Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

Elections in Myanmar, opposition rallies in Pakistan, COVID-19 vaccines in Southasia

Southasiasphere podcast episode 03: Updates and analysis from around the region.

Southasiasphere, our analysis of regional affairs is now a monthly podcast featuring Himal editors! If you're a member, you'll automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you're not yet a member, you can still get it for free (for the time being..) by signing up here.

In this episode of the roundup, we talk about the Myanmar elections, the large opposition rallies in Pakistan, collaboration for COVID-19 vaccines in Southasia, and more.

Amita Arudpragasam: Welcome to Southasiasphere, a monthly roundup of news events in the region, now a podcast. It is Tuesday the 3rd of November 2020. I am Amita and I am joined by Raisa and Shubhanga.

Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi.

Shubhanga Pandey: Hello.

RW: So the three stories that we're covering in this edition of Southasiasphere are the Myanmar elections, the large opposition-led rallies in Pakistan, and some interesting developments on collaboration for COVID-19 vaccines in Southasia.

Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

AA: So while much of the world is worrying about US elections, Southasia is set to have a general election in Myanmar on November 8th. This is the second general election for the country since the end of military rule in 2011. If you've been following elections in Myanmar at all, you know that Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (the NLD) won the last general election in a landslide victory in November 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi's party is expected to retain its popularity among Myanmar's Bamar majority, which makes up around 68% of the population, and voters who are familiar with the NLD's policies are likely to have a status quo or incumbency bias when deciding which party to support during this time of great upheaval.

While the military has a constitutional guarantee of 25% of seats in the national legislature – a policy that army generals say is necessary until the country has a multiparty democracy – we expect the NLD to retain control of both houses of the legislature, as well as several state assemblies.

SP: Just to go back to your point about the lack of attention to the Myanmar elections, in light of the US elections soon, I think it is also worth noting that when there is international focus on the country, it usually seems to be on the usual themes of decline of Aung San Suu Kyi's stature in the international – in the West, you know, post the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Recently there was this interview on Financial Times of the Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U and it was interesting that it completely left out the issue of the elections, and again the focus was on Suu Kyi. Although one interesting point he made was that, unlike the kind of singular association there is with Suu Kyi and human rights, especially in the Western imagination, in Myanmar she also seems to kind of mark a continuation of the Burmese anti-colonial nationalism that her father spearheaded. I think it's interesting that in the last few years especially, there has been some decline in NLD's support among ethnic minorities and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

AA: Yeah I think that's absolutely right. The NLD  has undoubtedly lost favour with ethnic minorities, which constitute about 30% of the population. I think that's in part as a result of the 2017 military operation, where over 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar were driven out of the country into refugee camps in Bangladesh, but also as a result of fighting between the Arakan army and the Tatmadaw, which restarted in January 2019. And that's you know, a story that does get some coverage in the western media, but you know, how that translates into seats for ethnic parties in the upcoming election is one that's less present.

So Myanmar's Election Commission actually cancelled voting in several areas in Myanmar, and that's going to result in 36 seats nationwide not being filled in this upcoming election and the disenfranchisement of over a million voters in one of the NLD's least popular states.Voting has been cancelled either partially or completely in 13 of Rakhine's 17 townships, and that's actually a huge blow to ethnic minority parties like the Arakan National Party or ANP which is the the country's largest ethnic group in national parliament.

RW: Amita, why was the voting cancelled?

AA: So the Commission cited security reasons, so the fighting between the Arakan army and the Tatmadaw which I already mentioned – that fighting has intensified over the past few months, and that's what the commission was referring to. But there is a subtext here, because analysts are saying that the cancellations are going to unfairly favour the NLD, since they occur primarily in areas where ethnic parties like the ANP enjoy strong support.

RW: Yeah, and I've been also reading that that's not the only reason why the election won't be free and fair. So for example human rights groups have flagged other reasons, including parties not having equal access to state media, government critics facing censorship or arrests, and of course the main issue that is being discussed in this context is the Rohingya being denied participation in the election.

AA: Exactly, and this year, like in 2015, several Rohingya candidates have been barred from running. And the Myanmar government continues to apply the 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya. Several residents of the Rakhine State have also not been registered as voters or given ballots.

The NLD is also likely to see a drop in its popularity due to its handling of COVID-19. Cases have spiked in the last few months. Until August 2020, cases were below 500 and there were less than 10 deaths. But as we record this podcast, Myanmar now has more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases and over 1200 deaths.

RW: So the next story that we're going to be talking about is these opposition-led protests in Pakistan. As I said there's a number of different parties involved, the chief one among them is the Pakistan Muslim League. There's also the Pakistan People's Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, and some smaller ones including the Baloch National Party and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement as well. So collectively these groups have come together and are known as the Pakistan Democracy Movement. So far there have been at least 3 rallies that they've held in Gujranwala, Karachi, and Quetta.

Illustration: Gihan de Chickera
Illustration: Gihan de Chickera

SP: So Raisa, is it clear what the protests are about and what the demands are?

RW: So ostensibly, one of the main reasons that they've cited is to raise opposition to rising prices, power cuts, the closure of businesses and just economic misery. But in reality, there are other issues that are being highlighted as well. Primarily among them – criticism of the Imran Khan government, with most of the opposition leaders saying that the government must go and even criticising Khan's inaction in Kashmir. Of course they are also being very careful to criticise Modi as well, since Khan hit back at that criticism saying that they are just playing India's game. But something else that's really unusual is that they are also criticising the Army, which is also slightly ironic given that Nawaz Sharif had cordial relations with the Army, especially in the 1980s and 1990s – although less so in recent times. But ousting Khan is a tall order given he's backed by the military, and it's a bit of  a risky strategy. And as a result of this, of these rallies, there's been turbulence as well. So for example, before the Quetta rally, a member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, Mohsin Dawar who was planning to participate in the opposition rally, was actually barred from entering the country. Apart from this a Geo News  journalist was also abducted, his name is Ali Imran Syed, and he had captured footage on a raid to arrest Muhammad Safdar, who is Nawaz Sharif's son in law and a member of the Pakistan Muslim League. So although the journalist did return home the next evening, especially after journalists and political parties (the opposition parties) protested and demanded his recovery, he did return home but the issue of Safdar's arrest itself and who ordered it is a mystery. So government representatives have said it was an orchestrated drama from opposition, the  police are saying that the paramilitary came and kidnapped the provincial police chief and pressurised him to make the arrest. And the police have actually gone on long leave in protest. And meanwhile, the army chief has ordered an investigation. So everyone is denying and pointing fingers at other parties about who gave the order for this arrest.

SP: Right, and I think there's an interesting crossborder element to this also, especially the incidents that you've talked about, partly maybe because of the complexity, but also partly because of just the failure of the Indian media to cover the story properly and accurately. Because, after all these events, there was this circulation of some fabricated story about the police and armed forces in Pakistan, in Karachi, kind of having as one tweeter I think said, an armed fight or a firefight. And that was actually picked up by major Indian online and television media and ended up becoming this massive story – completely fabricated again – and I think resulted in Pakistani social media once again kind of having fun at the Indian media's expense. But I think this also really brings out the important point about how poor the crossborder political coverage is in Southasia.

Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: Yeah I agree, I think this is just the latest example of how journalists across the border, they don't have a presence in the other's country and so they have to rely on second hand reporting, and the results as you said are quite absurd. So you could see for example similar instances even around the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot airstrike, when Indian war planes crossed the border into Kashmir and they dropped bombs near Balakot which they said was to target a terrorist training camp, and Pakistan said it was an uninhabited area. And then as everyone who followed this knows, Pakistan retaliated, a warplane was a shot down and a pilot taken prisoner. More than that, the real story became how the different countries – India and Pakistan – were portraying the unfolding events with sometimes ridiculous results, with simulated examples of nuclear strikes. And you saw that here too because there were these, as you said, these memes that went viral, and some of them were for example pulling screenshots from Bollywood movies to showcase what was being called a civil war, but [the story] was entirely false in reality.

AA: Even figures like GDP per capita can be subject to polarised interpretations and narratives when they cross borders. For example, the IMF's 2020 Economic Outlook recently noted that Bangladesh's real GDP per capita would surpass India's by 2021. And you know the way that the Indian and Bangladeshi media explained that story was very different. So in the Indian media it was explained using the lockdown imposed to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, while in Bangladesh media outlets chose to highlight instead how Bangladesh has progressed in advancing its export manufacturing industries or improving it's female labour force participation and other such progressive policy measures.

There was some objective criticism of the statistics, so former Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian government Arvind Subramaniam also noted that for the comparison to actually be meaningful, those GDP per capita figures needed to be translated into numbers that you know reflect domestic inflation and productivity growth. But nonetheless you had op-eds on both sides,  in the Dhaka Tribune, for example noting that "in just under five decades, Bangladesh has leapfrogged from being the poorest country in the world, right ahead in the Southasian standings", admonishing India's "high-pitched jealousy" or "prickly paternalism" in its response to the IMF report. That's at least to me, a reminder that even 'real news' can stir up very acrimonious responses between neighbouring countries.

SP: Well that brings us to the final big story of this episode, which is some interesting developments on the front of developing, procuring and collaborations on vaccines. So globally at the moment, the three main global actors in drug development and testing are the British, the Chinese and the Russians. And in Southasia it's having some interesting implications and also on how countries are planning the procurement and supplies of these vaccines. So in India for example, the Serum Institute of India has had a major agreement with the Oxford AstraZeneca developers from the UK to manufacture one billion doses of the vaccine, presumably both for the domestic population but also for supplying to the Global South. Then in Pakistan you see interestingly some Chinese COVID-19 vaccines are currently in phase-3 trials. Other countries have not exactly started it and they're kind of waiting for WHO [World Health Organization] approval. So, for example, Sri Lanka has explicitly made it clear that before they begin trials they're looking for okay from the WHO, specifically on the Russian vaccine Sputnik.

In Nepal you see kind of an interesting mix with both the Oxford AstraZeneca, the SINOVAC from China as well as the Sputnik from Russia looking to start trials. But so far the government has not given a clear signal on permissions, although it seems that some private parties have made deals, especially with the Russian drug manufacturers.

But interestingly there's also some collaboration happening within the region. So for example, there was some recent news about the Nepal government in talks with the Bangladesh government to see if they could strike a deal to purchase up to two million doses of BANCOVID, which is a Bangladeshi vaccine in pre-trial phase. And I think there's similar developments around the region as well.

RW: Yeah exactly, there's also some talk about India and Myanmar collaborating. They actually recently held a first round of discussions on opportunities for collaboration, specifically looking at the COVID-19 vaccine. So officials from the Department of Biotechnology, the Ministry of External Affairs and of Public Health from Myanmar participated in the discussions and as a symbol of good faith and their commitment to help Myanmar, the Indian Foreign Secretary actually presented 3000 vials of Remdesivir to Myanmar's State Counsellor. Remdesivir is an antiviral which hasn't really been conclusively proven to successfully treat COVID-19, but it has shown to kind of have an effect in shortening time to hospital discharge in patients who have severe pneumonia. But this was more of a symbolic proof of commitment, and he said, indicated India's willingness to prioritise Myanmar in sharing vaccines as and when they become available.

Apart from that, India has also offered e-Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation courses, specifically looking at COVID-19. And these are being conducted by Indian Institutes like the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh. And there has allegedly been healthy participation from Myanmar, although we don't know if there's any educational institutes in particular that have tied up with India for this.

SP: Just to conclude the topic, these are kind of the early signals and no clear lines can be drawn – and some people are already talking about 'vaccine nationalism' and 'vaccine diplomacy'. I think at some level these countries are also individually trying to see what can be the best arrangement for them. So it's a mixed picture right now, but something that's clearly interesting and worth following up in the future.

RW: If you liked this edition of Southasiasphere, do head to our website Himalmag.com to check out the cartoons that we've got that are illustrating these stories which are done by Gihan de Chickera. And also do check out some of our recent stories. We actually have one on Indian and American media's portrayal of Kamala Harris, which will be interesting to read as the US goes to the polls and we have a story on Amnesty India's recent closure as well.

AA: That's it for this edition of Southasiasphere, we hope to see you next month.

RW/SP/AA: Bye.

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