Australia has suspended its defense cooperation with Myanmar and is redirecting humanitarian aid in the country because of last month's military takeover of the government and the ongoing detention of an Australian citizen.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Monday that diplomats and relatives had only been able to contact economic policy adviser Sean Turnell twice by phone since he was detained in early February. She described the access as “very limited consular support.”
Australia announced late Sunday that it had suspended a defense training program with Myanmar worth about 1.5 million Australian dollars ($1.2 million) over five years. The program had been restricted to noncombat areas such as English-language training.
Australian humanitarian aid will be directed away from Myanmar government and government-related entities. Instead it will focus on the immediate humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable and poor in Myanmar, including the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, Payne said.
Also Monday, Myanmar security forces continued to clamp down on anti-coup protesters, firing tear gas to break up a crowd of around 1,000 people who were demonstrating in the capital, Naypyitaw. The protesters deployed fire extinguishers to create a smoke screen as they fled from authorities.
Meanwhile, thousands of protesters marching in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, dispersed on their own amid fears that soldiers and police were planning to use force to break up their demonstration.
Large-scale protests have occurred daily across many cities and towns in Myanmar since the country's military seized power in the Feb. 1 coup, and security forces have responded with ever greater use of lethal force and mass arrests.
On Sunday, police occupied hospitals and universities and reportedly arrested hundreds of people involved in protesting the military takeover.
In Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, gunshots from heavy weapons rang out for a second straight night in several neighborhoods after the start of an 8 p.m. curfew. The sounds of what apparently were stun grenades could also be heard on videos posted on social media.
The purpose for security forces using such weapons when protesters had left the streets appeared to be part of a strategy to strike fear in anyone who might think about defying the authorities. In a similar vein, many filmed incidents of police and soldiers in plain view showed them savagely beating protesters they had taken into custody.
Some of the shooting was heard near hospitals, where reports said neighborhood residents sought to block the entry of police and soldiers.
Security forces have often targeted medical personnel and facilities, attacking ambulances and their crews. Members of the medical profession launched the Civil Disobedience Movement, which is the nominal coordinator of the protests, frequently hailed on demonstrators’ signs by its CDM initials. Taking over hospitals would allow the authorities to easily arrest wounded people presumed to be protesters.
Meanwhile, a Canadian-Israeli lobbyist hired by Myanmar’s junta has said the ruling generals want to get out of politics and shift the nation away from China after they grabbed power in the widely-condemned coup against the nation’s civilian government.
Ari Ben-Menashe, who previously represented Sudan’s military leader and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, spoke to The Associated Press on Sunday from the U.S. after returning from his second trip in the past month to Myanmar.
He said he was confident he can persuade the Biden administration to lift sanctions imposed on Burmese military leaders who directed the coup last month that deposed and detained Myanmar's elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
He said the U.S. and others in the West have reduced Myanmar’s political conflict to a black and white tale of military repression against pro-democracy activists that ignores the fraudulent exclusion of millions of minorities from voting in last year's election.
Authorities in Indian-controlled Kashmir have sent at least 168 Rohingya refugees to a holding center, police said Sunday, in a process that they say is for the deportation of thousands of the refugees living in the region.
The move began Saturday following a directive from the region’s home department to identify Rohingya living in the southern city of Jammu, said Inspector-General Mukesh Singh. He said around 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in Jammu in the past few years.
“All of them are illegally living here and we have begun identifying them,” Singh said. “This process is to finally deport them to their country.”
More than 1 million Rohingya have fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently mainly living in overcrowded, squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Since Saturday, officials have called hundreds of Rohingya to a stadium in Jammu, taking their personal details and biometrics and testing them for the coronavirus. A jail has been converted into a holding center in the outskirts of the city, and at least 168 Rohingya have so far been sent there, Singh said.
The refugees, who have previously faced hostility in the city, were not informed of what was going on. Jammu is a Hindu-dominated area in Muslim-majority Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Khatija, a Rohingya Muslim woman who uses one name, said the Indian authorities took away her son on Saturday and she didn’t know where he was being kept. Her daughter-in-law gave birth on Sunday morning, she said.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in parts of India. Fewer than 15,000 are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many have settled in areas of India with large Muslim populations, including the southern city of Hyderabad, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. Some have taken refuge in northeast India bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Indian government says it has evidence there are extremists who pose a threat to the country’s security among the Rohingya and calls all of them “illegal immigrants” who will be deported.
In 2018 and 2019, Indian authorities deported at least 12 Rohingya in two groups to Myanmar. Rights groups have asked the Indian government to abandon plans for deporting Rohingya and evaluate their asylum claims.
Myanmar residents in Japan requested Sunday that Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi pressure the Myanmar military into freeing civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and others it has been detaining since the Feb. 1 coup.
In a document addressed to Kishi, the residents also asked that Japan urge Myanmar's armed forces to restore the democratically elected government.
They handed the document to a Defense Ministry official after about 120 Myanmar residents and others held an anti-coup protest in front of the ministry in Tokyo.
They took the action as Myanmar security forces have killed, according to the United Nations, more than 50 people in an attempt to prevent daily demonstrations and strikes in the Southeast Asian country since the military takeover.
"We, mainly young people, gathered here to raise our voices," said Lae Lae Lwin, 30, a Myanmar nurse working in Japan.
"We know Japan has connections with the Myanmar military," she said. "We would like the Japanese government to push the military to stop its violence and change course."
In Kobe, western Japan, some 400 Myanmar residents and others held a similar demonstration, saying they will never recognize a military dictatorship in their home country and calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy party.
Pope Francis arrived in northern Iraq on Sunday, where he planned to pray in the ruins of churches damaged or destroyed by Islamic State extremists and celebrate an open-air Mass on the last day of the first-ever papal visit to the country.
The Vatican hopes that the landmark visit will rally the country’s Christian communities and encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability. Francis has also delivered a message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity to Muslim leaders, including in an historic meeting Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Francis will head to the northern city of Mosul, which was heavily damaged in the war against IS, to pray for Iraq's war victims. The setting will be a city square surrounded by the remnants of four damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian rites and denominations.
He will travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by IS and restored in recent years.
He wraps up the day with a Mass in the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people. He arrived in Irbil early Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one outfitted as a pope.
Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and while the extremist group no longer controls any territory it still carries out sporadic attacks, especially in the north. The country has also seen a series of recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. targets, violence linked to tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The IS group's brutal three-year rule of much of northern and western Iraq, and the grueling campaign against it, left a vast swathe of destruction. Reconstruction efforts have stalled amid a years-long financial crisis, and entire neighborhoods remain in ruins. Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes at their own expense.
Iraq's Christian minority was hit especially hard. The militants forced them to choose among conversion, death or the payment of a special tax for non-Muslims. Thousands fled, leaving behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists.
Iraq's nearly 2,000-year-old Christian population had already rapidly dwindled, from around 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos to just a few hundred thousand today.
Francis hopes to deliver a message of hope, one underscored by the historic nature of the visit and the fact that it is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as super-spreader events for the coronavirus in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated.
The Vatican has said it is taking precautions, including holding the Mass outdoors in a stadium that will only be partially filled. But throughout the visit, crowds have gathered in close proximity, with many people not wearing masks. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is raising pressure for more sanctions against the junta, even as countries struggle over how to best sway military leaders inured to global condemnation.
The challenge is made doubly difficult by fears of harming ordinary citizens who were already suffering from an economic slump worsened by the pandemic but are braving risks of arrest and injury to voice outrage over the military takeover. Still, activists and experts say there are ways to ramp up pressure on the regime, especially by cutting off sources of funding and access to the tools of repression.
The U.N. special envoy on Friday urged the Security Council to act to quell junta violence that this week killed about 50 demonstrators and injured scores more.
“There is an urgency for collective action," Christine Schraner Burgener told the meeting. “How much more can we allow the Myanmar military to get away with?"
Coordinated U.N. action is difficult, however, since permanent Security Council members China and Russia would almost certainly veto it. Myanmar's neighbors, its biggest trading partners and sources of investment, are likewise reluctant to resort to sanctions.
Some piecemeal actions have already been taken. The U.S., Britain and Canada have tightened various restrictions on Myanmar's army, their family members and other top leaders of the junta. The U.S. blocked an attempt by the military to access more than $1 billion in Myanmar central bank funds being held in the U.S., the State Department confirmed Friday.
But most economic interests of the military remain “largely unchallenged," Thomas Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, said in a report issued last week. Some governments have halted aid and the World Bank said it suspended funding and was reviewing its programs.
Its unclear whether the sanctions imposed so far, although symbolically important, will have much ímpact. Schraner Burgener told U.N. correspondents that the army shrugged off a warning of possible “huge strong measures" against the coup with the reply that, “‘We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past.’”
Andrews and other experts and human rights activists are calling for a ban on dealings with the many Myanmar companies associated with the military and an embargo on arms and technology, products and services that can be used by the authorities for surveillance and violence
The activist group Justice for Myanmar issued a list of dozens of foreign companies that it says have supplied such potential tools of repression to the government, which is now entirely under military control.
It cited budget documents for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transport and Communications that show purchases of forensic data, tracking, password recovery, drones and other equipment from the U.S., Israel, EU, Japan and other countries. Such technologies can have benign or even beneficial uses, such as fighting human trafficking. But they also are being used to track down protesters, both online and offline.
Restricting dealings with military-dominated conglomerates including Myanmar Economic Corp., Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise might also pack more punch, with a minimal impact on small, private companies and individuals.
One idea gaining support is to prevent the junta from accessing vital oil and gas revenues paid into and held in banks outside the country, Chris Sidoti, a former member of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said in a news conference on Thursday.
Oil and gas are Myanmar's biggest exports and a crucial source of foreign exchange needed to pay for imports. The country's $1.4 billion oil and gas and mining industries account for more than a third of exports and a large share of tax revenue.
“The money supply has to be cut off. That’s the most urgent priority and the most direct step that can be taken,” said Sidoti, one of the founding members of a newly established international group called the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.
Unfortunately, such measures can take commitment and time, and “time is not on the side of the people of Myanmar at a time when these atrocities are being committed," he said.
Myanmar’s economy languished in isolation after a coup in 1962. Many of the sanctions imposed by Western governments in the decades that followed were lifted after the country began its troubled transition toward democracy in 2011. Some of those restrictions were restored after the army’s brutal operations in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s northwest Rakhine state.
The European Union has said it is reviewing its policies and stands ready to adopt restrictive measures against those directly responsible for the coup. Japan, likewise, has said it is considering what to do.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, convened a virtual meeting on March 2 to discuss Myanmar. Its chairman later issued a statement calling for an end to violence and for talks to try to reach a peaceful settlement.
But ASEAN admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, long before the military, known as the Tatmadaw, initiated reforms that helped elect a quasi-civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Most ASEAN governments have authoritarian leaders or one-party rule. By tradition, they are committed to consensus and non interference in each others’ internal affairs.
While they lack an appetite for sanctions, some ASEAN governments have vehemently condemned the coup and the ensuing arrests and killings.
Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer and former chair of the Fact-Finding Mission that Sidoti joined, said he believes the spiraling, brutal violence against protesters has shaken ASEAN's stance that the crisis is purely an internal matter.
“ASEAN considers it imperative that it play a role in resolving the crisis in Myanmar,” Darusman said.
Thailand, with a 2,400 kilometer (1,500-mile)-long border with Myanmar and more than 2 million Myanmar migrant workers, does not want more to flee into its territory, especially at a time when it is still battling the pandemic.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, also believes ASEAN wants to see a return to a civilian government in Myanmar and would be best off adopting a “carrot and stick" approach.
But the greatest hope, he said, is with the protesters.
“The Myanmar people are very brave. This is the No. 1 pressure on the country," Chongkittavorn said in a seminar held by the East-West Center in Hawaii. “It's very clear the junta also knows what they need to do to move ahead, otherwise sanctions will be much more severe."