PNG begins vaccine rollout starting with Prime Minister James Marape. Woman’s death in Mexico mirrors George Floyd incident.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Violence worsens as Myanmar edges towards civil war

 Anti-coup protesters use slingshots to pelt stones at approaching security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, this week.
Anti-coup protesters use slingshots to pelt stones at approaching security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, this week.
Credit: Getty Images

Great power rivalry

China: Last month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, travelled to Alaska, where he publicly sparred with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, in a Cold War-style faceoff between the top diplomats from the world’s most powerful countries. Wang then flew back to China and headed to the southern city of Guilin to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Their first topic of discussion, according to Beijing officials, was their shared grievances about the United States.

In apparently cosy meetings, the two foreign ministers discussed their view that Washington should “halt unilateral bullying, stop meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs, and stop forming small circles to seek bloc confrontation”.

Despite a history of mistrust, Beijing and Moscow have, in recent years, found common cause in their worsening ties with Washington. Both have been subject to recent sanctions by US President Joe Biden, over the mass detention of Uygurs and the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, respectively.

Biden is preparing to host a summit of democracies and has been openly encouraging closer ties with and between democratic partners such as Japan, India and Australia. Last week, in his first press conference as president, he said: “Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of: who succeeded, autocracy or democracy? ... Because that is what is at stake.”

But China has been looking beyond Moscow as it firms partnerships with countries whose relations with the West have soured.

Last weekend, Wang travelled to Tehran and signed a 25-year strategic co-operation agreement between China and Iran, which has also been targeted by US sanctions. According to a draft of the deal, China will invest $US400 billion in Iranian ports, railways and infrastructure in exchange for steady oil supplies. But the actual deal was kept secret, prompting concerns in Iran about its contents. At demonstrations, protesters held signs saying: “Iran is not for sale”. 

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: On Tuesday, health workers in Papua New Guinea began an urgent rollout of vaccines after receiving 8000 AstraZeneca doses supplied by Australia to combat a spiralling Covid-19 outbreak.

Though the initial doses will be used for frontline health workers, one of the first to be vaccinated was James Marape, the prime minister, who received his dose at a football stadium in Port Moresby. He was vaccinated along with Dika Toua, an Olympic weightlifter, the health secretary, Osborne Liko, and Sir Moi Avei, a former politician.

Marape said the vaccination of public figures was necessary to address widespread misinformation and scepticism about the vaccines and the virus.

“This is not something that is designed in a laboratory somewhere to put off certain sections of the population,” he said. “We are not enforcing it on anyone, we will not force you to take it.”

A further 271 Covid-19 cases and five deaths were confirmed in PNG on Monday, bringing the total to 5620 cases and 56 deaths. But actual numbers are believed to be much higher because the country has one of the world’s lowest testing rates.

PNG is hoping to source vaccines from the Covax scheme, an initiative to ensure global distribution of vaccines, and from Australia, which is seeking to secure one million AstraZeneca doses from supplies it has purchased but not yet received.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: A trio of armed ethnic forces in Myanmar released a joint statement this week, threatening to unite to fight against the military unless the killing of pro-democracy protesters ends.

The statement, by the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, was issued after the deaths of more than 100 protesters last Saturday and raised the prospect that the country could descend into civil war. Clashes with ethnic fighters have already erupted in areas controlled by the Karen minority in eastern Myanmar, where the military launched air strikes in the region for the first time in decades. The fighting prompted about 3000 people to try to flee into neighbouring Thailand, though some were pushed back by Thai authorities.

Since the ousting of Myanmar’s elected government by the military on February 1, more than 500 protesters have been killed. The protesters have demanded the release of the former de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures.

Protest organisers and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, have been urging the more than 20 armed ethnic minority groups in Myanmar to unite to oust the military.     

The statement by the three armed groups said it would call for a “spring revolution” if democracy is not restored, saying it is reviewing a ceasefire that has been in place since 2019.

Spotlight: Femicide in Mexico

Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a 37-year-old mother of two, left her home in El Salvador five years ago to flee the constant threat of violence from local street gangs. She moved to Mexico, where she lived with her daughters – aged 15 and 16 – in the coastal resort town
of Tulum after being granted refugee status in 2018.

Last Saturday, Salazar, who worked as a hotel cleaner, was detained – for unknown reasons – by four police outside a convenience store. Video footage showed her being held on a footpath by a female officer, who knelt on her neck as she cried in pain. The other officers stood around, apparently showing little interest. Shortly after, the officers were filmed lifting Salazar’s apparently lifeless, handcuffed body and placing it in the back of a police pick-up truck. An autopsy later found Salazar had died of a fractured spine. Prosecutors are preparing to charge the four officers, who were fired, along with Tulum’s police chief.

The incident, which recalled the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, has raised concerns in Mexico about brutality towards both women and migrants. About 10 women a day are murdered in Mexico, but few cases are solved. About 5 per cent of rape and sexual assault allegations lead to criminal sentences.

Monica Fernandez, a women’s rights activist, told El País newspaper that Salazar was killed due to “machismo, but also racism”.

“Can you imagine if she had been white or European?” she said. “Do they really want us to believe that they would have grabbed her like this and thrown her on the floor like that?”

Salazar’s mother, Rosibel Emérita Arriaza, told journalists in El Salvador: “She did not deserve to die like this. I feel indignation, I feel powerless, I feel frustrated. I would have wanted to be there as a mother.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Violence worsens as Myanmar edges towards civil war ".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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