TOKYO: Eighteen people have died from the COVID-19 respiratory disease outside of hospitals in Japan’s Osaka Prefecture, officials said, amid calls for tougher restrictions on movement to halt a fourth wave of infections ahead of the Olympics.
All but one of the deaths occurred since Mar 1 as highly infectious strains of the virus caused a spike in new cases, the prefecture reported late on Monday (May 10) for the first time. Most were 60 years old or more, but one fatality was in their 30s.
Japan on Friday extended a state of emergency for much of the country to try to contain the fourth wave of the pandemic, with the start of the Tokyo Olympics a little more than two months away.
The declaration covers Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, encompassing nearly a quarter of Japan’s population, and will last until May 31.
Some prefectural governors called for stronger emergency measures to be put in place nationwide at an online meeting on Monday, the Kyodo news agency reported.
The western region of Osaka has been particularly hard hit, becoming the epicentre of infections from the variant first identified in Britain that is more infectious and causes more serious conditions. More than 96 per cent of Osaka Prefecture’s critical care hospital beds are now occupied.
At one nursing home in Osaka, 61 residents were infected and 14 died while waiting to be hospitalised, public broadcaster NHK reported on Friday.
Osaka Prefecture had 668 new cases on Monday while Tokyo had 573.
BEIJING: China’s population growth in the decade to 2020 slumped to the least since a one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s, adding pressure on Beijing to boost incentives to couples to have more children and avert an irreversible decline.
The population of mainland China increased 5.38 per cent to 1.41 billion, according to the 2020 results of the country’s once-a-decade official census, published on Tuesday (May 11).
That compared with an increase of 5.84 per cent to 1.34 billion in the 2010 census.
The number also meant China narrowly missed a target it set in 2016 to boost its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020.
TAIPEI: More than a year after two amateur computer coders were taken by police from their Beijing homes, they are set to be tried on Tuesday (May 11) in a case that illustrates the Chinese government’s growing online censorship and heightened sensitivity to any deviation from the official narrative on its COVID-19 response.
Authorities have not said specifically why Chen Mei, 28, and Cai Wei, 27, were arrested in April last year, so friends and relatives can only guess.
They believe it was because the two men had set up an online archive to store articles deleted by censors and a related forum where users could skirt real-name registration requirements to chat anonymously.
Started in 2018, the archive kept hundreds of censored articles and the forum saw discussions on sensitive issues including the anti-government protests in Hong Kong and complaints about the ruling Communist Party.
But what got them in trouble with authorities appears to be archiving articles showing an alternative to China’s official narrative about its pandemic response just as the country started facing questions over its handling of the initial outbreak.
In keeping the censored articles and providing a place for them to be discussed, the two run afoul of increasingly strict regulations in an already stifling online environment under President Xi Jinping. Just last year hundreds were prosecuted for online speech.
Chen and Cai are being prosecuted under a catch-all charge of “stirring up trouble and picking quarrels”. Chen’s older brother, Chen Kun, said the court appointed lawyer notified family last week that their case would be heard on Tuesday.
In January last year, the two began archiving articles about a mysterious new illness circulating in Wuhan. For Cai, who is from the area and could not go home to see his family for the Chinese New Year holiday, the news was particularly upsetting.
“A lot of things happened in China then that made us very upset, and he may have been affected by that,” said his girlfriend, Tang Hongbo. She was also detained but released after 23 days when it became clear she did not know much about the project. “Every day we were looking at the Internet, and we were all in this tragic mindset.”
Xi has made cyberspace governance a priority, and under his direction, the government created its own model to manage the challenges and opportunities of the Internet.
China eliminated online anonymity by requiring people to register under what is known as the real name system starting in 2016. Social media accounts are linked to a mobile phone number, which is tied to an individual’s national ID number.
A Chinese activist, using court and government records and media reports, tallied more than 750 prosecutions for web speech in 2020 in an online database and posted on a Twitter account named SpeechFreedomCN. He said he runs the database anonymously out of fear of retribution.
A friend of Cai, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, said Cai had grown frustrated with the censorship regime. In response, he and Chen launched the Terminus2049 archive and 2049bbs forum in 2018 as a “public platform of free exchange”, Cai wrote in a welcome post.
“It’s not just the ‘real name’ system – the deletions of posts, the bans, have reached a point that’s really shocking domestically,” Cai wrote in another 2018 post.
“When you have to worry about whether you have touched a sensitive keyword in any post you write, how can you really have the brave desire to express yourself?”
On the forum, Cai wrote about movies, music and books he liked. Others discussed more sensitive topics. It was a place to speak without worrying about having posts deleted or getting one’s account banned. It did not require a phone number to register, or even an email address.
Chen was more low-key but similarly chafed against the censorship system.
“He wants information to flow. He wants quality information to flow freely,” said Chen Kun, his older brother. “We have this type of value deep in our bones, the independence of discourse on the Internet and the free transmission of information.”
Cai and Chen met in 2011 at a summer camp hosted by Liren College, a socially conscious educational program. Both self-taught coders, they first started cooperating on a project to archive all the lectures and information from the summer camps, said a friend of both, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. Authorities shut down Liren in 2014.
Terminus2049 primarily housed articles that had been deleted from Wechat and Weibo, popular social media platforms that are subject to regular algorithmic and human censorship. While similar databases existed, most were blocked in China. Terminus2049 was available on Github, a code sharing platform that is not blocked.
The topics the archived articles touched on were broad, but they shared a focus on social issues. One was concerned about the expulsion of migrant workers from Beijing after a fire, while another shared questions about a company that falsified data on rabies vaccines.
It was only after Cai and Chen got arrested that their families found out from friends and peers what the two had been working on. They suspect that pandemic-related content triggered the arrests, in part because in the weeks before and after their detention, police questioned acquaintances about what the two had done during the outbreak.
“They were told that Chen Mei has family members abroad, has provided foreign organisations with information about the pandemic and is basically handing a knife over to the enemy,” said Chen Kun, who now lives in France.
Police in Beijing did not respond to a faxed request for comment and court-appointed lawyers did not respond to phone calls.
Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan also fell afoul of the law after reporting from Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak. She received a four-year sentence in December.
The 2049bbs forum, which never had major reach, is now blocked in China. Yet the discussions continue and the records of the forum live on in a site called 2047, set up by a self-described “person who walks the same path” and some members of the old forum.
Cai’s father, who has not seen his son in more than a year, still cannot understand how his son ran afoul of the authorities.
“He didn’t say anything bad. He didn’t try to organise some protests,” Cai Jianli said. “How did this become picking quarrels and stirring up trouble?”
UNITED NATIONS: China on Monday (May 10) urged the United States, Germany and Britain to cancel an upcoming video conference on Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim minority, and called on other UN members not to attend the event.
At least one million Uyghurs and people from other mostly Muslim groups have been held in camps in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, according to rights groups, who accuse authorities of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
The videoconference, scheduled for Wednesday, “is based on sheer lies and political bias”, China’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations said in a statement.
Beijing “urges the co-sponsors to immediately cancel this event which interferes in China’s internal affairs, and calls on other Member States to reject the event”.
“The current situation in Xinjiang is at its best in history with stability, rapid economic development and harmonious co-existence among people of all ethnic groups,” the statement said.
In addition to the camps, millions more Muslims in China allegedly live under a tough system of surveillance and controls.
The United States recently declared that the treatment of Uyghurs is “genocide”.
“The US claims to care about the human rights of Muslim people despite the world-known fact that the US has been killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” China’s statement said.
“It is the US and its followers that have killed the largest number of Muslims in the world.”
At the meeting on Wednesday, the ambassadors to the UN from the United States, Germany and Britain – who represent the Uyghurs – are expected to speak, as well as the NGO Human Rights Watch, which co-organised the event.
North Korea is ordering local leaders of the country’s main youth organization to change reviewers of self-criticism meetings to force young people to snitch on each other “more honestly,” sources in the country told RFA.
The new policy requiring people from outside one’s youth group evaluate mandatory self-criticism sessions is designed to break up cozy relations that have formed within units in which people rehearse their lines and cover for each other, the sources said.
Every North Korean citizen must perform saenghwal chonghwa, or self-criticism, where they must confess their own state loyalty shortcomings, then publicly report any disloyal tendencies in their peers. Experts say the state uses these sessions to turn citizens against each other in order to control them more effectively.
For adults, self-criticism is done during mandatory meetings of their local neighborhood watch unit, while youth start from the age of 13, when they begin attending meetings of the Socialist Patriotic Youth League.
The league, formerly known as the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, is modeled after the Soviet Komsomol. In late April, the league held a nationwide congress in Pyongyang, where it received its new name, and new directives from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on how to conduct the sessions.
“As soon as the 10th Congress of the Socialist Patriotic Youth League was over, they started inspections of the weekly self-criticism sessions for the youth here in Ryanggang province,” a resident of the northern border province told RFA’s Korean Service last week.
“During the inspections, low-level chairpersons that lead Youth League organizations in each factory observe the sessions in different factories, to review and report on them,” said the source.
Across the country, many citizens have come to take the weekly sessions for granted, and they collude with each other beforehand on how they will criticize each other, so they can avoid raising any red flags by being too harsh. Leaders of the sessions may also form friendships with attendees and allow them to simply go through the motions week after week.
The new policy on youth confessions aims to put a stop to this.
“The low-level chairperson dispatched to each Youth League organization should attend the self-criticism session and report on how honestly the young people criticize themselves in regard to antisocialist and nonsocialist thought, and how intensively they criticize other young people on the same subject,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of the northwestern border province of North Pyongan, told RFA that at a collective farm in Ryongchon county, chairpersons who returned from the 10th congress began inspecting the self-criticism session notes of youth league members.
“Since this review project lasts until the end of this month, all young people are pretty much forced to be honest in their criticism of their own and each other’s antisocialist and nonsocialist tendencies,” said the second source.
“They are conducting the review by sending youth league chairpersons to a different farm than their own. The purpose is to cross-inspect other cells of the youth league so that self-criticism is more genuine, because until now sessions have been more or less a formality,” the second source said.
The second source said the first cross-inspection of the sessions would take place on Saturday May 8, and that the people wondered how they might be different.
“The chairpersons are insisting that young people who have called people in foreign countries, especially in South Korea, or those that listened to foreign broadcasting in secret should self-criticize and earn the party’s forgiveness,” said the second source.
“They are also trying to make the youth criticize each other more sharply so they can find out who has been imitating South Korean speaking styles, dyeing their hair brown, and wearing clothing with English letters,” the second source said, citing the signs of outside influence Pyongyang tries to suppress.
The second source said that the youth find the new policy to be invasive.
“They are very critical of the authorities, who have nothing better to do than observe their self-criticism sessions and brand them enemies of socialism all while expecting them to work hard during the busier farming seasons.”
RFA reported last year that authorities were cracking down on young people for texting each other using slang terms they learned by watching or listening to South Korean media illegally, or for using South Korean spellings.
At emergency meetings of the youth league in May 2020, authorities confiscated members’ mobile phones and threatened harsh punishments if they found any illegal media or texts.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
Vietnamese authorities have temporarily closed one of the country’s social media platforms, fining the business over $4,000 and revoking its license for eight months in a move further tightening government control over the sharing of information online, state media sources say.
VNbrands.vn, belonging to the Vietnam Digital Brands Joint Stock Company, was fined 105 million Vietnamese dollars (U.S. $4,100) on May 7 by Vietnam’s Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information for what authorities said was an inadequate disclosure of service conditions and agreements on its homepage.
VNbrands’ operating license was also suspended for eight months, media sources said, adding that the company had further provided “insufficient or inaccurate” information related to its license and owner’s name.
Over the past few years, Vietnam has tightened its controls over the sharing of information on social media, with many users fined or even prosecuted and jailed on charges of publishing “fake” or unverified information—especially concerning the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Vietnam’s recent ruling Party Congress, which elected the country’s new leadership group.
In 2020, Vietnam’s Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information and Hanoi’s and Ho Chi Minh City’s Departments of Information and Communications levied administrative fines of over VND 700 million in over 37 cases of violations, official sources said.
With Vietnam’s media following Communist Party orders, “the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and independent journalists, who are being subjected to ever-harsher forms of persecution,” the press freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in its 2021 Press Freedoms Index.
Measures taken against them now include fines, jailings, and assaults by plainclothes police, RSF said in its report, which placed Vietnam at 175 out of 180 countries surveyed worldwide, a ranking unchanged from last year’s.
In northeastern Vietnam’s Bac Giang province meanwhile, authorities summoned a young user of the TikTok video-sharing service, fining him VND 3.7 million (less than U.S. $200) for wrapping himself in the Vietnamese national flag as a stunt to attract viewers, state media sources reported on May 5.
Identified by media sources as “H.V.K.,” the resident of Bac Giang’s Luc Ngan district told district police he had joined TikTok in June 2020 and had already gained over 100,000 followers and 1.4 million likes on his account.
He had used the flag as a prop in filming a video, he said, and had taken the video down after receiving a torrent of criticism online.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney
GENEVA: The World Health Organziation said on Monday (May 10) that the coronavirus variant first identified in India last year was being classified as a variant of global concern, with some preliminary studies showing that it spreads more easily.
The B1617 variant is the fourth variant to be designated as being of global concern and requiring heightened tracking and analysis. The others are those first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing. “There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”
Indian coronavirus infections and deaths held close to record daily highs on Monday, increasing calls for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lock down the world’s second-most populous country.
The WHO has said the predominant lineage of B1617 was first identified in India in December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.
The variant has already spread to other countries, and many nations have moved to cut or restrict movements from India.
Van Kerkhove said more information about the variant and its three sub-lineages would be made available on Tuesday.
“Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant and this lineage and all of the sub-lineages,” she said.
Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said studies were under way in India to examine the variant’s transmissibility, the severity of disease it causes and the response of antibodies in people who have been vaccinated.
“What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus works, so there is really no need to change any of those,” Swaminathan said.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the WHO Foundation was launching a “Together for India” appeal to raise funds to purchase oxygen, medicines and protective equipment for health workers.
SINGAPORE: In the early hours of Feb 1, just hours before the first sitting of a newly elected parliament in one of Southeast Asia’s most strife-ridden countries, a decade-long experiment in democracy juddered to a halt.
More than three months after Myanmar’s military seized power – mass protests, military crackdowns and diplomatic efforts to restore stability continue. The way ahead for the country of 54 million people remains unclear.
Exactly 100 days into the coup, CNA looks at how Myanmar got to this point, and where it could be headed.
WHAT HAPPENED ON FEB 1?
Before dawn, Myanmar’s military – known as the Tatmadaw – detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other officials from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
An Internet and communications blackout started at about 3am. The military also sealed off roads around the capital Naypyidaw and shut the international airport.
Taking to the air on a military-run TV channel, the Tatmadaw declared a year-long state of emergency. It said power had been handed over to General Min Aung Hlaing and pledged to hold elections in a year’s time.
Simultaneous moves were made in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, where troops seized City Hall just ahead of the military’s announcement.
As the country woke up to this seismic moment, there were some who were initially oblivious to what was playing out in the corridors of power.
In Naypyidaw, a fluorescent yellow-clad Khing Hnin Wai performed an aerobics routine set to electronic music in front of the Royal Lotus roundabout. Behind her, a convoy of black armoured vehicles and SUVs swept by near the country’s parliament.
The surreal moment captured history in the making, and the bizarre juxtaposition of a power grab with a fitness video went viral. The veneer of normalcy quickly shattered once it became apparent what had just happened to Myanmar.
People rushed out to petrol stations and queued at grocery stores to stock up on rice, oil and instant noodles. Trucks of army supporters trundled through the streets of Yangon, waving flags and blasting nationalist songs.
Elsewhere, it was fear – and anger. “Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings,” said student activist Si Thu Tun.
HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT?
The Tatmadaw has justified the coup as a response to what it says was voter fraud in the November 2020 general election. The military alleges there were millions of discrepancies in voter lists, a claim Myanmar’s election commission has denied.
The NLD won the November election by a landslide, taking 83 per cent of available parliament seats. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won just 33 of 476 seats and demanded a re-run of the polls, but was denied.
Days before Feb 1, Myanmar watchers were already expecting a coup following cryptic comments by the Tatmadaw.
On Jan 26, the military warned it would “take action” if its calls to investigate the voter lists were not heeded. “We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power. We do not say it will not as well … What we can say is we will follow current existing laws, including the Constitution,” said a military spokesman.
On Jan 28, General Min Aung Hlaing called the Constitution the “mother law for all laws” and said it should be respected. But he also warned that in certain circumstances, it could be “necessary to revoke the Constitution”.
Addressing the nation on the day of the coup, the junta blamed the country’s election commission for failing to resolve the alleged voter fraud dispute.
It said this violated the Constitution and could lead to a “disintegration of national solidarity”, citing this as the reason for the transfer of power to the military.
HOW ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING AND HOW HAS THE MILITARY RESPONDED?
As of May 9, more than 700 people have been killed in clashes with security forces and another 3,800 arrested, charged or sentenced, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Not since the 2007 Saffron Revolution – named after the coloured robes of the Buddhist monks that led the movement – have protests grown this large. Casualty figures so far remain below that of the 1988 anti-government protests, in which more than 3,000 people were killed.
The first signs of popular opposition in Myanmar came the day after the coup. Residents of Yangon gathered outside their homes to strike pots and pans, and honk car horns in protest.
“We used to do it to drive evil out of the village or out of the house,” said activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi. “People are using this tactic to drive the military junta out of the country.”
Activists quickly organised into a civil disobedience movement, coordinating strikes and boycotts of military-linked businesses. Large-scale street protests started on the first weekend after the coup, in Yangon and Mandalay.
Myanmar diplomats assigned overseas by the civilian government also became bastions of support for the anti-coup movement from abroad.
Myanmar’s envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun dramatically broke with the junta when he addressed the General Assembly in New York on Feb 26. Holding up the three-finger salute used by pro-democracy protesters, the ambassador appealed to the international community to use any means necessary to end the coup.
Although he was fired by the junta after this, the show of defiance inspired other Myanmar diplomats such as Chaw Kalyar, based in Berlin.
The 49-year-old took part in mass protests as a student in 1988, when many of her friends lost their lives. “I kept strong feelings inside me throughout my life,” she said of her decision to join the current civil disobedience movement.
Seeking political alternatives, a group of ousted NLD lawmakers known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – the name of Myanmar’s legislature – has become a rallying point for many protesters.
Formed a few days after the coup, its objectives are to ensure the unconditional release of detainees and conduct the “regular functions” of parliament.
In April, the CRPH formed a parallel Cabinet, called the National Unity Government. Many anti-coup protesters see this as the country’s legitimate government and have called for its inclusion in international talks to resolve the crisis.
The junta has since designated the National Unity Government and CRPH as “terrorist organisations”, meaning anyone speaking to them – including journalists – can be charged under counterterrorism laws.
WHO’S IN CHARGE NOW?
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar under the NLD government, has been under house arrest since her detention on Feb 1.
In recent years, the Nobel laureate has been criticised internationally for defending the brutal treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority by the military.
But she remains hugely popular among the Burman majority at home, where she is lovingly called “Mother Suu”. Protesters and other countries alike are calling for her release as part of a way out of the crisis in Myanmar.
The 75-year-old faces charges in six cases, the most serious of which involves the official secrets act. Her supporters and some Western powers have dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from becoming president due to her marriage to a foreigner but sidestepped this with the creation of her State Counsellor post in 2016. However, a conviction would preclude her from political office for life.
The reins of government are now held by General Min Aung Hlaing, who heads the State Administration Council.
The 64-year-old has been commander-in-chief of the armed forces since 2011, the start of Myanmar’s democratic transition.
The general surprised observers who were expecting him to step down in a leadership reshuffle in 2016, instead extending his term at the helm of the military for another five years.
Min Aung Hlaing was already under sanctions imposed by the United States in 2019 for alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. Since the coup, he, his two adult children and the companies they control have been slapped with additional sanctions.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN MYANMAR?
While Myanmar has a Burman and Buddhist majority, the country is also home to more than 100 ethnic groups, some of which have been engaged in the world’s longest civil war against the central government for the last 70 years.
Against this backdrop of unrest, the military has cast itself in the role of guardian of national unity.
The Tatmadaw first took power in Myanmar in 1962, under a coup launched by General Ne Win. Military rule would go on to last for nearly 50 years, until a democratic transition starting in 2011.
The military has quashed opposition to its rule in the past, including in widespread anti-government protests in 1988 that resulted in Ne Win’s resignation, and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Throughout its rule, it has discarded and instituted different versions of the Constitution. As the architect of Myanmar’s current Constitution, introduced in 2008, the Tatmadaw enshrined for itself a permanent role in the political system.
An unelected quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats is currently reserved for the military, effectively giving it veto power over any changes to the Constitution. It also controls the key ministries of defence, interior and borders.
These provisions stayed in place even after 2011, when the military relinquished power to a quasi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein, who pursued some democratic reforms.
An uneasy alliance was drawn when the NLD won the 2015 general election. However, the party’s landslide win in last year’s elections appeared to upset the balance.
“The thundering NLD victory at November’s election seems to have brought simmering civilian-military tensions to a head and convinced Min Aung Hlaing and the (army) high command that the Constitution is no longer a sufficient bulwark,” said Sebastian Strangio, an editor and expert on Southeast Asia’s politics.
HOW HAS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY RESPONDED?
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has in the past faced criticism for inaction on other issues such as the Rohingya crisis. But this time round, the bloc and its member states appear to be taking a stronger position.
Brunei, as ASEAN chair, swiftly issued a chairman’s statement calling for dialogue, reconciliation and a “return to normalcy”. Indonesia and Thailand both held talks with the junta weeks after the coup, while Malaysia and Singapore have used noticeably sterner language in calling for stability.
An immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, mediation and humanitarian assistance coordinated by ASEAN were the other four pieces in a five-point consensus reached by the bloc’s leaders. A sixth – the release of political detainees – was not accepted, though it was reflected in the summit statement.
The junta has said it will give “careful consideration to constructive suggestions” from ASEAN on ways to resolve the turmoil. Whatever happens, Myanmar remains the most critical test of ASEAN centrality and unity, analysts say.
China, a key ally of Myanmar’s military, has not condemned the military takeover, saying only that it hopes for stability and a “democratic transition”.
As Myanmar’s largest neighbour, a dominant trading partner and a major investor, China is seen as wielding influence in the Southeast Asian country. Many protesters suspect Beijing of supporting the coup and have expressed anti-Chinese sentiments.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi last month called on the international community “to take an objective and fair attitude and do more to help ease the tension in Myanmar, rather than the opposite”.
“China will maintain close communication with ASEAN, and continue to handle any work related to Myanmar in its own way,” he said.
Western powers have condemned the military’s actions from the outset. The US formally designated the military takeover as a coup the day after it happened – in marked contrast to China, which has yet to label the move as such.
The US, the European Union and other Western countries like Britain have also imposed sanctions on individuals and businesses linked to the junta.
These include the Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, which dominate many sectors of the economy including trading, alcohol, cigarettes and consumer goods.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
The state of emergency will last for one year, as provided for under Myanmar’s Constitution. The junta has pledged to hold fresh elections “upon completion of the tasks” it set itself.
Yet after ousting the civilian government, it appointed a new Cabinet of ministers, none of whom were identified as acting or interim appointments.
Activists have already voiced strong doubts that the military will step down after only a year.
There is some precedent for this. The military ignored the NLD’s win in a 1990 general election – the country’s first multi-party election since the 1962 coup – and took nearly two decades to implement its promised transition to democracy.
But with different domestic and geopolitical circumstances today, the outcome for Myanmar remains to be seen.
“On the one hand, given history, we can well expect the reaction to come,” Myanmar author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on Twitter.
“On the other, Myanmar society today is entirely different from 1988 and even 2007. Anything’s possible.”
KUALA LUMPUR: Just a month ago, Siti Farahani Halim was feeling hopeful that she would be able to spend Hari Raya Aidilfitri with her family back in her village in the northern state of Perlis.
The 25-year-old who is based in Kuala Lumpur where she works as a corporate affairs executive, was buoyed by talk that the government could lift interstate travel restrictions for the festivities this week.
She has not seen her parents and two siblings since she started work in 2019, as COVID-19 resulted in travel restrictions over Hari Raya in 2020.
However, her hopes of being reunited with them were dashed over the last few days when the government announced that Hari Raya visiting, as well as both all interstate and inter-district travel would be banned until early June amid rising COVID-19 infections.
Under the MCO, all forms of social gatherings including weddings, house visits and banquets are prohibited.
The new measures come at a time when the Health Ministry is struggling with a high number of COVID-19 patients, with some hospitals and intensive care units reaching full capacity.
As of Monday (May 10), there were more than 444,000 cumulative cases nationally. The number of active cases stands at 37,396, with 434 patients warded in ICUs.
Even as she understood why the latest measures had to be put in place, Siti Farahani was still saddened.
“I’m devastated because I’ve not been able to balik kampung for so long. The initial plan was to go back to Perlis for (Hari) Raya, but when it became clear that there would be no interstate travel, I thought I could at least meet up with my brother and sister who are based in Kuala Lumpur too,” she said.
“But when they confirmed that inter-district travel would be cancelled too, it left us in a jam. We stay in different areas within Kuala Lumpur. So it’s sad and we have to celebrate in our respective houses alone.”
Many Malaysian Muslims like Siti Farahani are based in urban areas due to work, but they would typically set aside Hari Raya to visit their families in their hometowns.
But for the second Hari Raya Aidilfitri in a row, celebrations are set to be muted as Malaysia continues to grapple with the pandemic.
For this year, yet again, Siti Farhani said she would video call her family in the morning, and later carry on with her day as usual.
She said: “I don’t have any excitement or festive vibes this year. I’m homesick and I miss celebrating in Perlis.
“As a family, we would eat ketupat with rendang, attend morning prayers, visit graves of loved ones and pose for pictures in front of the amazing landscape. I’m a kampung girl, and it’s a huge loss that I can’t experience this for the second year running.”
Lawyer DK Vivi Fazrenna Zaidun also echoed similar sentiments. The 26-year-old is unable to return to her hometown in Sabah and she will also be spending Hari Raya alone in Kuala Lumpur.
“Before 2020, I had never missed spending Hari Raya with my family. It is the most special day for me,” said Vivi.
“We would cook Hari Raya dishes together, like bakar lemang (sticky rice in grilled bamboo) and decorate the house. But now that I’ll be spending it alone, I don’t see the point of cooking something special as it would be wasting food,” she added.
Like in 2020, Vivi would still wear matching baju kurung colours with her family back home in Sabah, and pose for a picture when on a video call.
Similarly, executive Ammar Muhammad who is based in Kuala Lumpur, is also ruing the fact that he and his wife would not be able to visit his in-laws in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan.
The 36-year-old said that travelling back would have been a good break for the couple from work, and an opportunity to recharge.
“It’s a big issue for us because we work hard all year round, and the only time we get a good break is when we go back to the kampung for Raya. It’s a chance to release some pressure from work, and meet old friends, family. Especially with COVID-19 this year, we badly needed it,” he said.
He said he will likely spend Hari Raya watching TV programmes on Netflix and scrolling through Twitter.
Some Malaysians have also expressed frustration over the seemingly uneven enforcement of interstate travel bans. This comes amid a perception that there might have been a different set of rules for celebrities and VIPs.
For example, celebrity Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor and her family were fined a total of RM60,000 (US$14,600) for violating COVID-19 restrictions during her Mar 27 wedding and a trip to Langkawi that took place soon after.
She later drew the attention of netizens again, after she posted a photo on social media of herself buying carpets in Nilai, Negri Sembilan. Neelofa is based in Kuala Lumpur.
Even before the latest curbs, the federal government had banned interstate travel across the country. Interstate travel with police permission was only allowed for business, medical and educational purposes from Mondays to Thursdays.
Netizens also noticed that singer Siti Nurhaliza’s tahnik ceremony for her newborn was attended by well-known religious preacher Azhar Idrus, who doesn’t reside in the same state.
Siti Nurhaliza later clarified that the preacher agreed to attend the ceremony because he was in town for work and did not violate the travel ban.
Commenting on these developments, Siti Farahani said: “Seeing these celebrities not complying with restrictions is frustrating. Malaysians are unable to visit their loved ones, some of whom are sick or dying, but there are VIPs breaking laws for their leisure. It’s unfair.”
Ammar added: “If we have some irresponsible people not complying with SOPs, we will be having MCO constantly, and may not be able to go back for Hari Raya until 2025.”
OPTIMISM FOR HARI RAYA 2022
Despite the muted celebrations this year, some are optimistic that the national COVID-19 vaccination programme will eventually result in herd immunity and successfully curb the spread of infections.
Vivi said: “I’m hopeful. I’ve signed up for the Astra Zeneca vaccine, so I am scheduled to get my first dose in June. Hopefully, after the second dose, I will be able to travel back to my home in Sabah with ease,”
Ammar was also encouraged that the vaccination programme has kicked off, and expressed hope that the government would achieve its target of inoculating 80 per cent of the population by October.
“For sure, I pray next year, there will no more MCO (and) no more state of emergency. Now the numbers are on the rise, but if the government can act quickly, we have a chance to balik kampung for Raya in 2022,” he added.
An education plan will soon be released to prevent students from losing their rights to public education, says Sai Khaing Myo Tun, Deputy Minister of Education of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government set up to counter the military regime that seized power Feb. 1. On May 9, RFA Myanmar Service’s Khin Khin Ei interviewed Sai Khaing Myo Tun about how Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council, the junta’s formal name, is suspending teachers involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and what the NUG is planning now for Myanmar’s education sector.
RFA: What are you currently doing as the Deputy Minister for Education of the National Unity Government (NUG)?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making contact with teachers and with students involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and are having discussions about education plans. Even though this is a revolutionary period, we are looking for ways to do this.
RFA: The State Administration Council is now suspending education staff. Would you comment on this?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: The teachers themselves are determined not to work under the military junta’s education system. At NUG, we set principles that are in line with the will of the teachers. We communicate with them and are trying to offer them moral support.
RFA: Some teachers have now left the CDM and have become non-CDM staff. What do you think about this?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: The main issue here is the pressure put on them [by the junta] in terms of their security. This pressure includes violence directed not only at them but also at their families, involving very cruel methods. There are a lot of teachers who do not want to do non-CDM work. But there are also teachers who are not morally strong. The learned teachers I have contacted have not given up; they will do it [CDM] until the end of the revolution. And when the government elected by the people comes to power, they will carry out the duties of the people’s government.
RFA: How many teachers are currently involved in CDM?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are still counting the teachers in basic education. We have collected the lists [inside Myanmar], but most of them have not reached us yet. There are more than 400,000 teachers in Myanmar, including in the higher education department. You can imagine how many of these are involved in CDM work by looking at the fact that the schools cannot open now. If the classrooms were full of students [as the junta has said], it would not be possible to run these classes with such a small number of the current non-CDM teachers. I think that more than 80 percent of teachers are now involved in CDM. Now the State Administrative Council is not only suspending education officers, but also firing some of them. So the percentage of teachers doing CDM is over 80 percent, as I said.
RFA: We also heard that CDM education staff are facing difficulties and need help. What are you doing to help them?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making plans. One of our government ministers has said that they are planning to pay them their full salaries as much as possible. Even if we cannot help to that level, we are still doing our best to help.
RFA: The State Administration Council is trying to reopen the schools. Students are boycotting this, but there are also some students who want to study. What can you say about this situation?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making plans for this, too. The main thing is that students not lose their right to an education. Nor should this be delayed. In addition, we have set a “No one left behind” commitment, so that anyone can get an education. We will officially announce something soon. There will be opportunities for students to learn with teachers. Some students have suggested to us [the NUG] that we open schools for those students who are currently involved in the revolution. We will discuss all these issues and implement an education plan soon.
RFA: What message would you like to send to the students, teachers, parents, and other people who are now fighting the military dictatorship?
Sai Khaing Myo Tun: I want to say that both students and teachers have been resilient so far. The State Administration Council has used various forms of repression to oppress the people, including students and teachers, and many have already lost their lives. So we need to fight with resolve until the end of the revolution. At the same time, we are working to provide an education plan by linking to global education and linking to federal education: a plan for both the young and the grownup people in our country. It is very important that we completely overthrow the military dictatorship. This will give us a better future and better lives, and we will then be able to implement a better [program for] education.
Translated by Thane Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service.