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Sensemaker: Coup in Myanmar

Monday 1 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • AstraZeneca agreed to send nine million extra doses of its Covid vaccine to the EU after the European Commission withdrew a threat to halt shipments of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK via Northern Ireland.
  • Captain Sir Tom Moore was admitted to hospital with the virus.
  • Donald Trump’s legal team for his second impeachment trial walked out and had to be replaced. 

Coup in Myanmar

The events of the last 24 hours in Myanmar make those of 6 January in Washington look like amateur hour. Myanmar’s army detained its elected government including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and her chief ally in coordinated dawn raids. Mobile networks and the web were taken down in major cities. Naypyidaw, the capital, was virtually cut off. The army under the senior general, Min Aung Hlaing, says it has taken charge for a year.

Why? Last November’s election. ASSK’s National League for Democracy won 83 per cent of the vote, threatening a system still skewed dramatically in favour of the army. It guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats plus control of police, security forces, border forces and the defence and interior ministries. Changes require a three-quarters majority in parliament. That’s still a stretch but the NLD’s landslide ruled out a future in civilian politics for General Hlaing. And as one western diplomat told the Economist, he had no plan B.

Why now? Parliament was about to use its first session since the election to approve the new government.

What next? ASSK – still adored at home even though her stance against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims has destroyed her reputation abroad – has written a letter urging followers to “protest the coup”. They may well do so. Old timers remember ASSK as a dissident under house arrest but a generation of young adults has grown up with her as their elected leader. They voted for her again three months ago and they have vivid examples of street protest in neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia. That could turn ugly in a country awash with weapons, but the US and UN have been quick to take their side and condemn the coup. For what it’s worth, so has Boris Johnson.

More questions. Would ASSK have been able to face the army down if she’d retained international support by defending the Rohingya against genocide, instead of defending the army as she did at the International Court of Justice in 2019? Is this in fact the true face of a phoney democracy in which the army has been in charge all along? Has the army been emboldened by images of police enforcing thug rule in Hong Kong and Russia… and failing to defend democracy in the US?

Tyranny is contagious.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Smaller stimulus?
In the blue corner: the new US president’s plan for a $1.9 trillion stimulus package including $1,400 cheques for poorer Americans. In the red corner: a $600 billion counter-proposal backed by ten Republican Senators without the generous handouts or extra funds for schools. At stake: the direction of the American economy; the mood of US markets (which like stimulus spending almost as much as corporate tax cuts and deregulation); Biden’s credentials with the Left; and, most importantly, his pledge to run the country from the centre. If he rams through his big package with a one-vote majority, hopes of future Republican support could evaporate. If he trims it, he faces internal rebellion. To get anything substantial done in his first 100 days, he probably has to decide this week.


New things technology, science, engineering

Net benefit
It took a decade for traffic at Africa’s biggest internet exchange point to grow to one terabit per second. In less than a year since the start of the pandemic it has grown by half as much again. Demand is “exploding” (£), one data centre owner tells the FT. Can supply keep up? Most African web connections are via mobile phones. That number is expected to grow by 200 million to nearly half the continent’s population by the middle of the decade, but many of those connections will still be only 3G and even new fibre-optic cables being laid from Europe to South Africa and right round the continent can’t bring video to customers as fast as they are used to getting it in the rich north. So companies like Netflix and Microsoft are investing in data centres within Africa, and the dream of a digital revolution that bypasses the dirty industrial one is at hand. Africa will get the upside of the internet. Can it avoid the hate speech, conspiracy theories, information silos and political manipulation that seem to come with the territory?


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Aviva to divest
Aviva Investors has written to all the companies in which it has stakes, including 30 big oil, gas and mining firms, telling them it will sell up unless they set net zero carbon emissions goals within the next three years. Aviva manages £355 billion in assets and says it doesn’t want to divest from anyone but will if it has to because climate change is such a big disruptor. What’s striking about the announcement – in an interview with the FT that’s been widely followed up – is that it doesn’t try to take the moral high ground. Aviva just wants to avoid the risk of exposure to companies that aren’t taking climate change seriously.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

European roll-out
In place of an actual vaccine roll-out on the scale that Europe needs, it now has promises. Besides AstraZeneca’s promise of nine million extra doses after its row with the EU last week, the Pfizer-BioNTech alliance now pledges the union an extra 75 million by the end of the year and the European Commission says 70 per cent of adults will be vaccinated by late summer. So far 12 million out of a total EU population of 446 million have received a first dose. The snapshot verdict is that the continent is paying dearly for a procurement policy based initially on caution, fair play and the idea that if the herd is safest when those who need the vaccine most get it first, then that should apply across the EU. The verdict of history could be kinder. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Putin’s problem
For the second weekend in a row protesters came out onto Russia’s freezing streets to condemn the incarceration of Alexei Navalny. This time the crowds weren’t huge, but they were telling. The NYT’s Andrew Kramer says ($) they reflect a breakdown of the “Crimea consensus”. Gone is the political steroid of foreign policy adventures like the annexation of Crimea. In its place: resentment over rising pension ages and a prolonged economic slump brought on by low oil prices and deepened by Covid. Average real-term wages are down by 10 per cent compared with seven years ago. In the perennial battle for Russians’ attention between TV and fridge, the fridge is winning. That’s the context into which Navalny dropped his video of Putin’s Black Sea palace, now viewed more than 100 million times, mostly inside Russia. Putin’s old chum Arkady Rotenberg now says the palace is his. No one believes him. No one believes Putin is going anywhere soon either, but Navalny presents him with the sort of challenge he has never faced before. Jailing or killing him won’t solve it.


the week ahead

UK
1/2 – Institute of Fiscal Studies releases report on costs of lost schooling; Labour leader Keir Starmer attends east London meeting on flammable cladding; High Court hears statement as part of Duke of Sussex’s legal action against Associated Newspapers, 2/2 – Notting Hill Carnival CEO appears at select committee session on future of UK music festivals; European Court of Human Rights delivers judgement in case brought by British national challenging conviction for insulting then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 3/2 – NHS Test and Trace head Dido Harding appears at select committee session on UK’s capability in disease outbreaks, 4/2 – Bank of England interest rate decision due; vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi appears at London Assembly session on delivery of vaccine in the capital, 5/2 – former Great Ormond Street porter accused of child sex offences appears in court, 7/2 – Farmers Weekly awards

World
1/2 – European Parliament hearing on EU vaccine strategy; German chancellor Angela Merkel holds press conference on vaccine supplies; EU high representative Josep Borrell delivers address on major global issues facing the EU, 2/2 – Eurozone issues fourth quarter GDP; US Covid task force head Anthony Fauci takes part in Washington Post live discussion; Alibaba, Alphabet, Pfizer and Amazon report quarterly results, 3/2 – Israeli cabinet meets to discuss whether to extend national lockdown, 4/2 – NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg makes first major policy speech of 2021, 5/2 – German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron co-chair virtual defence and security talks; latest US employment figures due to be released, 6/2 – African Union leaders’ summit; New Zealand national day; opening round of Six Nations rugby, 7/2 – Super Bowl LV; Ecuador holds presidential elections

Thanks for reading, and do share this around

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs by Getty Images