[TODAY] Draft foreign interference law: Workers’ Party proposes changes to prevent abuse and enhance oversight over powers

30 September 2021

Published SEPTEMBER 29, 2021

  • A draft law to protect Singapore from foreign interference gives the Government power to deal with such acts
  • The Workers’ Party said it believes in countering foreign threats, but disagrees on the Bill’s wording 
  • The party’s parliamentarians filed a notice to amend the Bill
  • One proposed change is to exempt activities where foreign individuals or publications comment on Singapore politics in an “open, transparent and attributable way”

Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/workers-party-disagrees-proposed-foreign-interference-law-files-changes-prevent-abuse-and-enhance-oversight-powers


[change.org] Say no to unfettered power! Rethink FICA!

30 September 2021

Sign this petition now!

Singapore’s proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) is an overly broad law that grants the Minister for Home Affairs vast powers, with serious repercussions for civil society, independent media, and public discourse.

The bill was introduced in Parliament on 13 September 2021, with its second reading scheduled for 4 October 2021.

We, the undersigned, would like to express the following concerns:

1. An overly broad, expansive law

FICA contains extremely broad definitions that serve as a catch-all for a wide range of activities. If enacted, the law will have serious ramifications for multiple stakeholders and large sections of society, including academia, business, civil society, and the media.

2. Powers to censor, impose restrictions, and demand information

FICA allows the Minister for Home Affairs vast powers to issue directives that can censor online content and even shut down media outlets. All that is required for the issuance of such directions is for the Minister to be of the opinion that online communications activity has been undertaken, or has been suspected of being undertaken, on behalf of a foreign principal, and that it is in the public interest to take action. Compliance with these directions are mandatory; failure to comply will attract heavy fines and/or imprisonment. The offence of non-compliance is arrestable and non-bailable.

The Minister can also declare an online location a “proscribed online location”. This would then make it illegal to monetise, finance, or form commercial partnerships with the platform. In other words, the Minister can effectively shut down any independent media business or initiative by cutting off its sources of funding.

The proposed legislation allows an authority appointed by the Minister to designate individuals or entities “politically significant persons”, who are then subject to reporting obligations and restrictions regarding donations. This designation can only be appealed to the Minister who appointed the authority in the first place.

FICA also grants authorities the right to demand information from any individual, whether inside Singapore or out, for enforcement purposes. Such a broad power can lead to gross violations of privacy.

3. Absence of meaningful oversight of powers granted under FICA

FICA limits the sources of appeal for the exercise of powers under the bill. Appeals are first directed to the Minister for Home Affairs, who can also choose not to consider an appeal if he deems it “frivolous or vexatious”.

The second source of appeal, the Reviewing Tribunal, is appointed by the President on the advice of the Cabinet. However, the Minister for Home Affairs makes the rules followed by the Reviewing Tribunal.

FICA further restricts judicial review in open court to only procedural matters.

4. Our demands

FICA, in its current state, is an example of state overreach without adequate oversight. Given the serious ramifications that such a wide-ranging law will have on multiple segments of society, it is crucial that such a bill be closely scrutinised and thoroughly debated before any decision can be taken as to whether such a far-reaching piece of legislation is even necessary.

It is therefore unacceptable that the bill – which is 249 pages long – is scheduled for its second, and likely third, reading on 4 October. That’s a mere three weeks after it was first introduced in Parliament. This is nowhere near enough time for Members of Parliament, as well as Singaporeans, to have read, analysed, and be consulted on the proposed law.

A multi-party Select Committee should instead be appointed to carry out extensive public consultation on the issue of “foreign interference”. The term should be clearly defined, and measures enacted should take into consideration with best practices in accordance with international human rights standards.

While legislation to combat malign foreign interference is not inherently unreasonable, national security should not be seen as an excuse to concentrate power in the hands of the state. Any law that is enacted should therefore not be overly broad and ambiguous, but targeted, precise, and subject to adequate oversight and restraints on power.


[TODAY] Draft law doesn’t bar meetings by groups with foreigners who have no control over them: MHA

30 September 2021

Published SEPTEMBER 26, 2021

  • MHA made these clarifications in response to concerns from human rights groups Maruah and Think Centre
  • They had questioned whether their activities will come under greater scrutiny under the proposed law on foreign interference
  • MHA said the intent of Fica is not to stifle political expression or activity but to prevent foreign influence via local proxies 

Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/draft-foreign-interference-law-does-not-bar-meetings-maruah-and-think-centre-foreigners-no


[TODAY] Maruah, Think Centre criticise draft foreign interference law, raise concern about uncertainty over their activities

30 September 2021

Published SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

  • Two non-governmental organisations here will be deemed “politically significant persons” once a draft law on foreign influence is passed
  • One of them, Maruah, questioned whether it would be prohibited from meeting with counterparts from other Southeast Asian nations 
  • The other, Think Centre, said the Bill paints Singaporeans as “people who cannot think for themselves”
  • The Government has said the law will strengthen its ability to detect and counter foreign interference in domestic politics

Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/maruah-think-centre-criticise-draft-foreign-interference-law-raise-concern-about


Dr Tan Cheng Bock on the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act 2021

30 September 2021

[Greenpeace SEA] Online Submission of the CSO Briefing Paper on Ratifying and Implementing ILO Convention 188 in ASEAN Member States to ASEAN Secretariat

30 September 2021

We have attached a copy of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Briefing Paper on Ratifying and Implementing ILO Convention 188 in ASEAN Member States and the cover email below. Please click on the link to download a copy of the report.


Dear ASEAN Secretariat,

In October last year, Greenpeace Southeast Asia (GPSEA) started developing the Briefing Paper on Ratifying and Implementing ILO Convention 188 in ASEAN Member States. We also initiated email correspondence and virtual consultation meetings with the respective sectoral bodies: ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW), and the Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crimes (SOMTC). Alongside this, workshops were conducted to align views with fellow civil society organisations (CSO) and trade union colleagues. 

The briefing paper is jointly submitted by 18 CSOs and trade unions and endorsed by 6 organisations, with the aim of having ASEAN member states join us to fight modern slavery at sea together at the regional level.

It is very unfortunate that none of the AICHR, ACMW, and SOMTC Brunei Darussalam leaders are able to join us in the online launch event due to other commitments. Nevertheless, we are submitting the briefing paper online by way of this email. Please find this document attached.

We really hope that this briefing paper will mark the beginning of further discussions and collaborations between CSOs, trade unions, and ASEAN to combat modern slavery at sea. Therefore, we are looking forward to hearing your response and views on the matter. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Joint-Submitters

Asosiasi Pekerja Perikanan Indonesia (AP2I)

CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood

Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Form (GLJ-ILRF)

Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI)

Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Bandung (LBH Bandung)

Oxfam International – Asia

Plan International

Serikat Awak Kapal Perikanan Bersatu (Sakti) SULUT

Serikat Awak Kapal Transportasi Indonesia (SAKTI)

Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI)

Serikat Pekerja Perikanan Indonesia (SPPI)

Serikat Pelaut Sulawesi Utara (SPSU)

Stella Maris Manila

The Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN)

Verité Southeast Asia

Endorsers

Amnesty International – Indonesia

Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW)

Human Rights Working Group (HRWG)

MARUAH Singapore

Raks Thai Foundation

Solidaritas Perempuan (SP)


[Singapore Internet Watch] September Internet News Round-Up; Privacy and Security Resources for Civil Society

19 September 2021

This round-up covers issues ranging from crucial privacy/security resources for civil society, the Yale-NUS merger, and the latest use of POFMA. We have provided some excerpts from the round-up below. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.

Law and Digital Politics

The new foreign interference law: A new Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act has been introduced in Parliament. If passed, it will give the Singapore government the power to remove, change, or block “hostile” online information. As with POFMA, the bill’s impact on the shape of electronic communications will be noteworthy.

Sedition Act Repeal: The passage of more recent laws, such as POFMA has lessened the relevance of the Sedition Act, according to a bill introduced in Parliament to repeal it. However, with the Sedition Act’s repeal, the Criminal Procedure Code will be amended to make “ the deliberate wounding of any person’s religious or racial feelings” and “the promotion of disharmony” arrestable offences.

Crowdfunding for Damages to Singapore’s PM: The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu has been crowdfunding to pay for damages to PM Lee Hsien Loong, following 2 defamation lawsuits over TOC’s articles on the Lee siblings dispute.

Education

AI in Education: As part of Singapore’s National AI Strategy for education, MOE is exploring AI-enabled marking for English assignments and expects to integrate this into the Student Learning Space e-learning platform in 2 years.

Academic Freedom in Singapore: Academia.sg released their ground-breaking Academic Freedom Report. Check out this summary of key points from Yahoo Singapore: 78% of Singapore academics report at least ‘moderate’ interference: poll.

Yale-NUS Closure: read below for a compilation of recent analysis and commentary.

Business

Labour Protections for Platform Workers: Amidst a growing gig economy, PM Lee’s NDR speech addressed the precarity that platform workers face and acknowledged their need for better economic protections.

Manipulating Review Platforms: A Japanese restaurant in Singapore discovered that their negative online reviews it was receiving were actually their competitors trying to sabotage them

Security and Surveillance

Up to US$150,000 for Ethical Hackers: GovTech is launching a program to reward ethical hackers who find bugs and vulnerabilities in government websites and apps.

Autonomous Robots Patrolling the Heartland: This three week trial marks the first time “that an autonomous robot is being used to patrol and survey a public area with high foot traffic to enhance public health and safety”.


Singapore Internet Watch is a student-run group focusing on internet research. Their key focus areas include censorship, media regulation, misinformation and freedom of information.


The group believes in the need for open data and transparency in studying contentious issues at the intersection of Singapore’s internet and society.


Subscribe to their monthly newsletter to receive a round-up of the latest developments in Singapore’s media and politics, and updates on their work.


[Joint statement] Letter to the Telenor Group

12 August 2021

Please click here for full statement in PDF.

Gunn Wærsted
Chair of the Board
Telenor Group

cc: Sigve Brekke
President & CEO
Telenor Group

12 August 2021

Dear Mdm. Gunn Wærsted,

Our organizations are writing to express alarm regarding the announcement by Telenor Group to sell off their Myanmar business to M1 Group, and to strongly urge you to reconsider this decision and institute human rights safeguards.

In 2013, Telenor’s application for a telecommunications licence in Myanmar was considered risky as Myanmar was at an early stage in its democratic transition, which recent events have demonstrated was not irreversible.  Nevertheless, we observed that through the years since, Telenor’s operations within Myanmar strived to follow a responsible and human-rights centric approach as required under the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct by Multinational Enterprises, and Telenor’s various other commitments in Norway, Myanmar and globally. 

Telenor Myanmar thereby gained the trust of our organisations and other civil society due to its transparency and engagement within the country, something which is reflected in the open letter by over 460 civil society organisations sent on 14 July 2021. These stakeholders recognise that Telenor has always sought to exercise ‘leverage to prevent or mitigate adverse impacts’ within the constraints posed by the Myanmar regulatory framework, as required by the UNGPs.

We recognise that since the coup, Telenor, like other companies, has come under extreme pressure from the military to take further steps which undermine its responsibility to respect human rights. We realise that you face many challenges, not least protecting the rights of your employees and customers, in addition to commercial and operational challenges.  However, we note that many of these challenges are not unique to Myanmar, and that Telenor continues to operate in other challenging markets such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

We were therefore surprised and dismayed to learn that Telenor has taken a rapid decision to leave Myanmar, and to sell to the M1 Group. We note that Telenor has done this without seeking the views of the civil society stakeholders with whom it previously significantly engaged on responsible business, including some of our undersigned organisations. Furthermore, we see no evidence that Telenor has undertaken the ‘credible assessment of potential adverse human rights impacts of disengagement’ from Myanmar, required under the UNGPs.  This appears to be a hurried ‘disposal’ rather than a responsible exit.

We note that Telenor Myanmar is currently the subject of a complaint accepted by the Norwegian National Contact Point (NCP) related to possible misuse by the Tatmadaw of the network tower in Alethankyaw. Companies have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles, ‘where they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts’, to ‘provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes’.  If Telenor exits Myanmar it should continue to cooperate fully with this NCP process. Furthermore, as the withdrawal itself may cause or contribute to new human rights harms, the potential for these should first be identified through the ‘credible human rights impact assessment’ mentioned above, and this should include consideration both of how to avoid any adverse impacts and how to provide for remedy should they nonetheless occur, even if Telenor no longer has an in-country presence. 

These concerns were raised in a recent second complaint submitted to the NCP against the company by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) on behalf of 474 Myanmar-based civil society organizations. The complaint alleged that Telenor had ‘failed to conduct appropriate risk-based due diligence’, ‘failed to seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts potentially arising from the sale of its Myanmar operations’, ‘failed to meaningfully engage with relevant stakeholders’ and ‘not been transparent in its decision to disengage’. 

Our organisations are of the view that, notwithstanding our major concerns about Myanmar’s regulatory framework for telecommunications and its current application, it might still be more positive from a human rights perspective for Telenor to stay in the market, rather than sell to a buyer such as the M1 Group. We have several serious concerns about M1 Group’s acquisition of your licence, infrastructure, employees, and customers –  including their data – which are detailed below. 

We see no evidence that M1 Group intends to respect human rights.

We note that the M1 Group website does not make any reference to human rights and that M1 is not even a signatory to the most basic international standard for investment companies and private equity, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. Nor is it a member of the UN Global Compact.  M1 Group, therefore, appears to be an investor that has not expressed even basic commitments to international human rights standards.

M1 Group does not share the commitment to transparency and stakeholder engagement which was an essential part of Telenor’s contribution to the Myanmar telecommunications market, and also does not have the experience or expertise to manage the serious and complex human rights challenges of operating in Myanmar and fulfil its responsibility to respect human rights. We are also concerned to hear from our international partners and read reports of M1 Group’s operations in other telecommunications markets.

Furthermore, through its investment in Irrawaddy Green Towers (IGT),  M1 Group is associated with military businesses which were identified in the August 2019 report of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission. This analysed the Myanmar military’s economic interests which are alleged to have enabled the most serious international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These allegations are currently before the world’s highest courts – the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. IGT is included in the 2019 report by virtue of its willingness to have a commercial relationship with MyTel, the operator which is part-owned by the military’s Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). MEC has, since the coup, been widely sanctioned. 

M1 Group’s operations in other markets do not bode well for how they may operate in Myanmar if they took over from Telenor. M1 Group was co-founded by Najib Mikati – a former Lebanese Prime Minister and recently re-appointed as Prime Minister-delegate –  and his brother Taha Mikati. The oligarch Mikati family have not only been accused of corruption within Lebanon but have a record of entering and exploiting authoritarian markets for profits. The Mikati family’s Investcom conglomerate entered the Syrian market in 2001 soon after Bashar al-Assad took power, to operate one of two cell phone networks in Syria, MTN Syria, and has since complied with government orders’ including filtering and blocking users’ telecommunications particularly during protests to interfere with their ability to coordinate and organize. Following the sale of its Syrian outfit to a South African multinational telecommunications company, MTN Group, M1 Group remains one of the largest shareholders of MTN Group. Investcom also reportedly entered the Sudanese market in 2005, amidst continuing atrocities amounting to genocide in Darfur, and had partnered with a Yemeni businessperson with close ties to former Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2019, Najib Mikati was charged with corruption and illicit enrichment in Lebanon. Earlier this year, the public prosecutor overseeing the case was removed in what the International Commission of Jurists termed an ‘attack on an already enfeebled judiciary’, in line with a ‘long history of utter subordination to the ruling political class in Lebanon’ – a class of which the Mikati family is part.

We note that in 2013, M1 Group bid for an operator’s licence in partnership with MTN and Amara Communications. Amara is owned by U Ne Aung who is a Politically Exposed Person (PEP) by virtue of his (deceased) father, a former General and Minister. His brother, Moe Aung, the current Commander in Chief of the Navy is a close collaborator of Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. We would like to know what information the team conducting the sale and the Telenor Board sought or received about the actual or potential involvement of these PEPs, or other PEPs and sanctioned individuals, in the transaction.  

We are particularly concerned that Telenor’s Board may not have taken into account the risk that by deciding to embark on this sale, opportunities will open up for military-connected individuals or entities on current sanctions lists to acquire a stake, as has occurred with other divestments in Myanmar or to benefit financially, whether as a broker or as an undeclared beneficial owner. We see this risk as significantly heightened since M1 is an investment company with a questionable long-term commitment to Myanmar, rather than an established telecommunications operator, and therefore more likely to be looking to make an onward sale.  In December 2020, M1 Group, together with co-owner BluStone Management, entered an agreement to sell Irrawaddy Green Towers to another private equity player, CVC. This, together with Telenor’s highly discounted price, leads us to suspect that M1 Group may intend to resell all or part of the asset to other buyers who we believe would not pass Telenor’s due diligence. 

Taking all of this into account, we are both surprised and concerned that a company of Telenor’s standing would contemplate selling their Myanmar business, including their employees and customers, in this risky manner, to a company with no apparent commitment to transparency or human rights.

We, therefore, call upon you to cancel or pause the sale of Telenor Myanmar to M1 Global and to conduct human rights due diligence that is transparent and constitutes the ‘credible impact assessment’ called for by the UNGPs. This should obtain the views of a variety of stakeholders, particularly civil society organisations, human rights defenders and individual users who will be affected if Telenor departs. The due diligence should look at the impacts of potential buyers as well as the option and impact of remaining if satisfactory buyers cannot be identified. The results of such an assessment should be made public and accessible. Any due diligence assessment already conducted by Telenor before this recent decision to sell should also be made accessible to relevant stakeholders in a detailed manner as soon as possible. It should include consideration of how Telenor intends to redress any human rights harms linked to its past activities, or newly imposed by the company’s exit.

We further urge that Myanmar human rights defenders, activists and civil society groups be directly spoken with and consulted by the highest levels of Telenor’s decision-making members. It seems evident that in the most recent sudden decision to sell, this consultation had not been prioritised.

As you will have noted from the comments of various Myanmar stakeholders following your announcement, Telenor is a highly regarded investor in Myanmar.  However, the circumstances of this potential sale risk leaving a bitter taste, and negatively affecting Telenor’s local and global reputation as a responsible business. It will also dent the confidence of the Myanmar people that the Norwegian government, your major shareholder, is committed to the best interests of the Myanmar people. 

We remain open to consultation and eager to contribute to your efforts to respect human rights in Myanmar and beyond. 

Yours sincerely,

The undersigned organizations

  1. Access Now
  2. Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)
  3. Africa Freedom of Information Center 
  4. ALTSEAN-Burma (Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma)
  5. Change Tanzania Movement
  6. Civil Rights Defenders
  7. Digital Woman Uganda
  8. Free Expression Myanmar
  9. Global Voices
  10. Global Witness
  11. Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF)
  12. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  13. Justice for Myanmar
  14. Kijiji Yeetu
  15. Last Mile4D
  16. Manushya Foundation
  17. MARUAH
  18. Media Matters for Democracy
  19. Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment (ForUM) 
  20. Open MIC (Open Media & Information Companies Initiative) 
  21. Open Net Association
  22. Organization of the Justice Campaign
  23. Paradigm Initiative
  24. PEN America
  25. Progressive Voice
  26. Ranking Digital Rights
  27. Rudi International
  28. Social Media Exchange (SMEX)
  29. Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC.IN)
  30. Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFENet)
  31. Securing Organizations with Automated Policymaking (SOAP)
  32. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)
  33. The Peace Centre
  34. Transparency International Czech Republic
  35. Transparency International Norway
  36. Ubunteam
  37. U.S. Campaign for Burma
  38. WITNESS
  39. Yemeni Organization for Development and Exchange of Technology (YODET) 
  40. Zaina Foundation

[Repost] APHR – Appointment of ASEAN envoy to Myanmar must prompt immediate action, MPs say

7 August 2021

https://aseanmp.org/2021/08/04/appointment-of-asean-envoy-to-myanmar-must-prompt-immediate-action-mps-say/

Aug 4, 2021 – ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

JAKARTA – Southeast Asian parliamentarians have responded warily to the decision by ASEAN to appoint Brunei’s Foreign Affairs Minister II Erywan Yusof as its special envoy to Myanmar, urging him to take immediate and decisive action to put an end to the military’s bloodshed and chaos. 

“While we are satisfied that ASEAN has, at last, appointed a special envoy, there are legitimate concerns with the appointment of Erywan Yusof. Let us not forget that the Minister, as the representative of ASEAN’s Chair, has led the bloc’s ineffective response so far, including a delegation to Myanmar in June, during which he not only met solely with the junta, but also pushed their narrative that elections could take place,” said Kasit Piromya, a Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and former Thai Member of Parliament (MP). “It is also unnerving that a Minister of an absolute monarchy that does not abide by international human rights standards has been tasked with convincing a murderous army to respect these principles.” 

This week, Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs, was appointed as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, following several months of negotiations between the bloc and the Myanmar military junta. The role was agreed at the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Jakarta in April, during which Member States reached a Five-Point Consensus, which has seen little progress until this point. 

“Until now, ASEAN’s response to the ongoing crisis in Myanmar has been deeply, deeply disappointing. With this appointment ASEAN cannot hide behind the excuse of not having a Special Envoy anymore,” Piromya said. “The bloc must ensure that the new Envoy finally gives the bloc the leadership we have so desperately craved in this crisis. Not only do the Myanmar people depend on it, but so does ASEAN’s entire reputation.” 

“The Envoy must act promptly, and show skillful diplomacy to ensure he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game to pretend it is taking action, all while maintaining its grip on power and subjecting the people more and more to its oppressive rule. He cannot play into Min Aung Hlaing’s game of using ASEAN to gain international and regional legitimacy anymore, but instead must secure solutions that help the people of Myanmar reach the democracy they have spent the last six months showing the world they so desperately crave,” Piromya said. 

The new Special Envoy for Myanmar must change ASEAN’s course of action, and  immediately step up action to end violence; secure the release of all political prisoners in the country; immediately meet with Myanmar’s National Unity Government and Ethnic Armed Organization; as well as work with the UN Special Envoy and its international partners to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, not through its AHA Centre nor the junta, but through independent humanitarian organisations already operating in the country, as well as ethnic health organizations and local health providers, said APHR. 


[Repost] Myanmar Six Months After The Coup: ’We Only Have Ourselves’

2 August 2021

https://www.reportingasean.net/myanmar-six-months-after-the-coup-we-only-have-ourselves/

YANGON/BANGKOK | 29 Jul 2021

You pause before picking up a call from an unknown phone number. You’re ready to change plans in a second, if explosions occur in your area or soldiers show up. When going out, you may delete the Facebook app from your phone, lest you get stopped by soldiers wanting to check your posts. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you look for an antigen test kit before trying to get an RT-PCR test or go to hospital.

These are among the survival skills that many people in Myanmar are using these days, six months after the February military coup. Hypervigilance has become routine.

Anxiety is never too far away as they make their way through layer upon layer of crises – the political crisis sparked by the military’s ouster of the elected government on Feb 1, the economy’s breakdown amid rising poverty, and a third COVID-19 wave surging in the wake of a collapsed system for delivering public services.

“I always feel insecure wherever I go,” said one resident of Yangon, the commercial capital of this country of over 57 million people. “I dare not bring my phone because I’m scared when I hear that security forces are checking mobile phones, and they also take money. So I never take much money if I go out.”

“I’m also insecure at home because they (soldiers) can check any time and they take whatever they want,” she added.

“There are lots of things to care about when you go outside, not only the COVID third wave but also explosions, people in uniform,” agreed one artist. “Our daily lives are different compared to before, due to COVID and the coup – double trouble – in terms of work security, safety, unemployment.”

Locals say the price of some goods and medicines, food items have risen by 20 to 40%. Worries abound about the latest harvest and future ones, because farmers (80% are small farmers) depend on credit from the state and fertiliser prices have shot up by 50%. Fuel prices are reported to have nearly doubled since February.

Power outages are worrisome amid a pandemic that sees daily new cases at 4,000-5,000 and over 300 deaths daily. Cases are under-reported as testing is severely limited, and infectivity is very high: 37% of COVID-19 tests were positive, as of Jul 22. Only Mexico’s 38.1% is higher in the One World in Data global tracker.

Cash is a precious commodity, one that can be received after shelling out 6-10% commission fees to brokers and mobile apps. “Wasting our money in these horrible times” is how the owner of a small business puts it. Access to cash has become better in some cases, but long queues are common and limits on cash withdrawals remain.

Even as the pandemic rages – and has affected its ranks – Myanmar’s military has continued to arrest anti-coup protesters, those who have stayed with the civil disobedience movement that started right after the coup.

“Now I’m afraid of going outside and I dare not pick up calls from unknown people,” said one schoolteacher who continues to stay away from her work with the government. “I’m also afraid to answer calls because some officers in our department threaten and force (us) to go back to work. And I’m always afraid of the informers and spies of the military.”

For many, there is too much of the military’s presence in their lives, but too little, or none, of public governance in this catastrophe unfolding in their midst.“It is estimated that up to 90% of national government activity has ceased,” the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said in its June report on the economic fallout and food insecurity in Myanmar since the coup.

As they have learned to do under past periods of military rule, Myanmar’s people are turning to one another, forming networks of their own, to survive.

Communities have been arranging donation drives for those who have lost relatives to the pandemic or are taking care of the sick, and others who are in self-isolation. Volunteers are still driving patients to hospitals, which have run out of beds. Online groups help track supplies of medical oxygen amid the ongoing scarcity. Many share what income they make with the jobless.

DISASTER OF EPIC PROPORTIONS

But still tougher times lie ahead in what Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U calls an “economic and humanitarian disaster of epic proportions”. The economy is expected to contract by 18% in 2021, said the World Bank’s ‘Myanmar Economic Monitor’ in late July. At nearly double the 10% contraction projected in March, it is Southeast Asia’s largest such plunge. 

“As the third wave of COVID-19 outbreak struck and strict containment measures were reimposed, an even worse scenario could unfold, with poverty levels in 2022 rising to well over twice as high as they were in 2019 (22.4% in 2018/19), wiping out gains of over a decade of poverty reduction progress,” the World Bank said.

The same report said one million jobs could be lost in 2021 out of a labour force of some 25 million – and this figure excludes workers in the huge informal economy. Already, the International Labour Organization says, 3.1 million full-time equivalent jobs have been lost due to COVID-19 and containment measures.

Migrant workers and those overseas are finding it harder, and often more expensive, to send money into Myanmar, through informal channels. More than 10 million people cite remittances as an income source, says the WFP, and 40% of remittances come from abroad.

Half of households have reported cutting consumption, including food, the World Bank said. Up to 3.4 million more people are at risk of food insecurity, on top of the 2.8 million who were not getting enough food before the coup, the WFP said in its June situation report

Many pin hopes on the National Unity Government that was formed on Apr 16. With 16 ministers apart from a prime minister, the government-in-exile reports on meetings with foreign diplomats and parliamentarians, sends officials to speak at webinars. But it is struggling to gain international recognition and faces challenges around having its decisions actually carried out inside the country.

As COVID-19 took a turn for the worse in June, its health ministry opened a telemedicine channel on Facebook and formed a national committee with the health organizations of several ethnic groups, but a mechanism for a pandemic response is unclear.

“I would like to appeal to all the people of Myanmar to continue the fight bravely with the spirit of victory in mind,” said Mahn Wann Khaing Thann, NUG prime minister. “When we succeed, our government will repay and work for the establishment of a Federal Democratic Union that all people aspire to.”

THE PRESENT MOMENT

But it is the here and now that people live in – and like the COVID-19 pandemic, an end to the crisis is not within sight.

“We only have ourselves,” said a Yangon resident. “We have to take care, as much as we can, of food, medicine, oxygen, and other basic needs. The authorities can’t do anything. Unfortunately, it’s like we are waiting for the day we die.”

“I can’t sleep well at night,” confided another local. “Most of my family members are jobless right now. Even though I save money, not spending spend much money, I’m afraid that one day, I won’t be able to make it.”

(*This feature is part of the ‘Lens Southeast Asia’ series of Reporting ASEAN, supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.)

(END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by J Son)