnings slumped to a loss of 3.9 billion Norwegian crowns in the first quarter from a year-ago profit of 698 million crowns.
Telenor shares were down 2.0% at 0913 GMT, lagging a flat Oslo benchmark index (.OSEBX).
Adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) fell 8% year-on-year to 13 billion crowns, in line with an analyst forecast of 13.1 billion crowns.
Telenor reiterated full-year guidance for overall organic revenue and earnings to remain unchanged year-on-year from 2020, excluding the Myanmar impact. It repeated that capital expenditure would amount to between 15% and 16% of sales.
Credit Suisse, which holds a neutral rating on the stock, said the guidance technically amounted to a downgrade due to the exclusion of Myanmar, which represented 6% of group revenue and 7% of EBITDA last year.
“The Asian operations otherwise delivered a decent performance in Thailand and Malaysia offset by Myanmar and there was some weakness in the Nordics as the competitive environment remains tough in markets like Sweden and Norway,” the bank said.
The company, which serves 187 million customers in nine countries across Europe and Asia, a net gain of 5 million since the start of the year, last month announced plans to merge its Malaysian unit with competitor Axiata (AXIA.KL), seeking to form a new market leader. .
Subsidiaries eye bid for Citi’s local business, healthcare and logistics investments
MANILA — The Philippines’ oldest conglomerate Ayala is taking a “long-term” view and a “wait-and-see” approach on Myanmar, executives said on Friday, even as a coup has forced other foreign businesses to exit or halt investments there.
Ayala, whose key interests are in real estate, banking and telecommunications, in 2019 announced a $237.5 million bet on Myanmar through a strategic partnership with Yoma Group, a local conglomerate controlled by tycoon Serge Pun. The Philippine company had eyed opportunities in various sectors from power to financial services.
Ayala managing director and head of its power unit Eric Francia said the group is looking at its Myanmar investments “from a long-term perspective.”
“While there is obviously a concern on a lot of issues, we remain steadfast in our long-term outlook,” Francia said during an online media briefing following the company’s shareholders meeting.
“We will just continue to work with our partners to make sure that our investments are prudently managed, and then we will take appropriate actions as the developments evolve.”
Francia’s remarks come as Southeast Asian leaders prepare for a summit in Jakarta on Saturday to tackle the Myanmar crisis, which was triggered by a military coup in February and has led to the detention of de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and bloody street protests.
“The situation on the ground is extremely sensitive,” Ayala head of corporate strategy Paolo Borromeo said. “Obviously, projects and businesses stopped. But at this stage … I think the most prudent thing to do is to wait and see and ensure the safety of our partners’ employees.”
Other companies have taken drastic steps as turmoil engulfed what was previously regarded as Southeast Asia’s “last frontier market,” with investors lauding reforms taken following its transition to democracy a decade ago. Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings said it would pull out from a joint venture with a company linked to the junta, while Thai developer Amata has suspended a $1 billion industrial estate project in the country.
Myanmar was the latest destination in a regional expansion by Ayala that has also taken the company to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.
At home, Ayala, the country’s second most valuable listed conglomerate, is gearing up to resume expansion after pandemic-induced business disruptions halved the company’s net income to 17.1 billion pesos ($351 million) in 2020.
Ayala has earmarked 196 billion pesos for capital expenditure this year, largely for its real estate and telecommunications businesses. The company also plans to boost investments in newer ventures such as health care and logistics, which saw greater demand amid the pandemic.
“I think we will see a period here where we will be mainly focusing on our current businesses. There are no imminent plans to enter new sectors right now,” said Fernando Zobel de Ayala, who on Friday officially took over as the chief executive, replacing his brother Jaime Augusto, who occupied the position for 26 years. Jaime Augusto remains the Ayala chairman.
On health care, the company plans to open the country’s first cancer hospital by 2023. In February, Ayala’s AC Health unit acquired a majority stake in Qualimed Health Network, expanding its portfolio to four general hospitals, 85 outpatient clinics and 80 corporate clinics.
Logistics arm Entrego, meanwhile, is in talks with several family-owned logistics companies “to partner with some of them” amid a boom in e-commerce, said Jose Rene Almendras, who heads Ayala’s infrastructure and logistics businesses.
Meanwhile, Ayala-led Bank of the Philippine Islands has expressed interests in bidding for the local retail banking business of Citigroup, which the U.S. company plans to divest as part of a regional restructuring.
“Citibank runs excellent operations in the Philippines, which we believe are complementary to BPI’s operations and therefore we would be interested,” said bank president Jose Teodoro Limcaoco during the shareholders’ meeting.
Ayala is pinning its hopes on the Philippines’ vaccine rollout to pave the way for an economic recovery, even as the country wrestles with its worst COVID outbreak, which has overwhelmed hospitals and prompted stricter lockdown measures.
“We are cautiously optimistic about the business environment and will continue to prepare for a postpandemic economic recovery,” CEO Zobel said.
Opposition to the military’s coup has boosted ethnic armed groups, creating a new challenge to its lucrative jade and gems business.
Life in Myanmar’s jade-producing regions was always difficult and precarious but since the military seized power from the civilian government on February 1, it has become even more dangerous.
In Kachin State’s Hpakant township, which has the world’s largest and most lucrative jade mines, there are more soldiers and police, access to mining sites has become more difficult and local markets have stopped operating.
“Many places are dangerous to dig jade now. There are only a few places where we can dig by hand or small machine,” said Sut Naw, a local miner who preferred to use a pseudonym for security reasons.
Police and soldiers are now guarding company compounds, he added, patrolling roads day and night. They also stop people on the streets or in their vehicles, checking for jade and other valuables and searching through people’s phones for evidence of resistance to the coup.
“I have seen many zombie movies, but never realised that I would be living in a similar environment,” he said. “People don’t go out at all unless they have to.”
The military has long dominated Myanmar’s jade industry and continues to rake in immense profits. Myanmar’s annual jade and gems emporium, held from April 1 to 10, brought in $6.5m on the sixth day alone, according to state media.
In 2015, the environmental watchdog Global Witness valued Myanmar’s jade industry at $31bn and described it as possibly the “biggest natural resource heist in modern history.” Identifying the Tatmadaw and armed elites as the industry’s biggest profiteers, the exploitation of jade was “an appalling crime that poses a serious threat to democracy and peace in Myanmar,” it said.
Keel Dietz, a Myanmar policy adviser with Global Witness, told Al Jazeera that with the Tatmadaw now in total control over the formal governance of natural resources, they were likely to step up that exploitation.
“There is a huge risk that the military, in their desperate efforts to maintain control, will look to the country’s natural resource wealth to sustain their rule, to buy weapons, and enrich themselves,” he said.
Escalating clashes between the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of an ethnic armed group in the resource-rich northern state and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, have raised questions over the control over the jade mines.
Before a 1994 ceasefire, the Kachin Independence Organization, which has been fighting for federal rights to self-determination since 1961, controlled most of the mines and local people were able to enjoy a share of the wealth through small-scale mining activities. The KIA is its armed wing.
The ceasefire saw most of the jade-mining region nationalised under a military government known for exploiting resources without regard for the social and environmental consequences.
The state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise took control over the regulation of mining activity and issuing licences, which it signed over to itself and to companies that benefitted its interests, including proxy companies, companies run by military cronies and those connected to armed actors including the United Wa State Army, which runs its own special administrative region on the China border and has a history of links to drug trafficking.
These companies levelled mountains, dug enormous trenches and dumped waste with impunity.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants flocked to the area, dreaming of digging their way to prosperity but found themselves scavenging through company waste heaps; if they found a big stone, it was confiscated by soldiers.
The natural environment was destroyed, landslides and mining accidents claimed hundreds of lives, and drug abuse skyrocketed – all while the Tatmadaw pocketed handsome profits.
Shortly after winning elections in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to reform the industry and in August 2016, suspended the renewal of mining licences and the issuance of new ones.
But companies bypassed the suspensions with impunity, and the NLD government was widely criticised by rights groups for failing to bring meaningful changes to the jade industry. In July 2020, more than 170 people were buried in a landslide in a Hpakant jade mine.
“The government and military have never respected natural resources,” said Ah Shawng,* a land and Indigenous rights activist in Hpakant. “They extract resources as they wish and only for themselves. .. Our natural resources are all disappearing and being destroyed.”
But since the coup, resistance to centralised policies and the exploitation of ethnic people and the land and resources in their states appears to be rising.
The 2008 military-drafted constitution, which centralised land and resource management at the union level and entrenched Tatmadaw power, was abolished on March 31 by officials forced out by the military. In its place, they put forward an interim Federal Democracy Charter.
Mainstream support for armed resistance to military rule has also increased, as the Tatmadaw arrests thousands and indiscriminately shoots civilians. Some 739 people have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which is tracking the violence.
With ethnic armed groups, including the KIO, in a position to offer protection and help fight back against the generals, ethnic minorities’ struggles for self-determination under a federal system, which were once largely ignored by the majority Bamar public, are now increasingly popular. Pro-KIA demonstrations have been held across Kachin State and even in central Myanmar, while the number of recruits is rising.
Although the KIA and Tatmadaw have been at war since the ceasefire collapsed in 2011, fighting had slowed since 2018.
But since the coup conflict has escalated.
Clashes have been taking place nearly every day. The KIA, so far, appears to have the upper hand – it has taken several Tatmadaw bases and claims to have obliterated entire battalions, killing hundreds of soldiers.
Some of the most intense fighting has occurred in and around Hpakant, where Ah Shawng, the local rights activist who also prefers to use a pseudonym for her security, says most locals support the KIA.
“Now, when [junta] forces harm people, the KIA protects and stands with us,” she said, adding that the KIA had been successful in driving out some security forces from the area.
On March 28, the KIA killed about 30 policemen who had raided a jade mining site operated by the Taut Pa Kyal mining company, according to Kachin State-based media reports.
The company, according to a BBC Burmese article, is backed by the Kyaw Naing company, which has 64 licenced mining sites and failed to disclose a military crony among its beneficial owners in 2020. Days later, a photo circulated on social media of a police station, allegedly at another company jade mining site in Hpakant, bearing a white flag of surrender to the KIA. Al Jazeera contacted the KIO to verify the incidents but they declined to comment on matters related to Hpakant.
The KIA may be fighting to gain control of other areas as well – including some areas beyond Kachin State.
Local news agency Myanmar Now reported on April 15 that the KIA and Tatmadaw had clashed in Mogok, a city in Mandalay region hundreds of miles from Kachin State.
Mogok’s mines possess the world’s most valuable rubies, as well as other lucrative gemstones. On April 16, a group of youth in Mogok staged a pro-KIA march and drew a large “Welcome KIA” banner on the street. The next day, the military forces gunned down at least two people in the city.
Sanctions, import bans
The United States has already imposed sanctions on Myanmar Gems Enterprise, as well as on two military holding companies, Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC). This week, the European Union also added MEHL and MEC to its sanctions list.
Dietz of Global Witness told Al Jazeera that while the sanctions were “hugely important,” they were likely to have only a limited effect on the jade sector without the support of China, which serves as the primary market for Myanmar’s jade, a highly prized luminous green stone.
“Global Witness encourages the international community to place import bans on all jade and coloured gemstones coming from Myanmar,” he said.
He also expressed concern that as the Tatmadaw finds itself squeezed of funds, it might try sell off resource concessions in exchange for fast cash.
“The international community should make it clear to commodity trading firms and other investors in natural resources that now is not the time to be making large new resource deals in Myanmar – the military regime is not a legitimate government, and should not be allowed to sell away Myanmar’s remaining mineral wealth to sustain itself,” he said.
Tu Hkawng the Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation under the newly-formed interim National Unity Government running in parallel to the generals’ administration, told Al Jazeera that it was time to bring natural resource management back into the hands of the local people.
Appointed on April 16, he has already begun engaging with local stakeholders to reform natural resource management policy through the lens of Indigenous rights.
“We are trying to build a collective leadership … to engage more with the grassroots-level community and solve the problems together,” he said. “This is a bottom-up approach. In order to achieve it, we have to build a network with every stakeholder and collaborate.”
He hopes that by addressing natural resource governance, the civil wars that have plagued the country for the past 70 years can finally be brought to an end.
“Every ethnic group has the right to manage and benefit from the natural resources on its own land. Right now we don’t have that,” he said. “If everyone gets to govern their own land, we won’t have to fight any more.”
*Names have been changed to protect the security of those interviewed, at their request.