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Villages empty, civilian armed groups rise in eastern Myanmar | Conflict News



No one is left in Mi Meh’s village.

After the military began launching indiscriminate air attacks and shelling on her township of Demoso in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayah State, also known as Karenni, everyone fled to the jungle.

With only the clothes on her back and a small tarpaulin for ground cover, Mi Meh and the others from her village set up camp. When Al Jazeera spoke to her on May 27, she was running out of food and water, her clothes were drenched by heavy rains and she had not bathed in more than a week.

But the biggest concern for Mi Meh was her safety. “Jets often fly overhead,” she said. “We have a lot of women and children here … I really worry because [the military] doesn’t have humanity. They can kill us any time.”

Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for Mi Meh, who like several people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because the military continues to arrest and kill those who criticise or oppose it.

Mi Meh’s township is among several across Kayah and neighbouring Shan State where locals have recently been forced to flee. According to UN estimates, between 85,000 and 100,000 people from Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships in Kayah State and Pekon and Hsiseng in Shan State fled their homes in the 10 days following May 21, when fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, and a civilian resistance group calling itself the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF).

The KPDF is among dozens of civilian defence forces to emerge since late March, while decades-long conflicts between ethnic armed organisations and the Tatmadaw have also reignited. In the first two months following a February 1 military coup, millions took to the streets demanding a return to civilian rule, but the Tatmadaw’s continuous use of terror – it has so far killed 849 civilians and arrested more than 5,800 – has pushed increasing numbers towards armed resistance.

“Since the Burmese regime’s forces [Tatmadaw] are snatching and murdering innocent civilians arbitrarily, there’s no other option for the people but to defend themselves with whatever means they can get,” a local community leader in Kayah told Al Jazeera. “They [civilian defence forces] don’t have firepower like the Burmese regime’s forces … but they have the will and the determination to resist evil.”

Joining forces

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of legislators removed by the coup, endorsed the people’s right to self-defence on March 14. On May 5, the CRPH-appointed National Unity Government, which is running a shadow government in opposition to the military, announced the formation of a national-level People’s Defence Force, a step towards a federal army that would unite the country’s disparate ethnic armed organisations and other resistance groups.

Civilian fighters in Kayah have not come under this People’s Defence Force but have, since June 2, joined local armed groups to form the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF).

Armed largely with homemade hunting rifles, Karenni fighters are the latest to emerge as a civilian defence force against a military that, according to the Stockholm Peace Institute, purchased $2.4bn in arms over the past 10 years, mostly from China and Russia. Both before and after the coup, the Tatmadaw has not hesitated to use these weapons on civilians, especially in areas of armed resistance.

A member of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) makes a handmade gun to be used in fighting against security forces near Demoso in Kayah state on June 4, 2021 [Stringer/AFP]

“The military have been violating human rights for many years, but now it’s more often and more obvious … [violations] happen every day,” said Khu Te Bu of the Karenni National Progressive Party and deputy minister of Home Affairs under the National Unity Government.

On June 2, the KNPP issued an urgent appeal for the Tatmadaw to cease attacks and threats against aid workers and civilians and to open blocked roads so food and supplies could enter the state. It also called for the UN, international governments and humanitarian organisations to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the displaced and hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its actions.

Patterns of Tatmadaw violence seen since the coup mirror decades of human rights abuses which the Karenni, along with other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, have suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw, which has systematically gone after civilians in areas where ethnic armed organisations have fought for self-determination and equal rights. In Kayah, tens of thousands were forced into relocation sites or to flee into the forest or across the border to Thailand, predominantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Since May 21, we have been re-experiencing violations like the military committed in the past,” Banya Kun Aung of the Karenni Human Rights Organization told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s calls to the military spokesperson for comment on human rights violations and attacks on civilians in Kayah since May 21 went unanswered.

Churches attacked

The recent fighting in Kayah erupted on May 21, when Tatmadaw troops opened fire in residential areas of Demoso and arrested 13 people. The KPDF, at times supported by local armed groups, has since razed police stations, ambushed approaching troops and engaged in gun battles.

This handout photo from local media group Kantarawaddy Times taken and released on May 24, 2021 shows a damaged church in which four people were killed in army shelling [Kantarawaddy Times via AFP]

The Tatmadaw has responded with continuous air and ground attacks on civilian areas.

“They are shooting everyone they see,” said Banya Kun Aung of the Karenni Human Rights Organization. “Civilians have become hostages because of the political crisis.”

The KPDF claims to have killed more than 120 members of the Tatmadaw, according to Al Jazeera’s tally of local media reports. Meanwhile, Yangon-based The Irrawaddy news website reported that at least eight civilian fighters and 23 civilians were killed in Kayah and neighbouring townships of Shan State between May 21 and 31.

Among civilian casualties were a young man shot in the head with his hands tied behind his back on May 24 in Loikaw township and a 14-year-old boy shot dead in Loikaw township on May 27, the latest of more than 73 children to be killed by the security forces, according to the National Unity Government.

Churches have been repeatedly attacked in the predominantly-Christian area. On May 24, four people were killed and at least eight injured when heavy artillery struck a Catholic church in Loikaw township where more than 300 villagers had sought refuge.

A local community leader told Al Jazeera that on May 29, Tatmadaw forces raided a Catholic seminary in Loikaw where more than 1,300 civilians were sheltering, killed a volunteer cook and ate the food he had prepared. The same day, according to the community leader, the Tatmadaw raided and looted a Catholic parish house and convent in Demoso. On June 6, a Catholic church in Demoso called Queen of Peace, which had raised a white flag of peace, was damaged by artillery fire. “If the churches are no longer safe for the people to take shelter and protection, where can we find safer places?” asked the community leader.

The Tatmadaw has justified its attacks on temples, churches and administrative buildings by claiming that the facilities sheltered “local rebels.”

Humanitarian access has been hampered by insecurity, roadblocks, landmine risks and lengthy or unclear approval processes, according to the UN.

Local media has reported that the Tatmadaw has cut off access to Kayah State from Shan State as well as road access to Loikaw, the Kayah State capital.

Military chief Min Aung Hlaing met diplomats from ASEAN as well as the Red Cross chief last week  [Myanmar Ministry of Information via EPA]

‘Shooting all day’

On June 3, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross met army chief Min Aung Hlaing to share concerns on the current humanitarian situation in Myanmar and “reinforce ongoing efforts to ensure space for neutral and impartial humanitarian action.”

In Kayah, the Tatmadaw has continuously attacked and threatened humanitarian workers trying to help those displaced in recent clashes.

On May 26, security forces gunned down two youth delivering food from a church to displaced people in Demoso township and arrested three volunteers who were returning from delivering assistance there. The next day, a volunteer youth with Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group, was shot dead in Demoso township while trying to assist civilians.

A representative from the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO), a Kayah-based civil society organisation that is monitoring the crisis, told Al Jazeera that Kayah’s mountainous terrain is also posing a challenge to aid delivery. “From above, it might look like [displacement sites] are near each other, but one place and another are far; you may even have to cross mountains,” she said.

As in other parts of the country experiencing mass displacement since the coup, she said that food insecurity was rising. On May 27, military snipers shot dead two young men in Demoso township who were travelling back to their villages to get rice. “[People] are afraid to go back to their houses to take necessities because they don’t know where soldiers might be hiding or aiming their guns,” she told Al Jazeera.

Thousands have fled into the jungle to escape the fighting [Stringer/AFP]

Those trapped in cities and towns, including the elderly and disabled, are also facing trouble getting food, as curfews and ongoing violence leave them afraid to leave their homes. “We buy food quickly … Other than that, we don’t dare go out … because [Tatmadaw] snipers can shoot us any time,” said a woman in Loikaw who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I hear the sound of shooting all day.”

The generals’ forces, she said, are also raiding homes for food and valuables, following patterns seen in other parts of the country. “They went into houses and took everything, including rice, oil, and salt … They took what they wanted and destroyed the houses,” the woman said.

With the rainy season approaching, aid groups warn there could be more serious food shortages if farmers in conflict areas are unable to plant their crops, and health concerns are growing too.

Insufficient shelter and hygiene facilities leave populations vulnerable to malaria and diarrhetic diseases, while access to medicine and health services remain severely deficient. “There are just a few nurses among the displaced people but they themselves are also displaced,” the representative from the KNWO told Al Jazeera. Compounding these problems, local aid groups are running out of funds. “We only have local donors who can give small amounts … we don’t know how long we can hold up,” she said.

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Nic Dlamini is set to be first black South African at Tour de France




South African cyclist Nic Dlamini
Nic Dlamini is set to become the first black South African to ride the Tour de France

Nic Dlamini will make history at this year’s Tour de France by being the first black South African to compete in cycling’s most famous race.

The 25-year-old will be one of the eight riders for Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team Qhubeka-Assos at the Tour, which runs from 26 June until 18 July.

He will be the only African on the team that will be jointly led by Australia’s Simon Clarke and Austrian Michael Gogl as well as including the Italian 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru.

“Being selected to ride in my first Tour de France is an absolute dream come true for me,” Dlimani said.external-link

“It’s always been an childhood dream and now that I’m about to live it makes it feel surreal.

“I think it speaks to what the team is about, the Ubuntu spirit [I am because we are], and how we change people’s lives because it is honestly a very special moment: to come from a small township and then to go to the Tour de France.”

He becomes the latest rider to progress from the South African-registered team’s development squad and onto the UCI WorldTour.

Humble beginnings

South African cyclist Nic Dlamini

The 25-year-old, who grew up in an informal settlement in Cape Town, first caught the eye as a runner before moving into cycling where his talents saw him move to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

“Considering where I come from it would simply have been impossible for me to have the opportunity to ride at the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Team Qhubeka-Assos,” he explained.

“The platform that they’ve provided me, and other riders from Africa, to compete at the highest level in cycling has been critical.

“I really hope that this will serve as a reference of hope and inspiration to many young South Africans, and people around the world, who have been working really hard to reach their dreams. My hope is that they take from this that anything is possible.

“I want to race the Tour to inspire more kids on Qhubeka bikes to follow in my footsteps and to experience the world like I have, for more kids in communities to put their hands up for bikes to work hard like I did, to dream big.”

According to the team “Dlamini’s style of racing will likely see his talents deployed in the offensive strategy the team will look to pursue during the race, while also playing a key supporting role in the flatter stages.”

The team is completed by Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, Max Walscheid of Germany, debutant Sean Bennett of the USA and Colombian Sergio Henao.

Qhubeka-Assos’ team principal Douglas Ryder also hopes that Dlamini’s inclusion is a special moment.

“For Nic, what a moment though; his story is simply an incredible one and for him to have earned this opportunity shows that dreams really do come true, and for the team to have provided that opportunity makes me incredibly proud,” he said.

“He’s always been an individual that has stepped up and taken the opportunities that he’s fought for; and he does so again as he lines up at the startline in Brest on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the world.

“This will culminate in an incredible moment for him, South Africa and especially for our team.

“His selection speaks to everything about what we’ve created and built with this team through providing hope, an opportunity and then ultimately the platform to be on the biggest stage of all, the Tour de France.”

The only African rider to have worn the Tour de France leader’s famous ‘yellow jersey’ is Dlamini’s compatriot Darryl Impey, who wore it for two stages in 2013.

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In COVID hit Asia, mixed messages on refugee vaccinations | Coronavirus pandemic News




Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

The refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were spotted huddling on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.

By June 5, just a day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Nasruddin, the humanitarian coordinator of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to refugees.”

Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.

Hard line

When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members who were already living there, while others were under the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbours.

Some of the Rohingya refugees who arrived in Aceh earlier this month. They told NGOs that they had wanted to go to Malaysia because they had family there or thought it would be more welcoming to refugees than other countries in Southeast Asia [Cek Mad/AFP]

But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including Rohingya.

“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interest of pandemic recovery all foreigners would receive vaccination free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, the co-founder and international director of Geutanyoe Foundation who is based in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“The COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as coordinator of the vaccination programme, have been vocal advocates of this approach.

“However, the recent statement of the minister of home affairs that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with renewed crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s earlier position and will simply drive more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.”

Malaysia went into its second strict lockdown at the beginning of June after cases of coronavirus surged – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.

The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently stressed that the programme will include everyone living in the country.

But as it did during last year’s first lockdown, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.

Malaysia’s Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has declared that PATI – the acronym for undocumented people in the Malay language – will be detained and sent to immigration detention centres.

This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before they would be vaccinated.

In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after they had been detained.

Last week the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page – styled like a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Ethnic Rohingya migrants are not welcome”. After an outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Monday expressed concern at “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians” and urged the government to rethink its approach.

“Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” it said, stressing the clear differences in the situations of migrant workers, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia closed its borders during the first strict lockdown last year when immigration officers carried out a number of raids on areas under ‘enhanced’ lockdown. Rights groups fear more raids will deter people from coming forward for the vaccine that is crucial to Malaysia ending the COVID pandemic [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Rohingya made up about 57 percent of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.

Unofficial estimates suggest the country may have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Widespread problem

The mixed messaging on vaccinations for refugees is not exclusive to Malaysia.

In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that a shortage of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region was putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.

“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.

There are almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has increased dramatically in the last two months.

As of 31 May, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar has yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mahecic added that, in many countries in the Asia Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to go around, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being sidelined.

The UNHCR had observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.

Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to address the problem.

The UNHCR says COVID-19 has begun to accelerate in the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, but no Rohingya living there have been vaccinated [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau Province in early June in collaboration with the local government.

“IOM applauds the response of the City Government of Pekanbaru for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, the national media and communications officer of IOM Indonesia told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.

“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.

“The virus knows no borders or nationality; and neither should our solidarity.”

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Why Ethiopia’s 'alphabet generation' feel betrayed by Abiy




PM Abiy Ahmed swept to power after mass protests, but his Oromo community still feel like outsiders.

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