Myanmar: Ongoing Updates

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This is one of my points about what some media are doing and more could be doing. They can be getting people’s stories. If they haven’t developed contacts there they can still do it where ever they are based.

Many if not most people from there suppress these stories when they move abroad. They think they don’t matter - there is always someone who has seen much worse, and the mere fact that they made it out is something of a miracle. They may not want to bring up old trauma or they may have a disposition to deal with it internally. But every person there has a story worth telling.

I brought an expat who had played an official role at DASSK’s side going back to when she first stepped into the public eye, to Crossroads School in Santa Monica. He had only told me up to that point about his adult life in Burma. When he saw all these kids looking up at him, he flashed back to being their age and, setting aside talk of DASSK, said he had never done this before but he had just decided to tell them his whole story.

When he was younger than they were, he was once outside his childhood home in Burma kicking around a soccer ball. Another kid took the ball and said he was going to keep it. He told his father, who had to endure the humiliation of telling his own son that there would be no justice in this case and to let the kid keep the ball. The other kid was the son of a military commander. This ignited a slow burning rage in my friend as a child. He was certainly more angry about his father’s humiliation than the loss of a soccer ball.

But there was no uprising to latch onto and he was only a child.

While they culminated in 1988, student uprisings were a regular (every few years) occurrence going back to colonial occupation. In the July 1962, the Tatmadaw blew up the student union building in Rangoon, the day after they’d massacred striking students. Later, when my friend was in high school, there was another uprising. The students at the university in his town held a march. They had coordinated with the high school kids and they planned to merge the two groups in a massive demonstration march. Instead, the high schoolers encountered a tatmadaw road blockade. My friend did not want to lead the his classmates into a bloodbath, so instead he climbed up on top of the barriers and gave a speech to the student body - essentially, we are pausing today because we don’t want to die. But we will never give up.

He was taken to the prison. He was forced to play “the helicopter game” where you must stand up and turn, holding your arms out at your sides to the point of total exhaustion. If you lower your arms, the helicopter will crash and they would press a cattle prod into his ribcage. He was also made to sit on the concrete floor with his legs forward and his back to the wall. They would put a length of bamboo across his shins and step on it, slowly rolling it back and forth. It is shocking, but Crossroads was the right place to tell it.

He was a really nice, fairly quiet guy. He had not become distant from humanity. He did not want to see enmity between different factions of Burmese exiles. There was some tension with DASSK’s family members here who were seen to have sold out and he was vehemently opposed to protesting things they were doing that others believed were whitewashing the Tatmadaw government.

I also remember walking into his house. His young kids spent the next two hours climbing all over this total stranger.

Edit: I just want to add, this is why, while I “should be”, as many Myanmar people are, celebrating CNN’s excellent on the ground reporting and calling out the military regime’s shoddy denials, I am still infuriated with their celebration of 8 people being detained and then “all eight” being released. What are the damages? Are they unwitting celebrities now who will forever be watched by military intelligence? What threats are there to their family, friends and neighbors? There is nothing to be relieved about in their being released, other than that those eight weren’t killed outright and, for the moment, aren’t being tortured.

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17 April 2021

  • It is Thingyan, Burmese new year. They are boycotting it. It is a chance to throw water on each other to wash off the bad. It is also a time when the government gives amnesty for crimes and for “crimes.” So they have released a massive 23,000 people including an Australian who had drug related charges. And that headlines a bit disturbing if that’s all there is - “nine activists among 23,000” - so there may still be hundreds if not thousands of CDM locked up. Hopefully the journalists are among those released, and we have to ask, “what about Sean Turnell?”
  • Afternoon edit: I should point out, this also clears out the prisons to round up all of the CDM. Some leaders already arrested in recent hours.
  • ASEAN invites Min Aung Hlaing to Jakarta for face to face next Saturday. I don’t particularly like a note on the agenda but of course it has to be there: MAH will present ASEAN with an update on what’s going on in his country. But since they generals have shown complete denial and are potentially shielding the top brass from bad news, I think it is on other ASEAN members to be prepared with a thorough presentation with video and pictures to counter what they will no doubt be hearing from MAH.
  • CRPH was mostly or all NLD. In the push for a federal democracy a new National Unity Government has been formed (NUG). I don’t have a deep read yet but my Rohingya friend is already griping about its inclusion of Rohingya haters. But others say this is part of democracy. I will seek info in coming days about how Rohingya figure in to this decision making body. They did put a Karen leader in as their prime minister. That may be a good choice if only because the Karen are historically Muslim, Christian and Buddhist and have run the world’s longest running insurgency with it’s own (if unrecognized) government, army and citizen support infrastructure.
  • Total employees are leaking that Total is outright lying about not being able to pay MOGE. National day of action against Chevron in US went well with a digital billboard in front of the Treasury building yesterday calling out Janet Yellin and the head of OFAC (who have both honestly been terrific). It is difficult to target Chevron’s brand without doing something at gas stations which may all be franchises. I am trying to get info on Chevron corporate owned gas stations but don’t know if there are any. Could really use help researching this. Please message me if you have the bandwidth and ability to dig. I know I could simply start talking to gas station owners but only dipped my toes in so far.
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19 April 2021

  • There is very deep concern over ASEAN legitimizing Min Aung Hlaing by meeting with him. Petitions abound. It’s as I’ve kinda said, ASEAN has no credibility for dealing with this and it is all too transparent that they are only self interested. Mark Farmaner sums it up:

While we’re on Farmaner he’s also critical of the UK’s terrible decision in the wake of the embassy takeover in London:

  • Author Nay Paing has brilliantly, deeply mined sources who work directly on the gas pipeline from end to end. Expect significant fallout but here is his work.

  • An 88 gen woman, now US citizen Nilar Sein had left L.A. to care for her elderly mother in Myanmar (familiar story? DASSK…) and her warrant has popped up so she’s now in hiding and on the run as of a couple of hours ago. I am sure she did nothing there and it has everything to do with she and her husband being high profile democracy supporters here. Severe abuse of woman detainees has been on the rise with a series of horrific booking photos (themselves intended to terrorize) being published online. They are always so so nice to me. It’s her husband who keeps asking if I want to speak at the events. This wrecks me. Edit: I also wonder if they are just covering their bases and are really after Nilar Thein who is very well known as a spokesperson for 88 Generation. I find this unlikely but just worth mentioning.

  • After poking around re the NUG, yes there are concerns that it is not sufficiently representative. It’s opening some wounds since the coup regime is currently killing and torturing everyone and cries of “now is not the time.” But there should have been some clear outreach and very clear communication with timetables etc. as well as how they arrived at the current configuration. It is diverse but not super diverse and the Rohingya are not mentioned. So now the Rohingya are asked to wait until some future time to address their representation. If I were Rohingya, given how they’ve been treated, I would not see this as a genuine effort to integrate my voice into the future of the country.
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21 April 2021

  • Just worried. I can’t tell how the movement is strategically organized for middle to long haul. I can make platforms but it doesn’t mean everyone will migrate to them. Hate to ask FB, but they could have better ways of organizing & archiving info outside of the constant stream clickathon… which in and of itself is making me personally feel very ineffective. I suspect it’s true of others too. The other reason we need to escape FB is it sucks you into internal debates that no one in power or in a decision making position cares about whatsoever. Much time is wasted. Meantime ASEAN giving the floor to Min Aung Hlaing is a psychological breakthrough for him in the worst way. It shows him there will always be a safe harbor and that he is indeed in charge (since they made no requirements about releasing prisoners, talking to the elected people etc.). It’s saying “your coup was a success.”

  • Bit of an eye-opener in todays OFAC announcement. Two companies licensed by Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC) are added to sanctions. Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) and Myanmar Pearl Enterprise (MPE). I think this is the first time I’m seeing the natural resources agency called out. OFAC is sanctioning license fees for exports. The Tatmadaw does this everywhere. They control a number of tourist sites. You won’t see a bunch of soldiers standing around but they can appear very quickly if some drunken tourist (rare, in Myanmar but it happens) has a nice camera and refuses to pay the “foreigner fee.” If it were serving the whole country I’m not against the foreigner fee, as weird as it felt to be subjected to it. But there were some places where we decided to leave my camera behind to avoid the fee. In terms of this MONREC, I want to say cynically that they haven’t done much on the environmental conservation front but there are large reserves throughout the country. There has been a massive replanting effort for teak. The great mass of people live in the main cities or spread out around them similar to L.A. (but growing a little more vertically) and the only way to travel between them is via long excruciating train rides or long excruciation car/SUV rides. There has been much work done on the highways and the labor looks thankless (you’ll see people in no reflective gear who in other countries would be mistaken for beggars, outside in the heat with a paint bucket in hand painting lane lines a few inches at a time). It is in the long stretches between these cities that you can see the small new teak coming up with their distinctive leaves. I can’t tell how much of this is reserve, how much is to benefit regular people and how much is on stolen lands that may not have originally been teak forest. It’s going to be a cash crop, to be sure.


    Before taking off in the hands of capable exiles and students at more elite US universities, the cause for Burma initially caught the eye of the rainforest movement in North America. 8/8/88 was a year before the Tienenman Square events which decidedly overshadowed it in the public consciousness. But what enviros were seeing was the same after effect of the mess Ne Win had made by destroying Burma’s currency. That almost bankrupted the tatmadaw. They needed money fast. At the same time, Thailand had overlogged their teak forests and there was very strong political backlash after the 1988 monsoon season caused massive mud slides and flooding through much of northern Thailand. The Thai authorities banned logging there and, conveniently, there were massive untouched forests in Myanmar, so the entire business simply shifted a few miles to the northwest (I think it was 85 concessions) and the tatmadaw had a new source of income. I suspect the logging operations had “taxes” extracted both by local tatmadaw infantry battalions and by the insurgency groups through whose territory they had to travel.

  • Today is “Blue Shirt Campaign” day - people are posting pictures of themselves and marching in blue shirts to protest detentions of political prisoners. Check your social media.

Evening update

  • On a zoom call ahead of the ASEAN summit. One reporting from inside says everyone is forced to drop their FB group memberships as soldiers are pulling over all cars and searching phones for FB group affiliations. At least 110 women have disappeared. Over 40 journalists now held. At this point, the only media heard from are the two tatmadaw stations. The CDM don’t give a crap whatever ASEAN wants to say, they are going to fight the regime to the death. Three hand salutes. Someone said something in chat and Debbie Stothard of Altsean typed “Please remove ___ for racism and poor spelling.” Nice to have a laugh. A Korean clergy rep talking about the monks in solidarity as well as the many Korean churches. They pray every Thursday afternoon in front of the Myanmar embassy in Seoul where the coup regime is slated to take over in May. There’s some time left in this one and another bigger conference in a couple of hours (mid day SE Asia time, currently morning).
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22 April 2021

  • Debbie Stothard presenting at the next ASEAN call with members of parliaments. She mentions there have not been this many political prisoners in Myanmar since 1991. There have been 3-4 roundups between then and now.

  • This is so funny I’m going to post several pics. At a bus stop, (an) activist(s) inflated condoms with photos of coup regime members and OMG.


    It says “People who should not have entered the human world.”

    (recognize the guy on the lower right from the CNN interview?)

    and

    Putin gets dishonorable mention.

I’m sure one of these generals will have a number of pins to pop these with.

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23 April 2021
Time flies. NY Times did a deep dive on Chevron’s lobbying efforts. I have not read the whole thing as I’m not behind the paywall. Will dust off digital library membership. I’m told Ben Maneshe’s quotes throw them all under the bus, basically calling Chevron a de facto lobbyist for the coup regime. It also goes into the history of how Chevron has avoided sanctions with every crackdown, which is to say continually propping up the regimes in spite of all sanctions efforts.

Hopeless though it seems after 23+ years, there are two approaches for sanctioning MOGE. One is more ideal, less paperwork, less likely to be corrupted along the way with watered down compromise: Treasury/OFAC/Biden admin simply do it. The other is legislation. House should be doable. There’s a GOP sponsor in the Senate and we’re on the hunt for a second. If anyone has inroads please message me.

  • Rebel Artists of Burma: A film of hope, a discussion of resistance streams tonight for anyone on or off facebook. Registration closes in a couple of hours, it says. Eventbrite.
  • Re Rohingya and new govt., still hopeful for some kind of special rep to the NUG. Lots of implications/complications and this won’t be sorted during Ramadan. Maybe the Rohingya could launch their own coordinated effort aimed at Islamic majority countries, and invite people of other groups only if they will let the Rohingya lead on messaging etc.

  • There’s nothing but concern and anxiety about the ASEAN/Min Aung Hlaing meeting that is now hours away. China of all countries is saying the meeting of this body, which was created in large part to counter China’s economic and political dominance, must be free of “foreign influence.” Even ASEAN is anxious because the whole dog and pony show is exposing them for being utterly ineffective in saving any of their neighbors.

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27 April 2021
So there was the ASEAN meeting. Five points: ending violence, constructive talks among “all parties concerned”, the sending of aid to Myanmar, the appointment of a special envoy to facilitate talks, and for the envoy to be allowed visits to the country.

Originally it was to include the release of political prisoners but that got removed. In fact this point had already been conveyed to Dr. Sasa and the National Unity Government who were not allowed to participate in any way. These are the elected leaders. They issued a press release which prematurely welcomed the release of political prisoners. That was taken off the table. The ASEAN attendees boasted that the meeting was highly successful. Their only goal was not to confront Min Aung Hlaing to the point that he wouldn’t want to discuss anything further. They succeeded.

What ASEAN thinks they accomplished was an agreement to end the violence. The violence has already increased. The trip was a photo op as published in what is now the only functioning media remaining inside Myanmar, the amplifiers of the coup regime. They have not published one word about the 5 point plan.

The words from ASEAN leaders have the Trumpy language of “violence on all sides” and vagueness like “reports of violence.” This is not the typewriter era. It has happened and continues to happen in livestream from multiple angles and it is decidedly one sided.

ASEAN negotiators plan to travel to Myanmar to hammer out a deal. Now, I don’t know if they’ll do that between imprisoned elected reps and their jailers, or attempt to figure out who runs the CDM and try to stop them. I think the conversation will essentially be aimed to break the spirit of the democracy movement by telling them that ASEAN is not going to help them, in order to walk away with an “agreement” and hope that the products can start moving again. It’s not going to work. ASEAN has just handed the coup a mighty crutch to lean on, and is now even more transparently a haven for dictators.

Envoys are often welcomed into Myanmar under military rule. What they mostly accomplish is what has already been accomplished: they shine a light on the injustices going on. They have not a lot of weight to throw around. An ASEAN envoy will have even less weight.

A monk stopped by. No politics. Almost none of the monks here are going to the demonstrations. They are against the coup. It is very difficult. Everyone understands. When these threads are broken between here and there, the monks maintain the connections.

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28 April 2021

  • I had mentioned astrology way back when. A friend dug up this old Time Magazine article about the military leaders’ long obsessions with the occult.
  • Prestigious Shorenstein award for journalism @ Stanford goes to Swe Win, who runs the investigative crew at Myanmar Now.
  • On Myanmar Now, those highly qualified MD’s and RN’s who launched the Civil Disobedience Movement? The regime has been talking to their parents to get these “children” to stop being so… disobedient.
  • A recently defected Tatmadaw captain thinks 75% of the military would also turn CDM but for their families who are literally hostages to the circumstances (all living in military housing - imagine 25% of your neighbors are informants).
  • People are refusing to pay bills of the regime-owned utilities. Now they’re going door to door to demand the cash in Mandalay.
  • Very cool: for Myanmar children now missing out on their educations, a former nationally certified US science teacher has put easy to follow powerpoints in a google drive for lessons in Science for ages 10 to 14. The lessons include: Biology, Earth Science, Chemistry, Physics, Life Sciences, and Ecology.
  • I just learned a delightful Burmese turn of phrase. “PhaSEAN” instead of ASEAN. “Pha” means prostitute, but also to cover up and shield. The Irrawaddy’s editorial is a better backgrounder than my ASEAN rant above.
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8 May 2021
I’ve been working the issues we’ve been discussing on several fronts and getting more of an education on that history in Rakhin (Arakan) State of Rakhine, Bengali and Rohingya among others.

Reps Ted Lieu and Brad Sherman of Los Angeles gave the NUG UN rep a public thrashing. Do not want to see him kicked out of the UN but he was definitely part of the anti-Rohingya PR machine. I am sure a pick like this for ambassador pre-coup would have had to be palatable to both the NLD and Min Aung Hlaing which is to say the Rohingya do not trust him. But if he goes, there will a significant loss of hope and influence for the Rohingya and everyone else who does not want a Tatamadaw run Myanmar.

Here’s a great read on the status until now with ASEAN.

I’m making a lot of inroads, helping get questions to/from Total workers, connecting with people closer to the state dept and who are working with senate offices as well as a hopeful celeb campaign around Angel, and with Ramadan ending next week hope to dialogue more with Burmese Muslims, Bengali and Rohingya. I think there is so much stress - there is a plethora of stomach ailments among the leaders or their immediate family here.

The NUG has appointed the first ever Myanmar LGBTQ - the GREAT Aung Myo Min, as minister of human rights. He is already preparing criminal charges against the Tatamadaw human rights violators. He has been unambiguously out of the closet since before I met him and that was maybe 1993-94. Older Burmese had once told me that they thought all gay people were part of or pro-military. I never took it past that to find out how widespread was this belief. A strong component of the Gen Z / CDM core messaging has been support for LGBTQ.

Night time update:
Good demonstration in DTLA with about 250 people at City Hall literally marching a circle around a 25 person anti mask rally. Yes. In May, 2021 there is still a roving gang of rabid Karen anti vax/anti maskers in the City of Los Angeles. But all of us Milk Tea Alliance sheeple were wearing masks. City Hall on a Saturday is not the best site really, and messaging can be honed, BUT it was friggin awesome. They’re fundraising with milk tea boba for $5. That is my first City Hall milk tea boba. I have decided that the Milk Tea Alliance is the tastiest alliance of them all. And this group, these people from Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, all spoke very forcefully of how much closer Gen Z is internationally and strongly mutually supportive for basic rights in Myanmar. I was able to speak with some of the Burmese to stop accusing US congressmen of being beholden to “chinese donors.” It is incorrect and a very bad idea to make those accusations. Those making that charge are mostly of a generation that was brought up in informational darkness where rumour reigned (we went over this in the February 8th update). So that paranoia is kicking in, when a congressmen is saying something that throws off their narrative.

You’ve seen some of those articles about the mess Total finds itself in. Well, Total got pissed off about one of them and have pulled 50,000 euros (USD $61K) of advertising from Le Monde that was slated for June. So I guess they’re not doing any of those full page Exxon/Mobil/Chevron style fake op ed “think pieces.” (remember those?)

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13 May 2021
NUG / Rohingya is definitely the topic of the week. Hon. Ted Lieu had tweeted an insistence that Rohingya have a rep on the NUG. That had been my leaning as well, a couple of weeks ago. But after many conversations with and statements from the Rohingya’s most vocal advocates, I’ve noticed that the Rohingya themselves aren’t expressly calling for it.

I learned that it would be purely symbolic (there are now 32 ministers) and it should not take the place of real reform. Across the board it’s clear the biggest step would be for NUG to throw Ne Win’s 1982 Citizenship Law in the dumpster. That law also had changed the historic name of Arakan State to the more ethnic-group specific Rakhine State.

Here’s a list of suggestions for the NUG, endorsed by a number of US-based Myanmar ethnic groups including the Rohingya.

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27 May 2021
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks focused on Rohingya and on Chevron/Total leading into shareholder AGMs. Really big news.

  • There’s a crack in the wall. Chevron hammered something out with Total or was dragged kicking and screaming by Total as the operating partner to “suspend payments” but please see below. Total is under fire after being accused of skimming more revenues that should have gone to Myanmar. Ironic timing because now we are striving to block payments. But being on the defense may have driven Total to push this. Here’s an analysis of what “suspending payment” really means:

For MGTC, MOGE’s share of dividends in 15%. That was 41 million in 2017-2018. MOGE also collects taxes on behalf of MOPFI, which amounted to 100 million that year. The suspension will target that 41 million of MOGE’s dividend payments.

The Yadana project revenue from the natural gas operations will still flow. That consists of MOGE’s profit share, the state profit share, royalties, and cost recovery, which in 2017-2018 amounted to about 258 million. Those payments are still continuing.

So really, Total is stopping payments of 41 million out of 400 million (using 2017-2018 EITI numbers). This is a really good first step, but also only accounts for 10% of total payments.

  • However, this is unprecedented in decades with Unocal/Total/Chevron there. The iron is hot and we need to strike it - that is, push legislators, Biden and the Treasury Dept. to see that the whole operation is hugely problematic and they must compel these companies to stop all forms of money going to the regime.

  • Speaking of striking, the railway workers are still defiant.

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7 June 2021

There’s a significant milestone. NUG has said last week it will scrap the citizenship law and extend full rights to the Rohingya.

At the same time, China is recognizing coup leader Min Aung Ling as head of state.

I think both of these events could and should be leveraged to propel international recognition of the NUG.

And at the same time, ASEAN is proving so ineffective, perhaps deliberately so in order to keep up selfishly guarded trade relations, that Myanmar citizens have been openly burning the ASEAN flag on ASEAN’s first official visit to the coup controlled nation. Significantly, despite a promise to talk to all sides, they are again first talking to Min Aung Hlaing and to his elections chairman who has moved to outlaw the democratic National League for Democracy party which has been sweeping elections since 1990.

That road looks suspiciously smooth for Myanmar so in chasing it I found a confirmation photo (this is said to be in Mandalay).

You may wish to fight me on this, but the confirmation for me that this is Myanmar is the woman in pajamas. At any rate, ASEAN’s handling of it is also causing rifts within ASEAN.

DASSK is seen in court for the first time in 4 months, via state controlled media. Her trial is to begin on June 14.

9 June 2021

The shift in the NUG is the most profound thing events in Myanmar over a decade. Sadly, Congressmembers Ted Lieu and Brad Sherman literally did not get the memo. Nor did their expert state department witnesses. In testimony this morning, both sides completely failed to recognize the moment.

Original page from the National Unity Government’s statement of June 3, 2021. In red, things the Rohingya wanted and for which assertions were made in the committee hearing this morning, that went unchecked, claiming these have not been mentioned, acknowledged or addressed by the NUG. Personally, I think the NUG couldn’t have been clearer here.