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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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Death Toll in Myanmar Surpasses 50 People as Police Continue To Use Live Ammunition

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  • At least 50 people have died across Myanmar since the start of the coup on Feb. 1, with Wednesday being the single largest loss of life to date after 38 were shot by security forces.
  • Despite the danger, tens of thousands of citizens continue to take to the streets to protest the coup and demand the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
  • The U.N. Security Council is due to meet Friday to discuss how to deal with the situation in Myanmar in response to calls for a solution from nations and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Growing Violence Across Myanmar

Over the weekend, security forces in Myanmar killed 18 anti-coup protesters and wounded at least 30 more. Across the subsequent three days, that number rose considerably.

According to the U.N., at least 38 people were killed on Wednesday alone.; making it the bloodiest day of the coup so far and raising the overall death toll to over 50. Exact number are difficult to find, as the chaos on the ground precludes outlets from confirming accounts of possibly more deaths.

The violence has occurred across the country, with the deaths largely being tied to the use of live ammunition by security forces. The demonstrations, and the response to them, have been widely captured on camera. Some of the most shocking scenes are of police passing a BA-53 (a Burmese Army variant of the HK G3 military rifle) to fire into protesters.

Despite the death, tens of thousands of citizens continue to take to the streets to protest the coup and demand the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Thursday morning saw thousands in the streets who attended vigils for those slain on Wednesday, an increasingly common ritual for the prior day’s deaths.

Sanctions May Not Work

The United States has tried to get neighboring countries to join it and the European Union in sanctioning the Burmese military, but few Southeast Asian countries wanted to sign on, which gives the Burmese military breathing room as most of its diplomatic and trade relations are with neighboring countries.

At the U.N., Security Council members are due to meet on Friday to discuss calls from countries and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to stop the coup and the escalating crackdowns against protesters. However, it’s unclear what more they can do. Sanctions against specific military leaders are often ineffective, yet sanctions on the country as a whole would affect the everyday people they’re trying to support.

Other options include direct intervention, but Justine Chambers, Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Center at the Australian National University, pushed back against this, telling The New York Times, “Unfortunately I don’t think the brutality caught on camera is going to change much.”

“I think domestic audiences around the world don’t have much of an appetite for stronger action, i.e. intervention, given the current state of the pandemic and associated economic issues.”

While it’s unclear what more the international community can do, it’s quite likely that violence will continue in Myanmar as citizens try to peacefully restore democracy.

See what others are saying: (AP) (Reuters) (New York Times)

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Saudi Arabia To Require Vaccine for Hajj Pilgrims

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  • Saudi Arabia will require all pilgrims participating in the Hajj this year to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to local media.
  • The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lifetime if they are physically or financially able to.
  • Many believe the inoculation requirement may help allay suspicions over vaccines within certain Muslim communities.
  • Those suspicions have persisted despite Muslim leaders clarifying that there are no theological problems with taking any of the COVID-19 vaccines available.

COVID-19 Vaccines for Pilgrims

Saudi Arabia’s health ministry will only allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend the Hajj this year, according to local outlet Okaz.

The Hajj is a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca for all Muslims at least once in their lifetime – assuming they are physically and financially able to. However, requiring a vaccine before taking part in the Hajj isn’t a new thing. In fact, Saudi Arabia already has a list of necessary vaccinations for pilgrims.

For a virus that is among the most virulent in recent history and requiring a COVID-19 vaccine makes sense, especially since the Hajj is among the most densely populated events in the world.

In an effort to combat COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has also introduced restrictions over how many pilgrims can come to Mecca for the first time in modern history.

Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine to partake in the Hajj will likely have the added benefit of allaying fears about COVID-19 vaccines in Muslim communities, which account for nearly 2 billion people in the world. While Muslims overall support vaccinations and their religious leaders openly support vaccination efforts, some do doubt vaccines for either political reasons or religious ones.

Changes in Vaccine Hesitancy

Suspicions have arisen due to recent history, notably after Osama bin Laden was located through a vaccine program that acted as a front for the C.I.A. That incident led to a wider-anti vaccine movement in parts of Pakistan that have seen vaccine clinics burned to the ground.

Others are worried over more religious concerns, such as whether the vaccines are Halal, which is roughly the Muslim version of Kosher. To that, most major vaccines say that they are Halal and contain no animal products, such as Pfizer’s, Moderna’s, and AstraZeneca’s,

While other possibly non-Halal vaccines, such as Sinovac’s, have been given the okay from major Islamic authorities, such as Indonesia’ Ulema Council.

The concerns over whether a vaccine is Halal or not may be mute as most imams and Islamic councils have clarified that such dietary restrictions are trumped by the need to save human lives.

While the Health Ministry’s statement is for 2021, it’s possible that the decision will last beyond that based on the pandemic’s progress.

See what other are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The Hill) (Middle East Eye)

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E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention

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  • The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
  • Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
  • Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.

Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.

The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.

  • Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
  • Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
  • First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
  • Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
  • Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.

Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.

First Step For Biden

These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.

One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”

“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.

The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.

He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (NBC News)

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