Category Archives: Top Stories

Myanmar: End World’s Longest Internet Shutdown

Lift Restrictions in Embattled Rakhine, Chin States

A telecommunications tower in Mrauk U township, Rakhine State, where the Myanmar government has imposed an internet blackout.  © 2018 Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should immediately lift all internet restrictions in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, Human Rights Watch said today. The mobile internet shutdown, which began on June 21, 2019, is affecting more than a million people living in a conflict zone.

The internet shutdown, along with restrictions on access by aid agencies, has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak, humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch. Local groups report that the shutdown has made it difficult to coordinate the distribution of aid to conflict-affected communities, and to communicate with their field teams to ensure staff safety. A local editor said the shutdown greatly impedes media coverage of the fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Arakan Army, making it hard for villagers to get up-to-date information.

“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe.”

The government first imposed restrictions on mobile internet communications in the townships of Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung in Rakhine State and Paletwa township in Chin State. The government temporarily lifted restrictions in five townships from September 2019 until February 2020, when they were reinstated. On May 2, the authorities lifted the restrictions in Maungdaw.

On June 12, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications announced the government would extend the internet shutdown until at least August 1 in the remaining eight townships, citing security concerns. “We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” said Soe Thein, the ministry’s permanent secretary, at a media briefing.

Article 77 of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law authorizes the Ministry of Transport and Communications to suspend a telecommunications service or restrict certain forms of communication during “an emergency” situation. The broadly worded law should be amended to bring it in line with international standards to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

Internet access plays a crucial role in enabling people to access information about Covid-19 and self-quarantine, and to observe other protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. A coalition of nongovernmental organizations has appealed to the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge Myanmar to end the internet shutdowns amid the pandemic. Intentionally shutting down or restricting access to the internet violates multiple rights in addition to freedom of expression, and undermines efforts to control the virus.

Aid groups told Human Rights Watch they feared that shortages of food and water were underreported in many villages in Chin and Rakhine States due to the communications blackout. They also said that in some communities, family members had not been able to send digital payments or contact friends and relatives in conflict areas. Since January 2019, hundreds of civilians have been killed and about 106,000 displaced by the fighting between the military and the Arakan Army.

Internet restrictions have also made it more difficult for the news media to safely gather information and promptly disseminate it. “It is affecting not just the daily activity of our reporting but also for getting news and fact-finding,” said Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Sittwe-based Development Media Group. “Even though our reporters went to conflict-affected areas and interviewed reliable sources, it is difficult to send the material back to the office because they don’t have internet access.”

In addition to the mobile internet, the Myanmar authorities have ordered the blocking of websites of independent and ethnic news media, among many other sites. Between March 19 and May 11, telecommunications operators and internet service providers received five directives from the Transport and Communications Ministry under article 77 of the Telecommunications Law to block 2,172 specific websites, of which 92 were alleged to provide “fake news.” Independent and ethnic media sites such as Development Media Group, Narinjara News, Karen News, and Voice of Myanmar were among those ordered blocked.

The Myanmar government should stop blocking media websites, Human Rights Watch said. State-mandated blocking of entire websites is an extreme measure that can only be justified as the least intrusive measure to protect a legitimate public interest. A broad claim that the sites are posting inaccurate news does not provide justification for blocking the websites in their entirety and indefinitely. The government has not made public any of the directives ordering internet shutdowns or blocking of websites.

The government contends that the mobile internet shutdown does not disrupt the dissemination of information because people in affected areas can use mobile SMS services and public address systems to receive government information. The internet can also be accessed in some locations via fixed connections.

However, the vast majority of internet users across Myanmar use mobile data – through cell phones – to access the internet, which provides more opportunity for people to access information quickly, particularly during crisis and conflict situations. A 2019 survey by Myanmar Survey Research found that while half the total population used the internet, of those users, all accessed the internet via their mobile devices.

The internet shutdown has also hampered monitoring of the extremely vulnerable ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State. In January, the International Court of Justice ordered the government to protect the Rohingya from genocidal acts.

Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access and information and called for free speech protections under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN and regional organization experts said, “Using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.” During crises, governments should refrain from blocking the internet and, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service.

In January, UN human rights experts said in Myanmar, “The blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately.”

“For a year now, the internet shutdown has severely impacted the rights of over a million people in Rakhine and Chin States,” Lakhdhir said. “The government should lift the shutdown, unblock websites, and amend the Telecommunications Law to bring it in line with international standards.”

Credit:www.hrw.org

Myanmar expects worst of Covid’s economic impact from Sept

Rain clouds linger over a construction site during the sunset in Yangon on June 3, 2020. (AFP photo)

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the most severe economic impact from the novel coronavirus outbreak is expected in the final four months of this year.

“We’d like to reassure the people that we’re well prepared to address the impacts,” Suu Kyi said in a panel discussion via video conference on Tuesday. “We believe we’ll be able to overcome them through inclusive cooperation.”

Thailand’s neighbour is due to receive $1.25 billion in emergency loans from international organisations, Thaung Tun, investment and foreign economic relations minister, said in the same panel.

The funds are coming from the International Monetary Fund, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Thaung Tun said. Further loans may be approved, taking total to $2 billion, according to the government.

Myanmar’s official novel coronavirus case count stands at 262, including six fatalities, although there are concerns some infections are undetected.

Credit: www.bangkokpost.com

Dallas tea company imports rare leaves from woman-owned estate in Myanmar

Rakkasan Tea partners with the Mogok Tea estate to promote economic development within a country still engaged in civil conflict.

Rakkasan Tea Co. in Deep Ellum, run by two combat veterans, imports premium loose-leaf tea from post-conflict countries like Vietnam, Laos and Rwanda with a mission of promoting peace and economic development.

But they’ve recently branched out to Myanmar, also known as Burma, which is still, technically, in a state of conflict. An ongoing civil war between ethnic groups persists even after an oppressive military dictatorship was dissolved in 2011.

Myanmar is in the cradle of tea country, in Southeast Asia bordering China. But because it’s been isolated from the Western world, so have its teas, and it’s extremely rare to find Burmese tea in the U.S.

Brandon Friedman, who runs Rakkasan Tea with co-founder and former fellow soldier Terrence “TK” Kamauf, says sourcing tea from Myanmar presented a challenge. “There are moral questions,” he says of doing business in a country battling corruption. “It’s something I’ve thought long and hard about.”

But it still fits their mission, he says. “The country is unquestionably in a better place than it was. And we are doing our part to encourage that and prod it along, to allow the Burmese people to connect with the wider world.”

Rakkasan Tea Co. in Dallas has imported rare teas from Myanmar.(Rakkasan Tea Company)

Friedman recently connected with Phyu Thwe, who owns the Mogok Tea estate, a 100-acre oasis of ancient tea trees and newly planted trees untouched by the legacy of destructive gem mining in Myanmar.

Thwe grew up in the small village of Mogok but now lives in London and works as an accountant. The 35-year-old wanted to see the world when she left home at 20, but she quickly became disillusioned with the Western lifestyle and searched for a project with more purpose.

She went back to her childhood, where she remembered walking from village to village with her family, stopping to rest under a tea tree on her way back from the forest.

“This is where I need to begin,” she says. “I kind of realized, if I drop dead tomorrow, everything I study or do, it doesn’t mean anything. But if I create some sort of vehicle that creates something that I can leave behind, it will live on.”

So in 2018, instead of studying to become a tax adviser, Thwe chose to study tea at the UK Tea Academy so that she could learn to farm her family’s land and create a business that would provide economic stability to her home village as well as protect and preserve the environment.

Phyu Thwe is the founder of Mogok Tea in Myanmar.(Mogok Tea)

Because tea is not really valued within Myanmar, the ancient tea trees on her family’s land have been virtually untouched. Thwe’s family gave her the land and even told her she was crazy to farm tea, she says. But she’s transformed it into not only a high-quality premium tea operation but also a way to transition the local economy away from the practice of mining and create a model of ethical labor practices and environmental sustainability.

When Thwe was a child, she says, there were green hills everywhere. “Now when I go, there are not many hills left. Everything has been mined. The scenery is gone,” she says.

She started farming 10 acres and employs 12 people whom she pays for the full year, not just during harvest. She has trained them about employee rights, and because there is no health care coverage in Myanmar unless you work for the government, she pays her employees’ doctor bills when they get sick.

“I myself had symptoms of depression, but since this project started, I have felt like I’m no longer depressed,” Thwe says. “Every day I’m working and send money from here [London] to pay them. It’s like if you have a child, but this is not a child, this is for 12 families. That changes a lot over there.”

Thwe and her team are also gentle with the land, as well as the tea leaves. The leaves are hand-picked, and only a little at a time as to not deplete the plant. “Our yield is like a fraction of what others are picking because we let it grow naturally,” she says.

The plants on her property have also been untouched by fertilizer over the years. “So our tea has been grown semiwild and of organic nature,” Thwe says.

Tea leaves are hand-picked at the Mogok Tea estate in Myanmar.(Sai Nun Khay)

Rakkasan Tea Co. has chosen green and black teas from Mogok to add to its lineup. The black tea, which is rare even in Myanmar, is crafted with a “spider leg” twist and has a natural sweetness and fruitiness. The green tea has a toastiness with notes of asparagus.

The tea also has, so far, been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic due to its rural origins. “The disease hasn’t really spread to these places, so they have more mobility,” Friedman says.

And as we deal with the uncertainty of the pandemic and other stressful current events, tea can be a much-needed salve, whether it’s helping to promote peace abroad or just for taking a calming tea break at home.

The Mandalay Black and Mandalay Green teas are $19.99 each (yields 15-20 cups) at rakkasantea.com.

By: Erin Booke
Credit: www.dallasnews.com

Myanmar growth to slow in 2020 but rebound next year, World Bank says

An overview of downtown Yangon from Sule. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times

Although economic growth for Myanmar is forecast to slow to 1.5 percent in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this could rebound to 6pc by 2021, according to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2020 report released on June 8. The economy grew 6.3pc in 2019.

The slowdown is a result of domestic shutdowns, reduced tourism, as well as disrupted trade and manufacturing. However, the economy is expected to regain momentum next year if the global pandemic is brought under control and global trade resumes.

But the COVID-19 pandemic also brings new challenges to Myanmar, as serious risks remain which could delay the country’s recovery next year.

For example, the pandemic will likely further slow potential growth in the region by weakening investment and the supply chains that have contributed to Myanmar growth over the last decade. Economic activity in the rest of Asia is forecast to contract by 1.2pc in 2020 before rebounding in 2021. The regional outlook will significantly deteriorate if global trade tensions re-escalate.

Based on a survey by the Asia Foundation, half the enterprises surveyed believed business survival represented a moderate or high risk, with garments and textiles, hotel and accommodations being at particularly high risk.

Meanwhile, 92pc of enterprises reported lower sales due to COVID – 19 with 74pc facing sharp declines of more than half of normal sales. Businesses also laid off on average 16pc of their employees due to COVID – 19.

“Our first order of business is to address the global health and economic emergency. Beyond that, the global community must unite to find ways to rebuild as robust a recovery as possible to prevent more people from falling into poverty and unemployment.” World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, said.

Currently, the Myanmar government is focusing on improving trade and investment with flexible policies, providing financial stimulus to businesses and promoting digital platforms under its COVID – 19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP).

It is also trying to ensure the flow of essential goods such as food, commodities, medicines and medical supplies in the short-term, while raising investment promotion efforts and strengthening cooperation with development partners for more long term stability, Investment and Foreign Economic Relations’ Minister U Thaung Tun said last week.

Credit: www.mmtimes.com

India-Myanmar border trade down by 40 per cent

India-Myanmar border trade has gone down by over 40 per cent for the current fiscal year started October 1, 2019.

It is because of the temporary closure of border posts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to reports, the trade value went down from US$128 million to US$76 million for the same period, a decrease of 40 per cent.

India trades with Myanmar in Mizoram, Manipur, Tamu, Reed, and Thantlang borders.

On March 10 last, the Indian government decided to close border gates indefinitely at the Tamu (Sagaing Region) – Moreh in Manipur.

India is the fifth largest export destination for Myanmar and sixth largest source of imports according to figures from the Indian Embassy in Myanmar.

Also in March, the two governments had announced plans to import 400,000 tonnes of black gram beans from Myanmar between May 2020 and March 2021, according to the report.

Credit: nenow.in

Myanmar suspends visas until mid-June

YANGON, 4 June 2020: Myanmar has extended its suspension of all travel visas until 15 June according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ latest announcement posted on its website 1 June.

The announcement extends the suspension of all visas including visa exemptions that were introduced in mid-March under a ruling that was due to expire 31 May.

The entry ban covers e-visas, visa-on-arrival and includes all nationalities that eligible for visa-free travel to Myanmar.

Earlier this week some airlines posted details of the flights’ schedules that suggested they would resume flights to Myanmar’s capital this month.

Myanmar National Airlines filed timetable details for flights to Hong Kong and Singapore this month, but that plan has now been shelved.

Airlines are keen to renew services to facilitate essential travel, repatriation flights and cargo.

Credit: www.ttrweekly.com

SK Telecom sends cyber experts to Myanmar amid national SOC development

South Korean provider also targets expansion through Vietnam and Thailand

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) of Myanmar has moved to bolster cyber prevention and defence capabilities through a security-focused partnership with SK Telecom.

Terms of the contract will see the South Korean provider deploy a team of cyber security specialists to Myanmar to consult on the “design and establishment” of a security operation centre (SOC) at the government agency until the end of July.

Leveraging SK Telecom’s ‘Smart Guard’ solution, the team will attempt to diagnose security vulnerabilities within NCSC’s existing cyber security infrastructure, alongside offering infrastructure security management guidance and advice.

This is in addition to the provision of SIEM (security information and event management) offerings developed by Korean security specialist Igloo Security. The solution will “collect and analyse” information – such as logs, errors and hacking – generated by diverse systems including servers, network equipment and applications.

“We are pleased to establish our SOC with SK Telecom’s advanced technology and know-how in infrastructure security,” said Ko Ye Naing Moe, director of NCSC. “We will work closely with SK Telecom to better protect Myanmar’s national intelligence and intelligence resources.”

Operating as an agency under the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Myanmar, NCSC is tasked with safeguarding national intelligence against cyber threats, including hacking and distributed denial-of-service (DDos) attacks, as well as protecting the nation’s information and communication networks.

“SK Telecom will work closely with the NCSC to build a sophisticated security operation system in Myanmar to strengthen its protection against the ever-increasing cyber threats,” said Shim Sang-soo, vice president of Infra Business at SK Telecom. “Going forward, armed with strong cyber security capabilities, we will seek further business opportunities in other Asian markets.”

Following the export of services to Myanmar – which Sang-soo said serves as a “strategic hub” connecting the emerging ASEAN markets – SK Telecom expects to expand security reach across other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.

Credit: sg.channelasia.tech

The Building That Exploited Myanmar’s Oil Wealth

The former Burmah Oil Company headquarters on Merchant Street / Yangon Architecture

It was Burmah Oil Company (BOC) that monopolized Myanmar (then Burma)’s oil industry in the colonial period. Based on the corner of Merchant Street and 32nd Street in Yangon (then Rangoon), the building today houses the National Library of Myanmar.

Built in 1908 by the architect and contractor Robinson and Mundy, the building was originally the headquarters of the Scottish trading firm Fleming and Co which exported textiles and imported a variety of European merchandize, including shoes, paint and beverages.

The BOC took over the four-story building from Fleming and Co. It started operations in 1886, one year after the country’s last monarch, King Thibaw, was dethroned and exiled in India. The firm piped crude oil from Upper Myanmar to Thanlyin oil refinery across the Yangon River.

It produced petroleum, gasoline and candles and distributed internationally and domestically, reaching the most remote areas of the country.

The company also sold petrol, kerosene lamps and candles and its headquarters were alive with wholesalers and retailers, petroleum inspectors, representatives of foreign oil companies, tanker operators and globetrotting oil workers from the United States, UK, India and elsewhere.

One street away from the BOC’s headquarters, the Steel Brothers and Co Ltd, which monopolized the country’s rice industry in the colonial period, opened its headquarters on what is now Bo Sun Pat Street.

The simply designed BOC office played an important role in modernizing the colonialized society which had no access to electricity or the international fuel markets. The country’s oil only made up for 1 percent of total global production, but 20 percent of the British Empire’s overall output.

National crude oil production rose to 1 million tons annually by the 1930s, with 80 percent of that total coming from BOC. The company also established BOC College to train engineers, technicians and workers for its operations.

BOC enjoyed its most profitable years during the 1920s when it was listed among the top 10 British manufacturing firms. Crude oil was the second-largest source of foreign currency income ahead of World War II, according to Myanmar Encyclopedia.

Indigenous oil workers earned a tiny fraction of the salaries of British officials at the BOC and endured miserable, crowded living conditions.

In a bid for better conditions, thousands of oil workers marched about 650 kilometers from Chauk in today’s Magway Region to Yangon despite a violent crackdown by the colonial government. They were joined by thousands of other workers, farmers and people from all strata of society in what would become the first movement for independence.

The movement in 1938 was significant as a national uprising against colonial rule and became known as the Revolution of 1300, named after Myanmar’s calendar.

The British general manager of the BOC, Harold Roper, was kept busy having to report to the board of directors in London about the strike, negotiate with the colonial government and answer media questions. On March 15, 1939, oil workers managed to block all entrances to the BOC’s head office by lying down on the pavements around the building. Hours later, the police forcibly dispersed the protesters and detained 123 of them.

When World War II broke out, the BOC – which exploited the country’s oil resources under the umbrella of the colonial government – abandoned its head office, burning documents and maps.

The abandoned building survived the war but the interior was a shambles with no furniture or equipment. As oil fields and equipment were destroyed by the retreating British, the country’s supplies of kerosene and candles ran out.

After independence, BOC shared the building with the Ideal Nursing Home, also known as the Sanpya Clinic. In 1963, the BOC was sold to the Revolutionary Council government, ending 55 years of foreign ownership.

The building then housed the office of the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) for the next 40 years. It was left vacant when the MOGE moved to Naypyitaw in 2005 and 2006. Most of the roof was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the building was renovated by the Construction Ministry in 2010.

After the National League for Democracy won the 2015 general election and U Htin Kyaw, the son of influential intellectual Min Thu Wun, became the president, he allowed the building to house the National Library.

While some colonial-era buildings house hotels, restaurants and shopping centers, the 112-year-old former BOC office has become a public building.

By: WEI YAN AUNG
Credit: www.irrawaddy.com

Pandemic Adds New Threat for Rohingyas in Myanmar

Burmese Authorities Are Using Covid-19 Response Measures as a Pretext to Harass and Extort Rohingyas

This is what life is like for the 130,000 internally displaced Rohingyas trapped in detention camps in central Rakhine state in Myanmar: in the camps, they have no future, with little access to land or livelihoods. They depend on foreign aid supplies and die of treatable diseases because of limited access to healthcare. Shelters, built in 2012 to last two years, have deteriorated. Most children can only attend basic classes at temporary learning spaces.

Burmese authorities are using Covid-19 response measures as a pretext to harass and extort Rohingyas and are doubling down on a system in which they are already effectively incarcerating the population. Rohingyas in the camps told Human Rights Watch that military and police forces regularly subject them to harassing physical punishment at checkpoints. One Rohingya woman said the police made her do sit-ups for 30 minutes for not wearing a mask through a checkpoint, after which she was too exhausted to move. Another man witnessed people being forced to perform squats at a checkpoint with their hands on their ears.

Last week, the government of Myanmar delivered its much-anticipated first report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – following the court’s unanimous January 23 provisional measures order – explaining what it has done to protect the 600,000 ethnic Rohingyas in Rakhine state, whom a United Nations-backed fact-finding body said remain under threat of genocide.

The reality on the ground for the Rohingyas is dire: “oppressive and systemic restrictions” imposed on those remaining in Rakhine state, which may be indicative of ongoing genocide. The government established the camps following a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against Rohingyas in central Rakhine state in 2012. Almost eight years later, they remain in de facto detention camps surrounded by fences, police, and military.

Myanmar has a long history of creating hollow committees and commissions to appease critics, thwart genuine international scrutiny, and diffuse pressure to reform. But the ICJ’s judges made clear that Myanmar must show “concrete measures aimed specifically at recognizing and ensuring the right of the Rohingya to exist as a protected group under the Genocide Convention.”

In recent interviews with Human Rights Watch, displaced Rohingyas in the Sittwe camps described a familiar array of social distancing requirements, frequent handwashing, and mask wearing, all of which also apply to the general population of Myanmar. The consequences for noncompliance are less familiar.

A Rohingya woman told us that Rohingyas are not allowed to cross Sittwe checkpoints without a mask and are fined or receive ad hoc punishments if they aren’t wearing one. Yet the authorities have not provided enough face masks to Rohingyas in the camps. Several camp residents told us that an entire family must share a mask because they could not afford to buy one for each family member.

There is no guarantee that following the Covid-19 rules protects people from extortion. One Rohingya man said, “Police fine people even though they are wearing a mask…they took the money from a man’s pocket, like 20,000” kyat ($14) – a sizeable sum considering many displaced people only receive approximately 15,000 kyat ($11) per month from the UN World Food Program in lieu of food rations.

Rakhine state, one of the poorest in Myanmar, is ill-prepared to handle a Covid-19 outbreak, but the health risks are even higher for displaced Rohingyas in overcrowded and squalid camps. Those in need of medical referrals to Sittwe General Hospital struggle to obtain permission to leave the camps, even in urgent cases. One Rohingya man said that a township official told him that “If people are affected [by Covid-19], you have to get treatment in the camps. They will not be allowed to the hospital.”

But the camps neither have Covid-19 testing nor the capacity to address complex medical cases. This failure to provide an adequate health response is underlined by Myanmar’s nationwide “Action Plan for the Control of Covid-19 Outbreak at IDP Camps,” which does not include testing or plans for the country’s internally displaced people.

Myanmar may point to its recent presidential directives aimed at preventing genocide, preserving evidence, and deterring hate speech as signs of progress in carrying out the ICJ’s order.

But donor governments, the UN, and others wondering about Myanmar’s compliance with the court’s provisional measures order should consider this: The tightening restrictions and increased scope for extortion mean that if Rohingyas need treatment for Covid-19, they may have to forgo food to buy a mask.

Even with a mask, they may still undergo harassment, fines, and physical punishment at multiple checkpoints, only to find that the main clinic in the camps – the only place they can get medical assistance – cannot test them or provide adequate care. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, as well as the fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups across Rakhine state, threats to the lives and liberty of the Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar are only increasing.

Compliance with the ICJ’s order means Myanmar urgently needs to take real steps to dismantle the oppressive framework that has targeted the remaining Rohingyas inside Rakhine state and promote and protect the rights that they have long been denied. Anything less would be contributing to the Rohingyas’ destruction.

Credit: www.hrw.org

Myanmar: Hundreds Jailed for Covid-19 Violations

Prison Time for Breaking Curfew, Quarantine Is Excessive and Unsafe

Pastor David Lah leaves court after an appearance on charges filed against him for holding religious services in April, Yangon, Myanmar, May 20, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – At least 500 people, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities, have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison in Myanmar since late March 2020 for violating curfews, quarantines, or other movement control orders, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar authorities should stop jailing people for Covid-19-related infractions.

Most have been sentenced under the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, and various penal code provisions. Authorities have charged hundreds more in cases that are ongoing or resulted in fines. Imprisoning people for violating curfews, quarantine, and physical distancing directives is almost always disproportionate as well as counterproductive for reducing threats to public health.

“Limiting public health risks through social distancing is crucial, but jailing people for being outside at night just adds to everybody’s risk,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing hundreds behind bars in crowded, unhygienic prisons defeats the purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.”

In March and April, national, state, and local authorities announced several directives and restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Measures include a mandatory 28-day quarantine for foreign arrivals, nighttime curfews, a ban on gatherings over five people, and several township-level lockdowns. On March 28, government media announced that “those breaking public health order can face jail time.… The Covid-19 pandemic is also a natural disaster, and those who do not comply with the law can face fines and even prison time.” Local authorities oversee enforcement and criminalization of violations, with wide variations across the country.

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified – but only when those measures are strictly necessary, legal, based on scientific evidence, limited in scope and duration, proportionate to address the crisis, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. In the cases below, drawn from media and civil society reports, Myanmar authorities acted well beyond the public health threat posed by Covid-19. These cases represent only a small fraction of the government’s use of punitive measures.

Most of those imprisoned were charged for violating curfew orders under section 188 of the penal code, which carries a sentence of up to six months for “disobedience to [an] order duly promulgated by [a] public servant.” The majority of states and regions imposed curfews in late April requiring people to remain in their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. The government rolled back the nationwide curfew to 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. on May 15.

Authorities arrested 330 people in the border township of Myawaddy, Karen State, between April 20 and May 6 for violating the curfew. At least 50 were sentenced to between two weeks and one month in prison, with the rest fined 50,000 kyat (US$35). Those who could not pay were jailed. In Ayeyarwady Division, authorities sentenced 212 people to between one and two months in prison in April for breaking the regional curfew order. Authorities in Shan State meted out the strictest penalties, sentencing over 20 people to three months in prison for breaking curfew between April 22 and May 4.

Curfew orders are imposed under section 144 of the criminal procedure code, which allows for wide-ranging responses to social conflict or unrest and has long been exploited by security forces to exercise broad de facto emergency powers without oversight. Section 144 should be revised to reduce the scope and scale of its application and increase the threshold for emergency orders, Human Rights Watch said.

People arriving in Myanmar from abroad are required to undergo quarantine for 28 days – 21 in a state facility followed by 7 days of self-quarantine at home. About 61,000 people are currently quarantined in state-run facilities across the country, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. The majority are migrant workers who have returned from Thailand and China. Border crossings were closed for most of April, but at least 60,000 arrived in March and May.

On April 28, a 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy who recently returned from Thailand were sentenced to three months in prison for leaving a state quarantine facility in Mawlamyine after one week. Authorities charged them under section 18 of the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law, which provides up to six months in prison and a 10,000 kyat fine for “whoever violates the prohibitive or restrictive order issued by the relevant organization or officer.” On April 9, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, urged governments to institute a moratorium on new children entering detention facilities, release all children who can be safely released, and protect the health and well-being of children who must remain in detention.

Sections 26 and 30(a) of the Natural Disaster Management Law have also been used regularly to incarcerate violators of quarantine and physical distancing orders. Section 26 carries a prison term of up to two years for anyone who “interferes, prevents, prohibits, assaults or coerces” a department or official conducting “natural disaster management.” Section 30(a) carries a maximum one-year sentence for failing to comply with a disaster management directive.

The Yinmarbin Township Court sentenced a man in Sagaing Division to one year in prison under section 26 for “being drunk and loitering around” while under state monitoring for possible Covid-19 infection. Another man in Sagaing Division was sentenced to six months under section 30(a) for leaving the Ye-U township hospital while being watched for symptoms. Authorities arrested a married couple when the husband visited his wife at a state facility in Naypyidaw where they were quarantined in separate rooms. On April 20, both were sentenced to six months in prison under section 30(a).

States began issuing bans against gatherings of more than five people in March, with a nationwide ban instituted on April 17. In Sagaing’s Khin-U township, two people were sentenced to six months in prison on April 7 under section 30(a) for holding a charity event in violation of the local order against group gatherings. In Chanmyathazi township, Mandalay, 12 Muslims were sentenced on May 8 to three months in prison under section 30(a) for holding prayers at a house. Two boys arrested with them were detained for a month and a half.

On May 4, six labor rights advocates were sentenced to three months in prison for holding a protest at a factory in Yangon regarding a pay dispute. Authorities broke up the protest and charged the six union leaders and members under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.

The labor union arrests reflect a broader effort by authorities to exploit instability surrounding the coronavirus to further crack down on freedoms of speech and assembly. The government plans to increase its powers to restrict speech with a draft Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill currently being discussed in parliament, which would provide up to six months in prison for people spreading information about diseases that may “cause panic.” Parliament should revise the bill to remove criminal penalties for peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament should also amend the National Disaster Management Law, Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill, and related regulations to remove prison sentences for peaceful violations of quarantine, stay-at-home orders, and other emergency directives.

While quarantines and social distancing are a vital part of the public health response to the pandemic, their enforcement should not give rise to new tools of abuse. Instead, the health ministry and state public health departments should facilitate compliance by coordinating inclusive public awareness campaigns; providing people in quarantine with access to health care, including mental health services, and accurate, up-to-date information; and supplying resources such as face masks, food, water, and other essentials to those in need. To the extent possible, the public health force and other relevant civilian authorities, not security forces, should oversee enforcement of quarantines orders.

In its April briefing on Covid-19 and human rights threats, the UN noted that excessive emergency measures ultimately threaten the pandemic response: “Heavy-handed security responses undermine the health response and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security or create new ones. The best response is one that aims to respond proportionately to immediate threats whilst protecting human rights under the rule of law.”

Locking people up for violating measures such as curfews and quarantine may increase the spread of Covid-19 as people are rotated in and out of crowded detention facilities. In April, Myanmar authorities pardoned about 25,000 prisoners under its annual Buddhist new year amnesty, reducing the overcrowded prison population to just above official capacity. But the remaining population still has inadequate space for effective social distancing. Prisons nationwide are ill-equipped to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, with only 30 doctors and 80 nurses employed across the entire prison system.

“Myanmar did the right thing in releasing thousands of prisoners last month, but jailing regulation violators threatens to undo that progress and put more people in harm’s way,” Robertson said. “The authorities should act to prevent the spread of Covid-19, rather than using the pandemic as a pretext for violating rights.”

Credit: www.hrw.org