Category Archives: Top Stories

Canada, Netherlands join Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar

The two nations will pay special attention to prosecuting gender-based violence against Rohingya, including rape.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown in 2017 [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/ Reuters]

Canada and the Netherlands will formally join The Gambia’s legal bid to hold Myanmar accountable over allegations of genocide against its mostly-Muslim Rohingya minority in a move described by observers as historic.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and his Dutch counterpart Stef Blok said the two nations were intervening in the case before the International Court of Justice in order “to prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account”.

Calling the lawsuit “of concern to all of humanity,” Champagne and Blok said Canada and the Netherlands would “assist with the complex legal issues that are expected to arise and will pay special attention to crimes related to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape”.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017, crossing the border into neighbouring Bangladesh where they now live in crowded refugee camps after the military launched a brutal crackdown in the western state.

Myanmar says the military action was a response to attacks by Rohingya armed groups in Rakhine. United Nations investigators concluded that the campaign had been executed with “genocidal intent”.

Champagne and Blok said in filing the case at the UN court, The Gambia “took a laudable step towards ending impunity for those committing atrocities in Myanmar”.

‘Historic’

The New York-based Global Center for Justice welcomed the move by Canada and the Netherlands, calling it “nothing short of historic”.

Akila Radhakrishnan, the group’s president, said: “Just as important as their intention to intervene is their promise to focus on gendered crimes of genocide like sexual and gender-based violence, which was central to the atrocities against the Rohingya.”

She added: “Too often, gendered experiences do not translate to justice and accountability efforts and leave the primary targets of those crimes – women and girls – behind. This is an important step forward to address that gap and Canada and the Netherlands should be applauded for this move.”

Rohingya groups also welcomed the move, and urged others to follow their lead.

“Slowly, but surely, the net is closing in on Myanmar’s leaders – they will not get away with this genocide,” Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said in a statement, describing Canada and the Netherlands as being on the right side of history.

“It is imperative that other states, including the United Kingdom, now stand on the right of justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar,” the statement added. “Justice is a core demand of all Rohingya people and particularly important for those inside the camps of Cox’s Bazar who have been forced to flee their homeland and live as refugees in a foreign state.” 

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi attended the initial hearings at The Hague in December last year, calling on the 17-judge panel to dismiss the case. Rejecting the genocide claims, she warned the UN judges that allowing The Gambia’s case to go ahead risked reigniting the crisis and could “undermine reconciliation”.

The panel in January ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to protect its Rohingya population, pending the fuller case.

Myanmar will now have to regularly report on its efforts to protect Rohingya from acts of genocide every six months until a final ruling is made, a process that could take years.

Although ICJ rulings are final and binding, countries have occasionally flouted them, and the court has no formal mechanism to enforce its decisions.

Credit: www.aljazeera.com

Revise Election Broadcast Rules

Overly Broad Restrictions Undermine Fairness

Members of the Union Election Commission wear face masks during a press conference, announcing that general elections in Myanmar will proceed as planned in November despite coronavirus concerns, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar Union Election Commission should amend rules governing political parties’ access to state-owned radio and television stations to ensure that all parties can present their positions without undue interference, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 23, 2020, the Union Election Commission announced that political parties would be permitted to deliver electoral speeches and explain party policies on state-owned television and radio stations during the two-month period leading up to the national election scheduled for November 8. However, all political broadcasts must be pre-approved by the election commission under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say, in violation of international standards for protection of freedom of speech.

“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process.”

Under international standards, a transparent and independent body, separate from the election commission, should be established to regulate broadcasting content during elections. Campaign messages for broadcast should not be subject to prior approval and there should not be undue limitation on topics allowed to be covered in the campaign.

Under the rules announced by the UEC, a political party must apply to the election commission for permission to present a campaign broadcast and submit a script for the proposed broadcast for review. The UEC can either permit the broadcast or require revisions to ensure that the script does not violate vague and broadly worded restrictions on content.

The rules prohibit any content that “can disturb the security, rule of law and the peace and stability of the county,” or “disrespects” the existing laws of the country, or “defames” or “tarnishes the image” of the country, or defames the Tatmadaw, or can “harm dignity and morality.” The rules also prohibit any content that could “incite” members of the civil service “not to perform their duty or to oppose the government.”

The cumulative effect of the restrictions clearly violates international human rights law by precluding almost all criticism of the government, the Tatmadaw, or current abusive laws, Human Rights Watch said. Voters have a right to receive and obtain information that will enable them to decide how to exercise their vote. It is critical for all parties to have fair access to state-owned broadcast media in Myanmar, so they can present their programs to the voters.

While the decision to allocate time to opposition political parties is a positive step, any limits on the right to disseminate electoral statements should conform to international standards, including that public figures should be required to tolerate a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny than ordinary citizens. Limits on voters’ access to information can have a chilling effect on debate around issues of public importance during campaigns and elections, Human Rights Watch said.

Using Myanmar’s numerous defamation laws, the government and military have treated almost any criticism of their record as defamatory. For example, three Kachin human rights defenders were sentenced to six months in prison in December 2018, for “defaming” the military during protests in Myitkyina calling for the rescue of civilians trapped by renewed fighting in Kachin State.

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which covers defamation online, has been repeatedly used to prosecute those who criticize the government or the military. The military charged the Burmese language editor of The Irrawaddy,Ye Ni, with defamation under that law in April 2019 for reporting about military attacks in the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, though the charges were later dropped. The restriction on content that “defames” the country or the Tatmadaw thus places severe restrictions on what political parties can say about the current National League for Democracy-led government or the military.

The restriction on content that could cause members of the civil service “not to perform their duties” is also problematic given the history of similar restrictions in Myanmar. Penal code article 505(a), barring speech that may cause members of the military to “disregard or fail” in their duties, has been repeatedly used against critics of the military.

On August 29, 2019, a court sentenced the prominent filmmaker, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, to one year in prison with hard labor under that provision for criticizing the military on Facebook. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi suffers from liver cancer and was visibly unwell during his trial.

The military also used the law against members of the Peacock Generation, a traditional theater group, for a satirical performance deemed critical of the military. A court sentenced five members of the troupe to a year in prison for violating section 505(a) in October 2019. A different court imposed an additional one-year sentence under the same law in November 2019, and three members of the troupe face charges of defaming the military under section 66(d) for streaming the performance online.

The prohibition on content that “disrespects” existing laws could be used to prohibit political parties from criticizing abusive laws and discussing their plans to change those laws, Human Rights Watch said. The prohibition on content that can “tarnish the image of the country” could be applied to prohibit almost any criticism of the government or the military, including commentary on military abuses in Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states.

Each of these restrictions violates international standards on freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said. They also undermine the fairness of the electoral process by preventing opposition parties from presenting their policies in full where those policies involve criticism of the government, the military, or the country’s many abusive laws.

“The Union Election Commission should revise the broadcast rules to ensure that voters are able to hear opposition parties on state-owned media speaking freely about their policies and platforms,” Lakhdhir said. “Robust political debate lies at the heart of the electoral process, and Myanmar voters are entitled to hear all political views, including those critical of the government in power and its policies.”

Credit: www.hrw.org

Understanding ‘PaukPhaw’:Can Myanmar Resist China’s Debt Trap

Understanding ‘PaukPhaw’:Can Myanmar Resist China’s Debt Trap

On 17 January 2020, President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar. The visit led to 33 bilateral agreements being signed to unleash the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) soft power which is not in the best interests of Myanmar. Nonetheless, in an attempt to question CCP’s role in aiding crimes against humanity, Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior General Min AungHlaing (MAH) probed Party President Xi on the role of CCP in assisting the large number Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) operating in Myanmar.

In November 2019, the Tatmadaw (official name of Armed Forces of Myanmar) seized a large cache of weapons which included a Chinese made FN-6 from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The Tatmadaw has also been increasingly frustrated with the availability of Chinese made weapons with the Arakan Army (which has been declared as a terrorist organisation by the Government of Myanmar). This was also voiced by MAH during his recent visit to Russia where he stated that terrorist organisations active in Myanmar are backed by ‘strong forces’; albeit the CCP. This indicates that top Tatmadaw military brass has blamed CCP’s attempts to take advantage of the fragile internal situation and undermine the sovereignty of Myanmar.

Notwithstanding bilateral setbacks in 1967 and 1973, China-Myanmar relations (termed as “PaukPhaw‘ or fraternal) have been on the upswing since 1988.  After the infamous ‘8888’pro-democracy uprisings, Myanmar was relegated to being a pariah by the West, and the CCP had swiftly moved in to fill the void. Over the years, as the West shunned Myanmar, the CCP became Myanmar’s key political, military, economic and diplomatic partner and began exerting disproportionate pressure and influence on Myanmar.

Today, China is important to Myanmar for several reasons. Economically, China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and largest source of FDI. Diplomatically, the CCP uses its UNSC veto as a shield for Myanmar. Politically, the CCP has not only engaged extensively with both the ruling NLD party and the Tatmadaw but has also exercised its influence on EAOs in negotiating the peace process. In effect, the CCP with its “double game” continues to exploit Myanmar’s resources by accentuating its vulnerabilities.

The original cost of developing KyaukPhyu SEZ (which is a part of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor or CMEC) was $ 7.2 Billion. This cost was slashed to $ 1.3 billion by Myanmar over concerns of excessive debt. Whilst the environmental/ social impact assessment for the project is yet to begin, concerns have already erupted in the local populace. Though these concerns may seem premature, given Myanmar’s previous experience with other Chinese projects such as the LetpadaungCopper Mine (where Chinese operators blatantly resorted to land grabbing/ unauthorised evictions) and Myitsone Dam project (where construction had to be stopped in September 2011 due to environmental issues), these concerns are increasingly influencing Myanmar’s decision making. Today Mayanmar’s leadership is worried about the tell-tale signs of the “Dragon’s trap“.

Another shocking fact of CMEC is that it passes through the most troubled areas in Myanmar where EAOs have waged armed conflict for decades against Myanmar’s government. The KyaukPhyu SEZ (Rakhine state) is where the Arakan Army is active and the other end of CMEC is in the Northern Shan State where armed conflict has been raging. It is unclear how such large financial investments in these sensitive areas would assist in ending the armed conflicts. The converse is more likely to be the state. The CCP is infamous for closed-door negotiations and would resort to illegally paying the EAOs to progress the CMEC. Such payments will further empower the EAOs, and in turn, strangulate Myanmar’s peace process.

More recently, the Government of Myanmar has ordered a probe into the contentious Chinese development of ShweKokko in Karen State by illegal land confiscation/ construction, and the influx of CCP’s money for illicit activities. Be it the CMEC, Letpadaung Mine, Myitsone or Shwe Koko; in fact in all Chinese aided projects, total disregard of rules and insensitivity to local sentiments is a measure of the coercive approach of the CCP in exploiting Myanmar.

Anti-CCP sentiment in Myanmar is not only fuelled by large state-run projects such as CMEC but also smaller projects such as private infrastructure development, small-scale mining operations and agriculture – plantations, where exploitation of local population is rampant. Allured by cheap labour, land, lack of transparency and ineffective labour laws, CCP-backed Chinese private companies are investing heavily in plantations bearing cash crops in Myanmar. These plantations are often unregulated and the investors take the assistance of EAOs, thereby exploiting the locals and natural resources of Myanmar for CCP.

The emergence of COVID-19, limited transparency in CCP’s economic dealings and lack of concern for national sentiments, coupled with exploitation of natural resources have resulted in deep distrust and anxiety among the people of Myanmar against the Chinese. The hardened Western stance and increasing investment by CCP, push Myanmar further into the Chinese orbit, eventually paving the way to being shackled by the tentacles of the Dragon’s debt trap and becoming a client state.

By: Ravi Shankar
Credit: bharatshakti.in

India-Myanmar Border on High Alert After Ambush by Separatist Rebels

The ambush came amid a reshuffling of the Naga separatist movement in Myanmar.

Credit: Photo by special arrangement

Indian security forces have been put on high alert along the country’s border with Myanmar following another ambush by separatist rebels that killed three personnel of a paramilitary outfit.

An official said that “vulnerable spots” along the border in India’s Northeast have been identified and “area domination exercises” launched to prevent further attacks by the rebel groups.

In Nagaland’s Mon and Tuensang, which had been a hotbed of militancy for the past several decades, additional deployment of troops have been observed by residents in the district headquarters.

On July 29, a joint squad of three Myanmar-based separatist groups from India’s Northeast ambushed a patrolling party of Assam Rifles on the border at Sajik Tampak in Manipur’s Chandel district. A press release issued by these outfits claimed that four personnel were killed in the attack as part of the campaign against India’s “colonization” of western Southeast Asia.

Chandel has been one of the most vulnerable zones along the 1,643 kilometer long India-Myanmar border. In 2015, as many as 18 soldiers of the Indian army were killed in an ambush carried out jointly by the separatist outfits.

Across Chandel in Myanmar are at least two big camps belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (Manipur) and United National Liberation Front, which serve as a launching pad for the attacks against the Indian security forces. Both the outfits hail from Manipur’s Imphal Valley and have close ties with other separatist groups in the region.

The release mentions the involvement of a new outfit, the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MPNF), in the recent attack, fueling speculation among the Indian security agencies about new linkages that might have emerged among the groups and whether it was linked to the division in the Naga separatist movement in Myanmar.

The ambush on July 29 was preceded by two developments in Myanmar’s Naga inhabited region which is contiguous to India’s Northeast. The Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) suffered its second split in less than two years when a faction led by Niki Sumi expelled chairman Yung Aung.ADVERTISEMENT

A release cited Aung’s decision to change the official seal and his attempts to “clandestinely” establish ties with the Isak-Muivah faction of NSCN (NSCN-IM), which operates out of India’s Northeast, as the reasons for his expulsion from the outfit.

Predictably, Aung reacted by expelling Sumi and two senior functionaries from the organization on charges of convening “illegal meetings,” misappropriation of funds, encouraging “divisive policies,” and failing to report in the council headquarters after being summoned.

The entire outcome of these developments may be too early to gauge but the split will certainly weaken the separatist movement in Myanmar’s Naga inhabited zone. The unity that former chairman S. S. Khaplang had assiduously maintained could be difficult to sustain given the myriad tribes in the region. While Aung is a Pangmi Naga, Niki Sumi hails from the Sumi tribe in Nagaland and he has the support of some senior leaders from the Konyak Naga region in Myanmar.

Adding to the complexities were reports last month that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has deployed additional columns of the army in the remote hilly regions of Sagaing Division along the border with India. There was speculation that another offensive would be launched against the NSCN(K)’s stronghold to flush out rebels belonging to United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) from Assam in northeast India.

All the camps of the separatist outfits from India’s Northeast were dismantled in a raid last year at Taga. Several functionaries from many groups were jailed and later handed over to India. However, no operations were launched this time around and the army reportedly returned to its barracks after a couple of weeks.

An Indian government official explained that the additional deployment was triggered following Tatmadaw’s receipt of reports that a large group of the NSCN(IM) would shift base to certain locations in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. Earlier, there had been a spate of reports in the media claiming that the NSCN(IM) had already transferred a large chunk of its weapons and cadres to camps in Myanmar from its camps in India’s Northeast.

NSCN(IM) has been engaged in a peace process with the Indian government since 1997 with the objective to reach a negotiated settlement. A “Framework Agreement” clinched in 2015 between the two sides raised the hope of an agreement, but the process has been stuck over the demands of a separate flag and constitution by the Naga group, which is unacceptable to the government.

In the last couple of months, government troops have also launched a crackdown against the outfit resulting in some encounters as well. The NSCN(IM) has accused the government of putting the peace peace in “cold storage” and it has blamed the interlocutor and Nagaland governor R. N. Ravi for the delay.

By: Rajeev Bhattacharyya
Credit: thediplomat.com

America has to defend Myanmar from “malignant influences”: US Ambassadorial nominee

US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.

NEW DELHI: US new Ambassadorial nominee to Myanmar Thomas Laszlo Vajda has emphasised that one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values” in the Southeast Asian country and help defend the country against “malign influences” in a veiled reference to China.

He told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” in order to advance the Southeast Asian country’s reforms and help defend the country against “malign influences”.

The hearing took place after US President Donald Trump’s nomination of Vajda as the US envoy to Myanmar in May.

“It is also critical that we support Burma’s efforts to resist malign foreign influences and challenges to its sovereignty,” he said at the hearing.

“To support Burma in this regard, the United States will need to continue helping government officials, economic reformers and civil society actors who are pushing back on unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities,” he added.

Though the nominee didn’t name the “malign influences” mentioned in his testimony, his reference to “unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities” was obvious as being to China.

An op-ed penned last month by the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Yangon, George Sibley, alleged that China’s actions are part of a larger plan to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Myanmar.

In response, the Chinese Embassy accused Sibley of “outrageously smearing China” and attempting to sow discord between it and Myanmar, damaging the countries’ relations and bilateral cooperation. It said the article not only reflects the “sour grapes” mindset of the US toward China-Myanmar relations, but also a global effort by the US to shift attention away from its domestic problems and seek selfish political gain.

Credit: economictimes.indiatimes.com

Myanmar: No flights before October

YANGON, 3 August 2020: Myanmar’s aviation authorities confirmed recently, the ban on international commercial flights to and from Myanmar would extend to 31 August, but high ranking tourism officials now say international commercial flights might not resume until October.

Myanmar’s government is not issuing visas for visitors, and the only international flights are specially arranged repatriation flights to bring back Maynmar citizens and allow foreigners to leave the country.

Officials speaking on the sidelines of the 9th Mekong Tourism Advisory Group meeting last Thursday said rules would be eased this month, but international tourism to the country would remain suspended until October including all commercial international flights.

Myanmar’s hospitality sector rely exclusively on domestic bookings to support around 1,300 hotels that have reopened in popular tourist destinations including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.

During long weekends and public holidays, occupancy at hotels in Mandalay and Bagan peaks at around 75% indicating the growing contribution of domestic travel that in the past has been largely overshadowed by the international travel market. Approximately, 700 hotel rooms in Yangon have been reserved for 14-day quarantine stays. 

Around 200 travel companies in Myanmar have benefited from a stimulus package introduced by the government, but financial resources for the sector are limited with most of the support going towards training classes for tour guides and tour company staff currently furloughed.

Credit: www.ttrweekly.com

Flash floods kill two in Thailand, storm heads for Myanmar

Tropical storm Sinlaku dumped heavy rain on 18 Thai provinces over the weekend.

The storm uprooted trees, pulled down electricity poles and tore sheet roofs from some buildings [Thai army handout/AFP]

Flash floods killed at least two people and swept through hundreds of houses in northern Thailand, authorities said, after tropical storm Sinlaku dumped heavy rains on 18 provinces over the weekend.

Muddy, waist-high waters poured into homes in rural areas on Sunday. Soldiers used small boats to rescue villagers and handed out aid packs in Loei, the worst-hit province.

By Monday morning, residents in rubber boots were out clearing debris from the storm that uprooted trees, pulled down electricity poles and tore sheet roofs from some buildings.

“The flood came very fast, my family couldn’t grab anything,” said Rattiya Panich as she cleaned her house. Two people died, according to the interior ministry.

Sinlaku also hit Laos and Vietnam, where it killed another two people on Sunday in the provinces of Hoa Binh and Quang Ninh, Voice of Vietnam (VOV) reported.

Loei province suffered the most damage during flooding caused by tropical storm Sinlaku, according to the Thai Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department [Thai army handout/AFP]

Authorities there warned that heavy rains might cause landslides and flash flooding in Vietnam’s northern mountainous provinces.

Some parts will see up to 400mm of rainfall from Monday to Wednesday, the Vietnam Disaster Management Authority said.

The storm was moving towards Myanmar on Monday, the Thai Meteorological Department said.

credit: www.aljazeera.com

A cause for hope for the Rohingya in Myanmar

Rohingya villagers watch as international media visit Maung Hna Ma village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, July, 2017. (Reuters)

Something peculiar and unexpected happened in Myanmar in mid-July: A group of Rakhine Buddhist students visited a camp for Rohingya refugees.


This kind of thing is new. While the “clearing operations” against the Rohingya over the past two years have been orchestrated by the federal military forces of Myanmar, directed from Naypyidaw, the Rakhines had long been a primary engine of previous violent outbursts against their Rohingya neighbors in Rakhine/Arakan, such as in the 2012-13 flareups of ethnic conflict. Indeed, crackdowns on the Rohingya by federal authorities have frequently been invited and welcomed by Rakhines throughout the turbulent history of post-independence Myanmar.


What is unclear at the moment is whether the federal government in Naypyidaw is aware of these developments, or indeed whether they might even be supportive of them. What is known so far is that an apparent, concerted effort to build bridges between the communities is actively supported by younger Rakhines, particularly students. As such, it is plausible that they are working entirely outside the reach of the Myanmar federal authorities, and indeed, outside of the knowledge of local Rakhine authorities who had been so hostile to Rohingyas in the past.


But it is also the case that both Rakhine and federal authorities have been running a pretty tight ship on anti-Rohingya propaganda up to now, so the fact that this is happening at present seems odd. Given that Rohingyas are so routinely demonized as “Muslim terrorists,” and sympathy toward the “terrorists” has been suppressed in the past, the fact that this new movement from among the Rakhine youth in the state has made it through to an international audience may point to some shifts in the background as to how authorities are approaching the issue of the Rohingya. Especially since, one has to imagine, the students had to get past security at the camps.


Might this have been allowed to happen in order that the authorities in Myanmar could be able to point to “civil society efforts” as positive developments as it continues to face unrelenting criticism on the international stage, and perhaps even censure at the International Court of Justice? Might this even have been encouraged or instigated by some state or federal authorities as a PR exercise for the country?


One needs to watch these efforts closely, and actively support any real dialogue between the people of Rakhine/Arakan state. If these students are indeed leading an independent effort to change things for the better in their country, the global community should be very vocal and robust in defending them against any censure from the authorities for speaking out.

Indeed, even if this is some cynical ploy where the authorities are working in the background either to allow or actively encourage these initiatives for PR and propaganda purposes, the international community should still support the debate moving forward toward the acceptance of the Rohingya in the land of their birth, and use the opportunity to push for them receiving full rights as citizens which they are entitled to under international law.


In all cases, this is a positive development. Things will not now suddenly, or inevitably get better. The entire global community must continue to fight relentlessly for the Rohingya to be accepted as equal citizens in their own country. Nor can the global community allow the perpetrators of the genocide be left off the hook, now that the debate seems to be changing toward a more positive direction. Whatever the reason for these developments, the international community must continue to support them, but it must also make sure that it does not lose focus of all the other things that need to be done.

By: DR. AZEEM IBRAHIM
Credit: www.arabnews.com

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