Myanmar’s shadow government, the junta and soul searching

The coup d’état in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 have triggered hundreds of thousands of Myanmarese, including civil servants, teachers, bus drivers and bank clerks to protest against the junta. The protests have been the largest since the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, when thousands of monks rose up against the military regime.

Numerous countries have condemned the military takeover and subsequent crackdown. The US, UK and European Union have all responded with sanctions on military officials.

In April 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders and Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on agreed on five issues or five-point concensus, including ending violence and holding constructive talks.

Six months have gone by since the coup and despite the promise to end violence, there has not been much progress on this front. Since the coup, more than 700 people including children have been killed and more than 3,000 detained.

“Neither party to the conflict is able to mobilise a combined political and military force to overcome the other party. We need to move forward, and this may require a reevaluation of strategy, ” said Marzuki Darusman, the chair of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Marzuki was speaking as a panelist at the the 1st Regional Dialogue with the theme of Beyond the Five-Point Consensus: Looking at other options available to discuss the best possible ways to move forward, with a view to contribute towards restoring democracy in Myanmar.

The event was co-organised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), thé Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP), the National Commission on Human Rights of Indonesia (KOMNAS HAM), Provedor for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) Timor-Leste, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Indonesia, AICHR Thailand and AICHR Malaysia.

Marzuki added it is more productive to explore possible solutions within the dynamics caused by the standoff between the two sides.

“We are all looking at the big game of seeking recognition from the international community. At the end of the day the recognised government must find ways of working with each other, there may be soul-searching process for both sides,” Marzuki said.

He was referring to the upcoming event in September when at the next UN General Assembly session both the National Unity Government (NUG) and the junta will submit rival petitions to the Credentials Committee, which will decide on which it considers Myanmar’s legitimate government.

In May 2021, the NUG was formed by a group of ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) politicians, activists, and representatives from several ethnic minority groups to oppose the military regime.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Marzuki said adding that the the parties involved may have to look at their prospects between now and September and to come out publicly on its readiness to engage with each other.

The proposed “show all cards” effort should be Myanmar-led, he opined.

Analysts say given the historical affiliation between the junta and Russia and China, recognizing the NUG by the international community at the September UN General Assembly would certainly earn ire of the two countries. The September decision will also have implications on ASEAN whose members are split on their position regarding the crisis.

On the issue of NUG’s recognition, Marzuki opined that ASEAN’s recognition of the shadow government is so much more important than the recognition or non- recognition by international community. “The junta is more concerned about how ASEAN looks at Myanmar than what anybody in New York or Geneva say. Forget about that, this is real politics, and therefore this is an area that NUG needs to play an effective role,” Marzuki said.

He suggested the NUG to have a blanket policy of designating envoys in ASEAN to replace envoys that have been there so far and thus pushing ASEAN to make a decision on which party to recognise. “This could be done almost immediately, it just needs a decision by the NUG, ” he added.

So far NUG has designated 10 new envoys to ASEAN to represent Myanmar. Marzuki suggested the national human rights commission of each ASEAN country to support the NUG efforts to persuade ASEAN members to recognise its legitimacy. “Little things can add up to a significant change in the way ASEAN looks at the NUG,” he added.

Several panelists also spoke at the regional event. They include Tom Andrews the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar who said the people in Myanmar desperately needed the support of the international community before it was too late. He recommended an Emergency Coalition of those who were willing to exert economic pressure on the military authorities and prevent them from accessing weapons.

Razia Sultana who is a Rohingya and human rights activist and the founder of the RW Welfare Society spoke about the atrocities and hardships faced by the Rohingya community, saying the NUG has pledged to support the cause of the Rohingya including at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where Myanmar is accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya. “This is a reversed position to the past NLD’s stand in the ICJ,” she said, adding that it was a positive development.

Razia urged neighbouring countries and ASEAN to increase maximum pressure on the junta by applying measures such as halting economic revenue, arms sales and development aid to Myanmar and supporting the ICJ case against Myanmar.

The issue of ASEAN non-interference tradition was highlighted as a stumbling block to the crisis. “The notion is a divisive concept. The demon of non-interference has to be exorcised from ASEAN. That is the way forward as we confront the 21st century challenges,” Marzuki said.

The implications of the pandemic which saw cases more than doubled every week in recent weeks were also discussed. A humanitarian corridor was recommended to bring all parties together to address the Covid challenges, an initiative similar to the mechanism that was used in bringing independent movements and government to collaborate during the aftermath of the 2004 Aceh tsunami.

Similar dialogues will be held in the coming months.

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To sing or not to sing?

What is your memory of your national anthem? Mine is singing my national anthem Negaraku (My Country) every morning with my schoolmates at the school hall before the first lesson starts. This was a daily routine I did throughout my primary and secondary school years.

When I moved to and settled in Switzerland, I was surprised to find that national anthem of the country is not sung at schools. In Geneva where I live, there is this song called the Cé qu’è lainô introduced in schools from as early as the first year of school. It is Geneva’s anthem, sung to commemorate its victory over the Duke of Savoy’s army in 1602. I remember, one day, my son sang this song and then said to me , “the Genevoises are very brave because they defeated the Savoyards”. My son born in Geneva, is German and in 2019 became a naturalised Swiss, which makes him German-Swiss. He does not know the national anthem of both countries. But a proud Genevois he is.

The Swiss national football team are often criticised for not singing the national anthem before the start of a match. Many of the players are second generation Swiss, or became Swiss through naturalisation. The Swiss team had one of the highest proportion of players who were born abroad (31%), comprising several members with Balkan roots.

Perhaps no national team sings their anthem before the game with such heart and soul than the Italian national team. Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians).

Take Gianluigi Buffon, the iconic Italian national football goalkeeper. He sings the Italian national anthem on top of his lungs with such passion. He exuded pride and emotion that came along with the act of singing.

Most songs of national anthems are often mediocre with the least uplifting tune. But studies reveal that singing simultaneously have the ability to bring people together. Because singing and listening evoke feelings of pride and patriotism, of displaying a group’s identity. The New Zealand’s All Blacks though has taken their affiliation to their country to another level.

Instead of singing their national anthem, the All Blacks does the haka, a ceremonial Māori dance or challenge which involves movements, foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant before a match. “For me, the Haka is a symbol of who we are and where we come from,” former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw told CNN in 2015.

Auckland, New Zealand – August 15, 2015 – Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Maa Nonu of the All Blacks (front row L-R) perform the Haka ahead of The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabies at Eden Park on August 15, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand.

A 2018 study that examined the passion displayed by teams during the singing of their national anthems at UEFA Euro 2016 highlighted:

  • Teams that displayed greater passion during national anthems conceded fewer goals.
  • In the knockout phase, but not the group phase, teams that displayed greater passion were more likely to win.
  • Identity-based expressions of passion are an important predictor of subsequent success.

Sports as we all know evoke emotions – joy, sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt or pride, for both athletes and spectators. Listening to music and singing together has been shown to have direct impact on neuro-chemicals in the brain, many of which play a role in closeness and connection.

Why then some athletes don’t sing the national anthem?

The hesitance to sing is partly attributed to the fact that, many of the athletes were not born or did not even grow up in their adopted sporting nations. There are also those who possess more than one nationality.

Some just do not know the national anthem, and had never been introduced to it. A study says half of England’s young people don’t know their national anthem.

Some (like myself) were drilled into singing my national anthem since young. Whether this good or not I do know it by heart and would earnestly listen to it when I see a Malaysian athlete or team wins a competition. Would I sing it alone? Maybe not. But with a group to cheer a Malaysian team I certainly would. It is the only national anthem I know, and although I have been living in Switzerland close to 20 years now, I still feel strongly connected to Malaysia.

At the end of the day, it boils down to how connected one is with his or her country. By connection I mean the experiences one has when growing up and living in the country, and these usually developed over time. After all, it is the ties that bind.

But even strong connections can be displayed in many ways other than singing the national anthem.

For athletes there are other motivational tactics to boost performance whether they sing or not their national anthem. What counts is the team’s spirit in giving their best to the sport they love, be it by singing the national anthem from the top of their lungs, getting pumped with motivational words prior to a match or listening to heavy metal rock by AC/DC, a ritual of Germany’s national goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

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The old foe that still kills

Here’s something about tuberculosis (TB): it is widely (and mistakenly) considered as a disease of the past even though it kills about 1.5million people every year; 10million people fell sick with TB in 2019. This is partly because tuberculosis rates in the high-income world are low, helping to create an illusion that it has been beaten. Have you ever encountered someone who have contracted TB? Hardly, I guess. At least not in Geneva where I live.

But if you ask a person in India where the TB burden is highest in the world, you will get a different answer. India accounts for 26% TB cases globally. India and seven other countries: Indonesia, China, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa account for 2/3 of new TB cases.

Contrast to the COVID-19 response. The global response to COVID-19 had literally taken the world’s breath away. Probably because COVID-19 is also impacting heavily the rich countries. When respiratory Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Ebola emerged, the world did not budge much. This reality also mirrors the reason why TB is not getting the attention it deserves – because similar to SARS, MERS and Ebola it mostly affects poorer people in the developing world.

From my experience in working in HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, the three diseases are usually characterized as follows: malaria is a disease that affects communities in the rural and hard to reach areas; it usually takes only a few days to cure. For HIV/AIDS, there is no cure exists but strict adherence to antiretroviral regimens (ARVs) can dramatically slow the disease’s progress, in terms of science and research, there are innovative tools (there is a home testing kit for example); and the disease has super strong civil society support. TB is seen as a disease associated with poor people; slow on innovation (the vaccine is 100 years old and it does not work in adults) and expensive for the patient and family as TB patients (in low- and middle-income countries often) face medical expenses, costs of seeking and staying in care, and income loss. Loss of income resulted in patients being less able to complete treatment, more likely to have repeat episodes, and more likely to develop drug resistance resulting in more expensive and arduous treatment).

Do you know about multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB)? This is the most serious form of TB; it occurs when the drugs for TB do not work; treatment is nine to 12 months with combinations of drugs. The cure rate in persons with MDR-TB is 50-60%. Globally, new cases of MDR-TB is increasing with 206,030 reported in 2019, a 10% increase from 186,883 in 2018.

On global campaign and advocacy for the three diseases, HIV seems to be the most popular in celebrity advocacy; for example Elton John has his own foundation supporting HIV response and Bono is behind RED a consumer marketing initiative to finance HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. Star footballer David Beckham is active in ending malaria. Which world famous celebrity do you remember or know of that is a champion for TB response? If there was, the celebrity advocacy is most probably at regional or local levels.

From global funding perspective, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and malaria (the Global Fund) the largest multilateral funder of the three diseases, TB received the smallest share. The Global Fund has, between 2002 and 2018, invested USD 19.6 billion for HIV (it currently provides 20% of all international funding), USD 8.2 billion on TB programmes (69% of all international funding but small compared to domestic funding for TB,) and USD 11.4 billion in malaria control programmes (57% of all international funding).

While HIV and malaria each receive dedicated additional donor funding apart from the Global Fund, with Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) for HIV, and U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI)  for malaria, it is not the the case for TB.

In terms of funding gap for TB programmes, the disequilibrium reached $3.5 billion per year. In 2019, US$ 10.1 billion was needed for diagnostic and care but only US$0.9billion came from international funding while US$ 5.9 billion was made available by domestic funding.

In 2018, for the first time, the United Nations (UN) held its first high-level meeting on TB, sparkling a ray of hope on how to end the TB epidemic and elevate the discussion on TB to the heads of state and government. It was a break-through for TB. The outcome was a political declaration agreed by all UN Member States. One of the outcome was governments pledged USD$15 billion a year for TB. Alas less than half have been delivered.

Is there hope to see the end of TB in our lifetime?

Let’s have a look at the UN Political Declaration on TB which also included four targets for the period 2018-2022 vis-a-vis results achieved thus far (2018 and 2019):

  • Treat 40 million people for TB disease. Only 14 million treated (35% of the target)
  • Reach at least 30 million people with TB preventive treatment for a latent TB infection. Only 6.6 million reached (21% of the target)
  • Mobilize at least US$13 billion annually for universal access to TB diagnosis, treatment and care. A total of US$6.5 billion raised (50% of the target)
  • Mobilize at least US$2 billion annually for TB research. US$.9billion raised (45% of the target)

This year’s World Tuberculosis (TB) Day‘s theme, The Clock is Ticking is a stark reminder to the world, including those in high-income countries, of the devastating health, social and economic implications of TB. As with the fight on Covid-19, so must the world step up its effort to end TB, long seen as a second tier disease. There is no excuse.

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Did you write today?

That is a question my husband asks me. Every day.

I had given him the task to ask me, “Did you write today?”.

In January this year, I created this blog. The idea came up after I was struggling to follow the lessons on navigating WordPress. Struggling to understand the explanations given during the lesson, I thought, “instead of learning the theory, why not learn by doing?”

Then I got another idea – why not play around with twitter too?

On 1.1.21 I wrote my first post, a few lines of poem to greet the new year. I also posted the poem as my first tweet.

I was delighted to see my work on display; after many years hiatus from writing. But something bugged me. It had to do with my first attempt at blogging in 2014. The blog was also created on New Year’s day. But it died a few days later. I was afraid this blog would succumb to the same fate.

I decided to challenge myself to write more frequently, i.e. daily. By writing I mean jotting down ideas or drafting a post or finishing a post. I knew it cannot just be me telling myself to write. I wanted a more structural help.

This idea to assign my husband with the task came from something I learned from The Daily Questions, a list of questions around commitments set by ourselves. It is a technique used by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith whose talks and guidance I follow from time to time.

So my husband has been asking the question every evening since 2.1.2021. I soon realised the question is easy but it is hard to do, just as Goldsmith had warned (he hired a person to call him every day to ask him a set of questions), because it is easy to get off target.

Sometimes my answer is a “no”, another time a “yes”. Every time it is a “no”, I would get uneasy and upset at myself for not writing. Sometimes I would answer with a terse ‘no’ almost sounding annoyed by the question (and at the questioner!). Sometimes I would say “no” and come up with excuses.

Over time, I am better at managing it – instead of a barking “no” or finding excuses, I have come to accept that behaviour change is not easy, and that the aim of this exercise is making progress. I also realised there will always be areas where I can improve.

I am still not writing daily, but I am proud that after 71 days since my blog and tweeter went alive, I have a total of 66 tweets and 13 blog posts. I am thankful too to my husband for taking on the task which seem simple but actually requires some patience and understanding.

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What’s your family heirloom?

Mine is a set of stone mortar and pestle or lesong batu as we call it back home.

I got it from my mother in 2003. I was back home in Kuching from Switzerland, almost towards the end of my yearly holiday. As I was always homesick for Malaysian food, I had this idea of bringing a set of mortar and pestle so I could attempt to make some delicious stuff from it. We wanted to get them from the crockery store, however for some reasons we kept postponing it.

The day before I left for Geneva, Switzerland, as usual everything got so chaotic. And yup, there was no time to get lesong batu. My mother told me to take the one she had been using. It was an old mismatched set; the pestle is longer or bigger for the size of the mortar. I gladly took the set; and so it travelled a few thousand kilometers from Kuching to Geneva.

Ever since I had the set, I have made some pretty decent stuff from making simple chili, onion and garlic paste, to more sophisticated things like crushing ice, herbs and the likes to make some mean mojito. I have used it to make great sambals and marinades; I have used the mortar as a dipping bowl; the pestle as a rolling pin (!).

It is my kitchen tool to go to, so flexible despite its rigidness, so functional and clever, despite its simple look. I have a special spot for it in my kitchen. It is placed by the window, so it gets the morning sun. It is the one thing that catches the eye when entering the kitchen.

The tiny thing also brought back many good memories whenever I use or look at it. Memories likes recalling my mother’s small organised al- fresco kitchen, the smells that emanated from the herbs and spices from her kitchen, the food she prepared and cooked, her supervising my sister’s cooking; the conversations, jokes and much more.

My mother passed away in 2010. She was a strong character. She was firm in many ways but she can also be reasonable; illiterate but clever (she knew simple mathematics and kept abreast with the latest news on TV or radio, so was always the first to know and capable of making arguments).

She actually gave me a gold necklace and a pendant at around the same time I got the mortar and the pestle. Unfortunately I lost the necklace. Although the mortar and pestle set is less glamorous and valuable than the gold necklace, its value means much more than gold could ever buy. It makes me feel at home.

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Learning from the past

I first set foot in Myanmar in 2012. It was a special assignment, I was part of a delegation, led by the General Manager of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis (TB) and malaria, on an official visit to the country.

We met the health minister, partners, the national health programs officials, civil society groups and the lady herself. At that time she was a Parliamentarian, based in Naypyidaw, the capital city. I recalled seating in the car heading towards the capital from Yangon; it was raining cats and dogs since morning, I was not sure if the driver could properly see the road. Flying was not logistically possible that day. Needless to say, during the entire 325km bumpy ride, I was wide alert.

At Naypyidaw, we faced another challenge – locating the residence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rose Cottage. Telecommunications were very limited, let alone the use of any GPS. Myanmar only started to liberalise communications services in 2013. Thanks to our experienced drivers, we managed to find the Rose Cottage, a simple single storey house among a few similar looking houses. We had to wait for our turn, the group before us had apparently overshot their meeting time allocation.

After a few minutes, we were greeted by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her aide. We sat at a simple rectangular table and were served tea. Our head of delegation spoke about our programmes in Myanmar and the important role of parliamentarians in policy development, and how the Global Fund supports the work of civil society in Myanmar. She was very receptive and supportive of the initiatives but also emphasised on the rule of law. She was not the warmest person I have ever met I must say, but she exuded confidence. This type of visit continues each time a senior official visits Myanmar. In a way it is to maintain and strengthen relationship, in another way to exchange views on the health landscape, and in another subtle way to get a feel of the political situation in the country.

On the political front, I was often asked about the situation of Rakhine. I was also often asked about the ethnic minority controlled areas in the country. I will not go into details but suffice to point that it was not easy to work on a portfolio of grants in a country where situations were constantly evolving sometimes at a rapid pace and approaches on programmes needed to be adapted according to the situation while ensuring the targets or end results were not compromised.

Apart form navigating political sensitivities, the international development and humanitarian actors had to deal with Myanmar’s proneness to natural disasters; the largest being the Nargis. Myanmar, is also a country that bears high disease burden, for example it is one of the 30 high TB and multi drug resistant TB burden countries in the world. Despite it all, Myanmar made remarkable achievements in reducing the HIV, TB and malaria burden in the country. On fighting malaria, a decade ago Myanmar had more than 1 million malaria cases every year; as of 2019 this number dropped to 108,000, and a significant decline in malaria-related deaths from 1,707 in 2005 to only 30 at the end of 2017. Death related to TB saw a 78% reduction from 2000 to 2019. For HIV, a total of 184,544 people were on antiretroviral therapy compared to 40,128 in 2011. Further information can be found here and here.

Part of the success is attributed to the willingness and openness to dialogue between Myanmar and the international community. This was especially relevant to the Global Fund because of its “dark” history in Myanmar – it abruptly withdrew its support to the country in 2005. It took five years to persuade the government of Myanmar to re-engage with the Global Fund. In 2011, after much efforts on “reconciliation”, the Global Fund resumed activities in Myanmar. Even so there would still be occasional awkward encounters when a senior official would bring up the topic on the 2005 termination.

I cannot write about the tremendous progress of the Global Fund in Myanmar with the support of international partners without highlighting the dedication of its people. Those who have experience in large donor funding would know how burdensome it is – the amount of rigour, complexity and the demand required from grantees, from funding application to implementation, monitoring and closing of the programmes. Two observations I witnessed in my eight years working on Myanmar programmes – the Myanmarese are very organised and are never late for appointments. Perhaps it is to do with the long years under the military administration. Myanmarese are very proud people. They take pride in the achievements gained in the health front and want to sustain them, examples include the increasing domestic financing in health and the government taking over the handling of HIV treatment in the country in 2019.

Recent developments have been ugly in Myanmar. The international community have rightly condemned the military coup. The United States have imposed sanctions on the military. But it has also maintained support for healthcare, civil society groups and areas directly benefitting the people of Myanmar. This is a positive signal, from a health perspective; it was absolutely needed as the gains achieved since the country started its democratic path is enormous. Reversing these gains is not an option.

Lest we forget during the democratization process and when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led the country, Myanmar was still under strong military influence. Throughout my career at the Global Fund, I have witnessed at least three health ministers, one being a former major general who was appointed as minister in 2015.

The world should consider that since the opening of the country to democratisation, many lessons have been learnt especially on navigating the country’s political labyrinth. Perhaps instead of looking deep and far for solutions to the current situation, if not already done. it might do good for the international community to take on the lessons over the past decade in dealing with the current Myanmar. For all is not lost.

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My lady

Thinking about Myanmar’s recent military coup.

I was in Yangon during the election in 2015. I remember talking with my Myanmarese/Burmese counterparts about it; they were proudly showing off their inked ‘election’ finger. Everyone was so happy and filled with hope that The Lady would bring them out of the rut.

Sadly for the Rohingya community, the NLD’s victory did little about the persecution against them. Instead more than 700,000 Rohingyas were forced out of their homes in 2017, a tragic event many consider as an act of genocide.

My lady, you had a chance to do something good for humanity. Alas.

To be continued…