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Sensemaker: Abandoned in Myanmar

Sensemaker: Abandoned in Myanmar

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Virginia Giuffre settled her sexual assault suit against Prince Andrew, reportedly for ÂŁ12 million that the Queen will help him pay (more below).
  • Nato said Russia appeared to be continuing its military build-up round Ukraine, a day after Russia said it was sending some troops home.
  • Pubs in the City of London reported high sales of their most expensive champagnes after banks paid their biggest bonuses since the 2008 crash.

Abandoned in Myanmar

On Christmas Eve, soldiers loyal to the junta that seized power in Myanmar a year ago halted a convoy of 40 villagers fleeing their homes in eastern Kayah state and killed them in their vehicles. Autopsies suggested some were shot first, others burned alive. The dead included women, a teenage girl and two Save the Children workers. The incident is not atypical. It’s part of a scorched earth strategy by generals accustomed to impunity but not resistance. 

By the numbers:

  • 1,549 – civilians and armed resistance fighters killed since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
  • At least 12,000 – civilians and pro-democracy activists arrested for alleged dissent
  • 170,000 – Karenni people internally displaced 
  • 14,000,000 – civilians in humanitarian need, according to the UK government

How has it come to this in the country of Aung San Suu Kyi, who for all her failings once had the world with her and brought a promise of democracy?

  • Defiance. The junta is led mainly by veterans of the military rule that ASSK suspended in 2016. They may have expected a quick return to the status quo ante but that is not what happened. Citizen militias have fought back, especially in the east and south. The military has resorted to a “four cuts” strategy honed in the 80s and 90s that aims to crush resistance with airstrikes, arson, mass arrests and forced relocations. But instead of submitting, the Karenni people of the east and south-east have organised into multiple militias including the Karenni Nationalities’ Defence Force, the Karenni Army and the Karenni State Police. The result is incipient civil war.
  • Blind eyes. Distracted by Russia and Ukraine, the wider world has looked away. The US, UK, EU and Canada have announced targeted sanctions against junta members but the UN has taken no concerted action. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, brokered a reconciliation plan last April that required the generals to open a dialogue with Myanmar’s democrats and let in humanitarian aid, but the junta has done neither and no longer attends ASEAN meetings.
  • Deaf ears. Reliable news from inside Myanmar is scarce because dozens of journalists have been arrested and hundreds forced to leave. One, Danny Fenster, spent 176 days in jail and was given an 11-year sentence for “encouraging dissent” before a former US ambassador to the UN negotiated his return to the US.
  • Business. As in Iran, the military runs a sprawling network of businesses that thrive as foreign investors withdraw and ordinary people suffer. Chevron and Total have pulled out of Myanmar’s biggest offshore gas project, ceding control to Malaysian investors and the junta. Telenor, the Norwegian telecoms firm, is trying to sell its stake in one of Myanmar’s largest mobile phone operators in a deal that activist investors fear will give the junta access to personal data for 18 million subscribers. The military’s two biggest holding companies are conservatively estimated to funnel $435 million a year to its top brass. Control of oil and gas sales could yield five times as much. 

“The world is doing nothing but just sitting and watching,” Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister for the exiled democratic National Unity Government, told Al Jazeera earlier this month. She wants an arms embargo to prevent the sale of Russian weapons to the junta. Human rights groups want digital evidence from cell phones to be used in prosecutions for regime atrocities. Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, wants “a sense of urgency commensurate to the magnitude of the crisis.”

Any urgency at all would count as progress.


Every day this week at 1.45pm GMT on Radio 4 you can listen to the series Tortoise produced for the BBC on the tank debt that has stood in the way of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. In Episode 3, Tortoise Editor Ceri Thomas looks at when Nazanin’s fate and the debt issue finally collide.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The UK’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, says she’s considering new sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, including against oligarchs. The problem is: many of those oligarchs, and their companies, reside in the UK. The anti-corruption NGO Transparency International identified more than £1 billion worth of British property that was bought with “suspicious wealth” from Russia. That may not sound much, but it’s 100 £10 million mansions. The Home Office knows that “a significant volume of Russian, or Russian-linked illicit finance” is spent on luxury goods, school fees and donations. The sanctions Truss envisages could mean that individuals linked to the Kremlin would have their UK assets frozen, that they’d be banned from entering the country and from doing business with any UK entity. It’s no surprise, then, that these steps haven’t actually been taken yet – or that Russia is sceptical they ever will be.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Royal flush
Prince Andrew, who has no job, has found a way to pay a reported £12 million or more to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman he insists he’s never met. Virginia Giuffre says she was trafficked by the convicted paedophile sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to have sex with the prince three times when she was 17. He denies it and admits nothing except regret for knowing Epstein in his and Giuffre’s joint statement, but the settlement was welcomed by one of her lawyers as a “monumental win” not just for her but for “everyday people… standing up against the rich and powerful”. It’s the Telegraph that goes confidently today with the £12 million figure, adding that the Queen will help to pay it. If so, the question of whether she does so directly or by helping to pay off debts that enabled her second son to sell his Verbier chalet last year remains to be answered. As does the one about whether the money is ultimately from her or British taxpayers. Either way, she must be baffled it’s cost so much to draw a line under something her son says didn’t happen.

New things technology, science, engineering

Content moderators
TikTok is poaching content moderators from the same companies that supply its big tech rivals. The Chinese-owned video platform has hired thousands of experts across hubs in Dublin, Singapore and California in an attempt to prove to regulators that it’s serious about dealing with its growing harmful content problem. But the pool of specialised talent willing to carry out this type of frequently traumatic “ghost work” is limited, and usually accessed through outsourcing companies like Accenture. TikTok’s strategy has been to offer in-house positions with better salaries and benefits than employees will find at Facebook or YouTube. Will competitors take the cue and put an end to the practice of keeping these employees at arm’s length? Better pay and stability leads to higher quality work, which means less violent and otherwise harmful content online.

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

Zero hope for zero Covid
China has surprised international observers by approving Paxlovid, Pfizer’s pill for treating Covid. It’s notable for two reasons: first, it’s the first time the People’s Republic has embraced foreign-made medication in its war against Covid, having already turned down vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna in favour of its own homemade variety. Secondly, it suggests that China, currently bracing itself for a wave of Omicron, is conceding that its zero-Covid policy isn’t sustainable. It will be interesting to keep an eye on which other western treatments China embraces as it moves towards an inevitable “living with Covid” model.

covid by numbers

116 – countries are not on track to meet the shared target of vaccinating 70 per cent of every country by the middle of this year, according to the WHO.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Under water
At current rates of global warming, sea levels round the US will be 25-30 cm higher than they are now by 2050, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The implications in terms of coastal engineering and basic economics are dizzying. 40 per cent of America’s population lives along its coasts. They won’t all be equally vulnerable because of striking variation in projected sea-level rise from place to place. Seattle is relatively immune (23 cm between now and 2060) whereas Galveston on the western end of the Texan gulf coast faces a 60 cm rise. But insurance premiums for coastal properties everywhere are headed up, and it’s presumably a great time to be a sea wall builder. Something about the Chevy to the levee?

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell 

With thanks to Kate Mayberry, Asia Pacific Editor for Al Jazeera English. Additional reporting by Paul Caruana-Galizia, James Wilson and Barney Macintyre.

Photographs Getty Images

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