China malware theory on Mumbai blackout. Myanmar security forces continue violent crackdown. More charges for Aung San Suu Kyi as she appears in court via video link. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Isolation breach forces another lockdown for NZ

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announcing a further lockdown for Auckland on Sunday.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announcing a further lockdown for Auckland on Sunday.
Credit: Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

India: Soon after Chinese and Indian troops engaged in a series of brutal hand-to-hand clashes along the border in the Himalayas last year, a severe blackout hit Mumbai. Trains in the city of 20 million people came to a stop, college exams were postponed and hospitals were forced to rely on generators. At the time, authorities blamed the power failure on “technical problems”, though some Indian officials said they believed China was responsible and launched an inquiry.

Evidence of China’s involvement has now emerged in a study by an American security company that found the blackout appeared to have been caused by malware deployed by Chinese state hackers. The company, Recorded Future, said there had been “a concerted campaign against India’s critical infrastructure”, noting the interference did not appear to be commercially motivated but may have been designed to send a message to India.

On Monday, the state government of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, responded to the study, acknowledging that the city’s power outage last October may have been caused by a cyber attack. The state’s home minister, Anil Deshmukh, said preliminary findings by the official inquiry indicated there may have been extensive attempts to both hack into the electricity transmission system and to install malware.

China’s embassy in India dismissed the claims as “speculation and fabrication”.

“Highly irresponsible to accuse a particular party with no sufficient evidence around,” an embassy spokesperson said in a tweet.

Relations between India and China, the world’s two most populous nations, deteriorated last year as troops repeatedly clashed in the remote border region. Troops from the two nuclear-armed countries abide by a longstanding protocol to avoid the use of guns in the region. China recently admitted that four soldiers died during a violent brawl with Indian forces in the Galwan Valley in June. India has said it lost 20 soldiers. The incident was the first deadly clash between India and China in 45 years.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, imposed a seven-day lockdown in Auckland after two locally acquired Covid-19 cases were detected, just days after the city emerged from an earlier three-day shutdown.

The latest lockdown, due to end this weekend, caused public anger after it emerged that the infected pair – a 21-year-old student and his mother – had breached isolation rules after coming into contact with people linked to the initial outbreak. The 21-year-old had tested negative three times but was supposed to be in isolation after coming into contact with a younger sibling linked to a known cluster of cases. The mother went for a walk with another woman linked to the cluster.

Ardern said on Monday that those who broke the rules were “facing the full judgement of the entire nation”.

“Plainly everyone is paying the price,” she told reporters. “What has happened here is a clear breach and everyone is frustrated by it.”

The opposition National party this week called for stricter enforcement of isolation rules and tougher penalties for breaches.

Ardern said prosecutions were a matter for police, but the government wanted to avoid discouraging people from telling contact tracers the truth about their movements.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: Protesters in Myanmar continued to hold rallies this week to demand that the elected government be restored, even after security forces launched an increasingly violent crackdown against demonstrators.

On Wednesday, police and the military opened fire on protesters across the country, killing at least 38 people. A protester in the city of Myingyan told Reuters: “No warning to disperse [was given], they just fired their guns.”

The military rulers are under growing international pressure to release political detainees and recognise the results of last year’s election, which the National League for Democracy won in a landslide. The military claims – without evidence – there was widespread voter fraud.

The leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not been seen publicly since she was arrested on February 1. On Monday, she appeared in court via video link as authorities charged her with additional offences of using illegal communication equipment and causing “fear or alarm”.

Several South-East Asian nations have denounced the coup and called for a regional effort to pressure Myanmar’s military, with mixed results. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told BBC News this week the military takeover was an “enormous tragic step back” for Myanmar, and Indonesia pushed for the restoration of democracy.

But the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met on Tuesday and later released a statement, saying “all parties” should refrain from violence. As the meeting was being held, police in the town of Kale shot at protesters, wounding four people. In Yangon, people have begun protesting at night from their balconies, chanting: “The revolution must succeed.”

Spotlight: War in Yemen

After six years of war, Yemen is in a state of collapse.

The war has left more than 233,000 people dead and millions displaced, and much of the country is now facing mass starvation. Most Yemenis rely on aid to survive, but the flow of humanitarian supplies is not keeping up with demand. According to the United Nations, 400,000 children – or one in six – are at risk of death from malnutrition, and 1.2 million pregnant or breastfeeding women are expected to be acutely malnourished this year. Médecins Sans Frontières recently reported a 41 per cent increase in malnutrition cases compared with last year at its hospital in the town of Abs. The organisation reported: “Without humanitarian aid, many families would not eat at all.”

On Monday, an international donor conference attended by more than 100 countries was held to raise funds to avert further disaster in the war-torn country. The UN appealed for $US3.85 billion, saying Yemen was facing the worst famine the world has seen in decades. But countries ended up offering just $US1.7 billion.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the outcome as “disappointing”.

“Cutting aid is a death sentence,” he said.

The war began in late 2014 after Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, seized control of much of the country, prompting retaliation from Saudi Arabia-backed government forces.

The new US president, Joe Biden, has pledged to try to end the conflict. He has withdrawn support for Saudi-led offensive actions and lifted the terrorist designation of the Houthis, which was imposed by Donald Trump during his final days in office. The designation had prevented relief deliveries to Houthi-controlled areas, which cover about 80 per cent of the population.

Biden’s moves have raised hopes that a new diplomatic process might be launched to stabilise the country and end the military stalemate. The president is also facing calls to push Saudi Arabia and its allies to end a blockade of Yemen. The Saudis say the blockade prevents weapons reaching the Houthis, but it has also blocked the flow of fuel, medicine and food. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 6, 2021 as "Isolation breach forces another lockdown for NZ".

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

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