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Myanmar’s Leader Defends 2017 Operation That Killed Thousands of Muslims

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  • Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, defended her country before the United Nations, saying it had not acted with genocidal intent in a 2017 operation that resulted in the deaths of 24,000 minority Muslims.
  • Suu Kyi’s comments come as she faces increasing criticism for being complicit with the Myanmar military’s action. 
  • Previously, Suu Kyi had won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in promoting democracy.

Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar

Speaking before the United Nation’s International Court of Justice, Myanmar’s Leader defended the state against accusations that it acted with genocidal intent in a 2017 operation that led to the deaths of more than 24,000 minority Muslims.

Aung San Suu Kyi—a Nobel Peace laureate and Myanmar’s State Counselor, a role akin to a prime minister—had previously been heralded as an icon for democracy, though that status has slipped in recent years. Though she has no power over the military, her handling of the operation has led to criticism that she is being “complicit.”

Suu Kyi’s comments come a day after hearing horribly graphic testimony of what happened to the Rohingya Muslims during that operation.

During the hearing, she described the case brought by the Republic of The Gambia and a dozen other majority-Muslim countries as  “incomplete and incorrect.” 

She then referred to the situation an “internal armed conflict” and argued that the military had pursued an extremist threat, saying Rohingya militants had attacked government security posts.

Though she did admit that Myanmar’s military might have used too much force at times—including admitting that the army had used military gunships on civilians—she also argued that any soldiers who committed war crimes would be prosecuted.

She went on to say that since the country is investigating war criminals, the state could not be accused of genocide.

“Can there be genocidal intent on the part of the state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers, who are accused of wrongdoing?” she said in The Hague on Wednesday. “Although the focus here is on members of the military, I can assure you that appropriate action will also be taken on civilian offenders, in line with due process.” 

However, in May, seven Myanmar soldiers were released from jail early after being accused of killing 10 Rohingya men. On top of that, the military also previously cleared itself of any previous wrongdoing in the killings.

Suu Kyi also told the court that Myanmar was committed to helping Rohingya refugees return to their homes in Rakhine. Notably, she then urged the court to stop short of any action that might make the conflict worse.

Expectedly, many Rohingya refugees watching Suu Kyi’s defense on live TV shouted that she was a liar. Others also chanted, “Shame on you!” They then carried those words into the streets and were met by about 250 pro-Myanmar protesters who said they stood with Suu Kyi.

Why is Myanmar in Court?

On August 25, 2017, the Burmese army—Myanmar’s armed forces—undertook a massive operation in the northern state of Rakhine.

Though Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist nation, a significant Muslim population lived in the area. That minority, known as Rohingya Muslims, has been denied citizenship by Myanmar, and the country considers them to be illegal immigrants.

The operation to clear the Rohingya from the area led to the deaths of 24,000 people and the mass relocation of an estimated 915,000 to the neighboring country of Bangladesh. In March, the government of Bangladesh announced that it would stop taking in Rohingya refugees. Meanwhile, in Rakhine, whole villages sit empty.

In October, The Gambia’s attorney general, Ba Tambadou told the BBC he decided to launch a case against Myanmar after visiting a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. There, he said he heard of killings, torture, and even rape during the operation.

In its submission, The Gambia claims the operation was “intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part,” by means mass murder, rape and setting fire to buildings, “often with inhabitants locked inside.”

The UN then led a fact-finding mission and found such compelling evidence that it decided to take up the case to investigate the Burmese army.

Myanmar soldiers “routinely and systematically employed rape, gang rape and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people,” the report found in August.

For its part, The Gambia says it is only asking that Myanmar “stop these senseless killings” and “stop these acts of barbarity.”

How Will All of This End?

The ICJ’s first phase of hearings will conclude Thursday; however, the case is expected to be drawn out over the course of several years. 

“The final judgment can take a long time [of up to five years], but for victims and their communities, it’s an incredible moment,” a human rights expert told Al Jazeera. “This sends a very strong message to the Rohingya that the international community is watching and listening to them.”

Currently, The Gambia is only asking that the ICJ impose “provisional measures” that protect Rohingya in Myanmar and other countries.

Even if the court were to rule that Myanmar did break genocide laws, neither Suu Kyi nor any generals involved in the operation would be automatically arrested and put on trial.

On Tuesday, the U.S. responded by stiffening sanctions against several senior military commanders in Myanmar.

“The United States will not tolerate torture, kidnapping, sexual violence, murder or brutality against innocent civilians,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Al Jazeera) (The New York Times)

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Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Fired Over Speech Reminiscent of Nazi Rhetoric

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  • Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Roberto Alvim was fired on Friday after he appeared to paraphrase Nazi propaganda in his announcement of a national arts initiative.  
  • Several of Alvim’s sentences were strikingly similar to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany.
  • Additionally, the music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was from an opera that Adolf Hitler found imperative in his life. 
  • After much backlash and call for the culture secretary’s termination, President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he dismissed Alvim from his position.

Controversial Address

Brazil’s Secretary of Culture was terminated from his role on Friday after an official video was released of him seeming to paraphrase Nazi propaganda remarks. 

Roberto Alvim, who was appointed to his position by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, announced a new initiative for increased funds dedicated to national art awards. In the 6-minute video, which has now been deleted from all Brazilian government official pages, Alvim was seen sitting at a desk beneath a portrait of Bolsonaro, a wooden cross to his side.

“The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and national,” he said to the camera in Portuguese. “It will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement, and it will also be imperative since it will be profoundly connected to the urgent aspirations of our people — or it will be nothing.”  

Parts of Alvim’s phrasing was almost identical to those of Joseph Goebbels, who served as the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany. The similarities can be seen in a speech of Goebbels’, quoted in a biography by historian Peter Longerich.

“German art of the next decade will be heroic, steely but romantic, factual without sentimentality,” Goebbels said in 1933. “It will be nationalistic, with great depth of feeling; it will be binding and it will unite, or it will cease to exist.”  

The music playing in the background of Alvim’s address was also noteworthy. It came from Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” which Adolf Hitler described in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, as being decisive in his life.

Reactions to Alvim’s Speech  

It wasn’t long before people began to notice the likeness of Alvim’s rhetoric with the Nazi propaganda, and individuals across the political spectrum expressed outrage. Some — including prominent Brazillian politicians — publicly called for Alvim’s immediate professional termination. 

Alvim first defended his speech in a Facebook post, saying, “what the left is doing is a remote association fallacy.” He called his controversial sentences a “rhetorical coincidence.” 

But a few hours later, Alvim softened his defensive stance with an apology to the Jewish community. In another post, he claimed that the speech was brought to him by advisors who pulled various ideas tied to national art and that he had no idea of the fascist origin of those few lines. Alvim called the criticized phrases an “involuntary mistake” and said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart.

President Jair Bolsonaro announced on his official Twitter page that he had dismissed Alvim from his position on Friday. Bolsonaro wrote that despite Alvim’s apology, his remarks made his tenure “unsustainable.” 

The Brazilian leader emphasized his “rejection of totalitarian and genocidal ideologies” and expressed full support for the Jewish community. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (BBC) (Washington Post)

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Pope Francis Names First Woman to Senior Vatican Diplomatic Role

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  • Pope Francis appointed a woman to a management role in the Vatican’s most powerful department for the first time on Wednesday.
  • Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, a Vatican official of 27 years, will now serve as the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. 
  • Among other duties, Di Giovanni will oversee the coordination of the Vatican’s relationships with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations. 
  • While several other women hold high-ranking positions in the city-state, Di Giovanni’s leadership role in the Vatican’s most powerful branch is unparalleled. 

Appointment of Di Giovanni

Pope Francis made an unprecedented move on Wednesday by appointing a woman for the first time to a managerial position in the Secretariat of State, the most powerful department of the Vatican.

Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, an Italian lawyer and Vatican official of 27 years, was named the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. Among other responsibilities, Di Giovanni will oversee a division that coordinates the Vatican’s relations with multilateral organizations, including the United Nations.  

“The Holy Father has made an unprecedented decision, certainly, which, beyond myself personally, represents an indication of an attention towards women,” Di Giovanni told the Vatican’s in-house media

“But the responsibility is connected to the job, rather than to the fact of being a woman,” she added.

Milestone for Women in Catholic Church

Several women hold leadership positions in other Vatican offices, but the Secretariat of State is the most powerful branch, making Di Giovanni’s career shift extra significant. 

Pope Francis’ appointment of Di Giovanni is the latest development in his ongoing open support of women having more say in the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, women cannot be ordained as priests and the Church’s leadership is almost entirely male-dominated.

On New Year’s Day, the pope expressed praise for womankind. 

“Women are givers and mediators of peace and should be fully included in decision-making processes,” Pope Francis said. “Because when women can share their gifts, the world finds itself more united, more peaceful. Hence, every step forward for women is a step forward for humanity as a whole.”

Di Giovanni referenced these words in her interview with the Vatican News calling them the pope’s “tribute” to the role of women.

“A woman may have certain aptitudes for finding commonalities, healing relationships with unity at heart,” Di Giovanni said. “I hope that my being a woman might reflect itself positively in this task, even if they are gifts that I certainly find in my male colleagues as well.”  

See what others are saying: (Vatican News) (NPR) (BBC)

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Protests Erupt in Iran After Military Admits to Shooting Down Plane

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  • Protests broke out across Iran over the weekend after the military admitted that it shot down a Ukrainian airline’s passenger jet, killing 176 people when mistaking it for a hostile aircraft.
  • Officials originally said there was no evidence of the plane being struck down by one of their missiles but ultimately admitted fault three days later.
  • Protesters are demanding leaders be held accountable. 
  • There are reports of tear gas and gunfire being used against demonstrators, but Tehran’s head of police has denied claims of shots being fired.

Backlash from the Plane Strike

Monday marked the third straight day of Iranian protests since Iran’s military admitted it shot down a passenger jet last week, mistaking it for a threat and killing all 176 people on board. 

Videos emerged on Sunday of protesters running from tear gas and in others, which could not be immediately verified, gunfire could be heard.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for Iranians—last week, hundreds of thousands were rallying in the streets to publicly mourn Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.

During those rallies, cries of hate against the United States and Donald Trump—who ordered the strike— were heard. This week there is a sharp contrast, as protesters seem to be targeting the Iranian government and military.

According to The Washington Post, demonstrators were filmed late on Sunday in at least two locations ripping down posters of Soleimani. In Iran’s capital, Tehran, a billboard mourning the victims of the plane crash replaced one of the deceased military leader.

In retaliation for Soleimani’s death, Iran fired missiles at an Iraqi military base that houses American troops on Wednesday. The plane was shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps just hours later after taking off from Tehran. 

After maintaining for days that there was no evidence the aircraft was struck down by one of their missiles, Iran admitted that its military had shot down the jet by mistake.

The military initially claimed in a statement that the plane took an unexpected turn that brought it close to a sensitive military base, but an Iranian official later backtracked on that notion. 

“The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ airspace unit, said on Saturday. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the incident an “unforgivable mistake” and said that investigations are continuing to “identify and prosecute this great tragedy.”  

A mix of individuals from multiple countries was onboard the aircraft, including dozens of Canadians. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “a national tragedy” and publicly called for further investigation.

“I want to assure all families and all Canadians: We will not rest until there are answers,” he said at a memorial event on Sunday.

Escalating Protests

Protesters are demanding that leaders be held responsible for the fatal mistake. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that up to 1,000 people were protesting at various points in the capital city. Some videos posted to social media show crowds demanding the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

One of the scenes of protest was the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which said that 13 of its students and alumni were killed in the plane crash. Iranian security forces stepped in and escalated the demonstration.

They “started dragging people away. They took a number of people and put them in cages in police vans,” said 35-year-old Soudabeh told The Washington Post, keeping her full name anonymous.

“At one point, the protesters freed one of the men who was detained. I saw his face and it was covered in blood — his family carried him away,” she told the news outlet.

Iran’s security forces have a history of taking extreme action to contain protesters. In November, after protests broke out in response to the spike in Iran’s gas prices, about 1,500 demonstrators were killed by security forces, according to the Trump administration. 

Iranian media quoted Brig. Gen. Hossein Rahimi as saying “Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” according to reports by the Associated Press. 

Rahimi denied claims that police were shooting at protesters and said that tear gas was only being used in certain areas.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (BBC) (CNN)

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