Frontier Friday Briefing
This week the Rohingya face a cascading series of crises, Myanmar resists China’s Belt and Road pressure, Facebook is pulled into Myanmar’s genocide trial, and the government proposes holding peace talks with the Arakan Army via video conference.
Rohingya crisis continues
Myanmar reported 25 new COVID-19 cases this week, mostly recent returnees, including some Rohingya who crossed the border without permission from Bangladesh into Rakhine State. Parts of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh were declared “red zones” and were locked down on Saturday for at least two weeks as the coronavirus continue to spread. Rohingya community leaders report “mass panic” in the camps, likely exacerbated by the lack of internet access. The Myanmar government has announced it will take legal action against anybody illegally crossing the border but there’s reason to believe the law will be enforced with some level of racial prejudice. No such measures were announced when people continued to trickle across informal border crossings from Thailand and China over the past few months.
Malaysia, meanwhile, is trying to deport some 3,000 people it detained for immigration violations back to Myanmar, as cases rapidly spread among the detainees. When the immigration crackdown began, many warned the Malaysian government that rounding up undocumented migrants and putting them in close quarters could result in a public health disaster. The prediction came true and Malaysia now seems keen to unload the consequences on Myanmar. Compounding the issue is the fact that Malaysia is likely including some Rohingya in its list of “illegal immigrants,” even though they have grounds to claim asylum, and the Myanmar government is likely to reject them as citizens. A boat of nearly 300 Rohingya arrived at Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, with officials saying they won’t be allowed to stay, and Bangladesh authorities refusing to take them back. Another boat estimated to be carrying 300 Rohingya refugees was pushed back from Malaysian shores and is believed to be stranded near Thailand’s Koh Adang. Human Rights Watch has urged both Malaysian and Thai authorities to rescue the refugees but neither seems inclined to do so.
Myanmar remains wary
China marked its 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Myanmar by continuing its Belt and Road pressure campaign, although its efforts appear to be wasted. The Chinese ambassador wrote an op-ed in the Myanmar Times urging the government to promote three projects that were agreed on when President Xi Jinping visited earlier this year – the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, trade zones on the shared border, and New Yangon City. China has been relentless in its push for the projects to start, perhaps hoping the BRI can help reinvigorate its economy as it recovers from COVID-19. Xi has even called up President Win Myint to discuss getting the projects back on track, although Myanmar remains wary. On Monday, Auditor General Maw Than spoke out against Chinese loans, warning government ministries that they come with higher interest rates than those doled out by the International Monetary Fund or World Bank.
The Irrawaddy then reported that Myanmar does not plan to include BRI projects in its planned infrastructure initiative to reinvigorate the economy in response to COVID-19. The BRI has recently come under fire from partner countries who say the “win-win” policy has actually been disproportionately beneficial to China. Myanmar’s caution has also led it to hire an outside Swiss company to assess a Chinese feasibility study for a railway that would connect Mandalay with Muse on the Myanmar-China border.
On Monday, The Gambia filed a memorandum to a court in Washington DC, requesting that the court order Facebook to provide certain information that may be relevant to The Gambia’s allegation that Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya. The Gambia has accused Myanmar of genocide at the International Court of Justice, and an American law gives district courts the ability to order entities to provide information that could be relevant to a foreign or international trial. The Gambia requested access to “all documents and communications produced, drafted, or published” from accounts linked to the military that were shut down for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. This appears to include private messages, but is not entirely clear. Because the pages were banned, the posted content is no longer publicly available, but Facebook still stores it and can make it available if ordered to. The Gambia argues that statements made on Facebook by Myanmar military officials that encourage violence against the Rohingya “may constitute evidence of genocidal intent”.
The move comes the same week that New York University published a new report on Facebook’s policies of “content moderation” – deciding whether to remove posts – using Myanmar as a case study. Myanmar was presented as an example of the platform being used to “stoke ethnic and religious violence” and an example of Facebook eventually taking action – removing pages, adding 100 Burmese-language moderators, and investing in artificial intelligence to proactively detect hate speech and for removing many pages linked to disinformation campaigns.
Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has staged a return to Facebook, launching a page that translates to “Tatmadaw True News Information Team.” Military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun has also set up a new page. Given previous controversies, Facebook would be expected to watch these new developments carefully.
COVID-19 may have had an unexpected positive effect in Myanmar – opening communication between the Arakan Army and the government. Peace talks previously fell apart because neither side could agree on a location, but the government has proposed a solution that might prove mutually acceptable: meeting online, via video conference. The invitation was also extended to the AA’s allies, the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The digital olive branch comes on the heels of a report by the International Crisis Group, which argued that neither side is likely to prevail in the conflict through force alone, and a political settlement is required. The report recommended that a political solution include a pledge from the government that Rakhine State’s chief minister will be selected from the party that wins the most votes in the state in the upcoming election, rather than being chosen by the national ruling party, as was done in 2015.
In other news…
Opposition politicians have moved to remove Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, who was recently caught violating COVID-19 measures, but the motion is all but guaranteed to fail given the NLD’s overwhelming majority. Fifty-one village and ward tract administrators in Myebon Township quit en masse, following the detention of three colleagues who were charged with terrorism, saying it’s impossible to do their jobs under the threat of arbitrary arrest. Some Myanmar activists have launched a new anti-racism campaign encouraging the public not to use the derogatory term “kalar” to describe people of Indian and Muslim heritage. Three members of the Peacock Generation thangyat troupe were sentenced to an additional year in prison with hard labour for their satirical performance last year lampooning the military, the fifth sentence for some of the activists.