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In this episode of the roundup, we talk about the ongoing military coup in Myanmar, Nepal’s constitutional crisis, updates on vaccine rollouts across Southasia, and more.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Marlon, Shwetha, and Shubhanga. Hi guys.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi
Shubhanga Pandey: Hi
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi
RW: So our big stories in this edition include the ongoing military coup in Myanmar, Nepal’s constitutional crisis and growing protests against the Prime Minister, and a quick overview on vaccine rollout across Southasia.
Let’s begin by catching up on the situation in Myanmar.
MA: So on Monday, we all woke up to the Myanmar coup d’état. Now the four of us were actually planning our Southasiasphere podcast. Suffice to say, it kind of derailed most of what we were going to talk about.
SP: Yeah, military coups do have the tendency.
MA: Right, Shubhanga. So, the military took over the government, arrested civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, declared a state of emergency, shut off the internet, and closed the airport. Already, parallels are being drawn between March 1962, when the military first seized power which led to decades of military rule. But I feel the coup on Monday should not come as a surprise because the army was hinting at the possibility of such a takeover the whole of last week, but most analysts did not think that the army would be capable of such a move. As we speak, Facebook has been banned in the country and frontline healthcare workers from more than 70 medical facilities across the country have decided to go on strike. This does not bode well for Myanmar at all, especially since, if you haven’t noticed, there is a pandemic going on.
The USDP and the military demanded that the start of the Parliament be postponed until the claims of election fraud are addressed. And get this, the military actually tried to justify the coup by citing Section 417 of the Constitution, but the validity of such interpretation is questionable. As you can see, they’re trying to frame this as an effort at protecting the Constitution and the rule of law.
SP: Thanks for that overview, Marlon. Also, I think it’s perhaps important to understand these political developments in light of what happened last year, particularly the NLD’s efforts in the Parliament in early 2020 to amend the Constitution to effectively de-militarise the Parliament or slightly weaken their position. So one of the proposed amendments aimed at gradually bringing down the share of Parliamentary seats reserved for the military from 25 percent to 5 percent. Another proposal sought change in the percentage of votes you need for making constitutional amendments, so right now it’s 75 percent, they attempted to bring it down to two-thirds. But neither of these amendments passed, even though both of them gained nearly two-thirds of the votes.
SS: Just to add to that, what seems unclear to me, is the potential impact of this on Myanmar’s international relations. So we know that pre-2012, the Burmese junta was quite used to international sanctions, and partly as a result of economic support from China in the north. But I don’t think it is clear if this move puts any of Myanmar’s international allies at ease.
RW: Right, and I think China for one would be following the developments quite closely. Especially since China has strategic interest in Myanmar as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Apparently, on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Wang Wen Bin, said that China hopes that all sides in Myanmar can resolve their differences within the constitutional framework.
MA: That’s quite a lukewarm response isn’t it? I mean, considering China’s recent diplomatic intervention in talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rohingya repatriation. Now over the past two years, Chinese officials have mediated meetings between the leaders of these two countries.
And earlier this year Myanmar had agreed to start the repatriation process, but within the second quarter of the year, and I think they cited logistical issues. At this point, it’s quite unclear how things will unfold, especially given that Myanmar is experiencing quite a big logistical issue right now.
Moreover, China has promised to provide free COVID-19 vaccinations to the Rohingya during the first phase of repatriation.
RW: That’s right Marlon, and I guess China isn’t the only country that is mixing vaccines and diplomacy. So if you look at the region, India has been quite quick to respond, which is unsurprising given that it has one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical manufacturing capacities. So India began its own immunisation drive on January 16, and they had healthcare workers and people over 50 vaccinated first. But what’s really interesting is that India has also shipped over a million free doses of the Covishield vaccine, as the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is called, to neighbouring countries. And this move is being described as vaccine diplomacy. So it’s quite revealing of relations between countries in the region.
So the first countries to benefit from this include Bhutan and the Maldives, and they were closely followed by Nepal and Bangladesh.
SP: Right, and well the announcement about the free vaccines came on short notice, and it seems like this was linked to the vaccination arrangements made by the governments of the countries. Particularly, making sure that Covidshied had the necessary approval.
RW: That’s right, I think part of the reasons why certain countries were first in line was either due to planning or just good timing. So for example, Nepal’s drug regulator granted emergency use approval for Covishield while their Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali was in Delhi on a three-day visit. Nepal sent diplomatic notes to India as well, and they also wrote to Russia, China, the UK, and the US about the vaccine and their requirements.
Bangladesh has already signed an agreement with India for the procurement of 30 million doses aside from their first consignment of vaccines. But other countries have been less organised. So Afghanistan for example is experiencing significant delays with vaccine rollout.
MA: Now over in Pakistan, things are looking a bit bleak on the vaccinations front, due to delays in placing orders with vaccine manufacturers. They finally received 500,000 doses of Sinopharm from China on Monday. Although they granted approval for three vaccines, including the Sputnik V, their vaccination plan is yet to be made public.
SS: That’s right Marlon. And just to add to that, Sri Lanka has also delayed granting approval for Covishield and didn’t immediately make their vaccination plans public. Sri Lanka eventually did receive 500,000 doses of the Covishield, which were rolled out to frontline healthcare workers and members of the tri-forces. China is also said to be donating 300,000 doses of their Sinopharm vaccine, while Sri Lanka is also said to be in talks with Russia.
MA: Yeah, and I’ve also been hearing that some countries are nervous to take the Covishield vaccine. In Sri Lanka, a survey was conducted recently by the Health Promotion Bureau, but on Viber. It found that 54 percent were willing to take the vaccine.
RW: That’s right Marlon, but there were also around 38 percent who responded saying that they were ‘not sure’ and they were also raising concerns about the type of vaccine, the amount of dosage, and side-effects, from among those respondents. However, there was also criticism about the survey itself because some media actually reported that the results were representative of the whole population, rather than that of the Health Promotion Bureau’s Viber community.
SP: Yeah, and healthcare providers in other countries also appear to have expressed concern about the Covishield vaccine, perhaps purely because of the speed at which these things have been rolled out. One Nepali FM report I was listening to mentioned how many healthcare workers were somewhat hesitant about taking the vaccine. They, in fact, got hold of a senior public health official to come on the show and allay fears about its side effects.
And this is for the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine, which, as far as we know, is the most rigorously tested one. It is very likely that we might hear more debates on vaccines and concerns about them, like the ones produced by Bharat Biotech in India, which is being rolled out, despite the phase-3 trials not being complete or the China-based Sinopharm, whose efficacy we still have only partial data on.
RW: Yeah, that’s right Shubhanga, and apart from these concerns about the vaccines, there’s also the continuous spread of misinformation about COVID-19 to contend with, and part of that is also on ‘miracle cures’ which is also muddying the waters. In Sri Lanka, one such potion which contains honey, turmeric, and nutmeg and was touted by a faith healer called Dhammika Bandara, caused thousands to gather in Kegalle, defying restrictions on public gathering in December. And among those who actually took the potion despite it not receiving official approval were Ministers, including the Health Minister herself, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, and she later tested positive for COVID-19.
Now in India, members of the ruling BJP have said cow urine could help boost immunity against COVID-19, while a yoga guru Ramdev, a supporter of Modi, made an ayurvedic kit initially marketed as a cure and it’s now been approved as an immunity booster. While in Telangana, the Chief Minister reportedly said Paracetamol was enough for COVID-19.
And of course, let’s not forget that this is not just restricted to the region, with former US President Donald Trump’s claim of injecting bleach as a treatment, which he later on said was sarcastic, but which some Americans actually attempted by way of inhaling or using cleaning or disinfecting sprays in order to try to treat themselves or immunize themselves against COVID-19.
SP: So which one of these is your favourite?
RW: Well, mine probably has to be the cow urine immunity booster shot.
SS: My choice would be guru Ramdev’s Patanjali.
MA: Guys, I have a confession to make. I’ve been taking Paracetamol ever since I heard Chief Minister KCR from Telangana. Since I haven’t got COVID-19, I’d say it works – so that’s my favourite.
SP: No, I think the clear winner is the magic potion from Sri Lanka, the one that the health minister took. In some ways it was the most successful one, even though she did test positive.
RW: I guess I agree with that.
SP: Moving on to what’s been happening in Nepal, over the last several weeks, there has been a spate of protests in the country in response to Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve the Parliament and call for fresh elections. Now it is well known that Oli’s move was the result of a long drawn-out struggle for leadership within the ruling Nepal Communist Party — and this itself can be seen as a result of the incomplete, and somewhat odd, unification of the two rival, nominally communist parties. So this was his last-ditch effort to remain as the PM because he was about to face a vote of no confidence initiated by a faction of his own party.
But I think the real problem at the moment is not just these growing political tensions, but the fact that this presents a real constitutional crisis. Because if you listen to the overwhelming majority of legal experts, but also if you read the Constitution, it’s clear that Oli’s move is not really envisioned in it. And that seems to be at the centre of the crisis.
RW: Yeah I read that the case is now in court. What do you think the likely outcome is, Shubhanga?
SP: So like I mentioned, the Constitution doesn’t seem to empower a PM to dissolve a Parliament in this manner, as long as there are options to form a government from within the Parliament. However, it is being heard by the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court right now and the arguments have been going on, and that will really decide the fate of the current government and also the current Parliament. A verdict in favour of the PM would mean fresh elections in April or May.
The other point worth noting, and which is also the subject of a lot of debate in Nepal right now, is the role of the Supreme Court in all of this, and how they will decide on this. Now, just to note that the reputation of the Supreme Court is not the best at the moment, it’s suffered in recent years, partly because of allegations of corruption and what some have seen as partisan verdicts.
SS: It also seems like there are a few separate protests happening, like the one by the rival faction of the ruling party, and other by non politicians?
SP: Yeah that’s the other interesting thing. So the rival faction of the NCP have been protesting since day one. The opposition Nepali Congress has also been doing some protests, although the party kind of is divided on it because some in the party see benefit in having early elections rather than going through the old Parliament where they were outnumbered. But what must be noted is tha, there’s also been involvement of non-politicians, so basically a loose coalition of public-spirited people, including journalists, writers, lawyers, activists and so on, who have been protesting, and it’s in the headlines partly because of some police repression they faced.
I’m avoiding the word ‘civil society’ here because it is often misunderstood to mean a large coalition of NGOs and so on, and they are not really leading protests now. But also because civil society, properly understood, itself is quite polarised, and I would argue there is a substantial and growing section of a conservative civil society in Nepal. It might be interesting to see that in relation with the pro-monarchy rallies that took place in a few cities recently, and also Prime Minister Oli’s growing use of religious symbolism in his speeches. He’s been known to be a nationalist, but this is something new.
MA: So moving on to other stories we have been following – I think Shwetha, you’ve been following the farmers’ protests?
SS: Yeah that’s right Marlon. For over the past two months now, we know that thousands of farmers have been camped along the borders of Delhi to demand the full repeal of the three new farm laws.
On January 26th what followed the tractor parade on Republic day was a violent escalation of a protest that has been mostly peaceful since it began. The Delhi Police said it has arrested over 120 people in connection with the clashes and at least one protestor was killed. Now, several states have registered cases against journalists who have reported on the cause of the farmer’s death.
RW: That’s right Shwetha, and Twitter also temporarily withheld some accounts, including that of the magazine Caravan, from being viewed in India. On Wednesday, the government sent notice to Twitter against its move to restore accounts which used certain hashtags linked to the farmers’ protests. We actually recently put out a Mediafile with more background on the issue, so do head to the Himal website to check it out.
SS: With enhanced security measures near the protest sites and suspension of internet services across Delhi’s borders – we’re seeing continued support pouring in for the farmers, not just from within India. So earlier this week, the Indian government and several Indian celebrities hit back at criticism from singer Rihanna, climate activist Greta Thunberg and US lawyer/activist Meena Harris, as they tweeted in support of the farmers’ agitation.
While the government does not want to be seen as backing down from the farm laws – the Centre is facing more pressure as support for the farmers’ movement grows. The Farmers’ union leaders on Wednesday pledged to continue their protests in New Delhi and broaden their support for movement across the country – indicating that the agitation will not end till October.
RW: Thanks Shwetha, and that’s it from us for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do check out our membership plans and support our work. And do head over to the site to check out the cartoons for this edition by Gihan de Chickera, as well as commentary and analysis from the region.