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Why I love living in Wuhan and worry for its future

It fills me with sadness that Wuhan is currently becoming synonymous with the coronavirus that is causing a national emergency and concern around the world. I see the news coming out of Wuhan daily, the city I’ve come to love and call my home. Stories of infections increasing, stories of exhaustion, worry, isolation but also stories of self-sacrifice, support and hope. Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have surfaced, remains on lockdown and outbreak has killed more than 420 people around the world.

For several years, I’ve been talking about Wuhan to whomever would listen. When mentioning the name, people would often just stare and say, “Wu… what?” “Wuhan”! “Where’s that?” “Hubei Province, Central China, a city of more than 11 million people …” “Mhhh, never heard of it.” End of conversation.

I’ve talked about the beauty of Wuhan, how the city keeps changing, becoming more interesting day by the day. It has a growing art and creative scene, new green and recreative spaces springing up everywhere.

I’ve talked about Wuhan University, which boasts China’s most beautiful campus. As a foreign expert on secondment from Dublin City University (DCU) to Wuhan University from 2017 to 2019, I’d the privilege to work alongside a team of professionals and share in the personal growth of some of China’s brightest students. I’ve lived in Ireland for almost 25 years and returned to Dublin last summer, but I recently chose to move back to Wuhan because I’d missed my life in this city.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to call this place my home. I was once asked what stories could be told to the world about Wuhan. I said that I’d write about its natural beauty in all its variation, the campus, the lakes, the mountains and rivers. I would write about long walks along the East Lake and bike rides criss-crossing the mighty Yangtze river. I would write about the city’s culture and art and music. I would try and capture the sounds of frogs and birds singing outside my window at 3.30 in the morning.

I would describe the intoxicating scent of osmanthus in autumn and the amazing sunsets all across the city. I would bring the reader on a culinary tour of Wuhan’s local foods, on a visual tour of the city’s arts and culture, and on a sound tour of its music. I would introduce them to the strength and the kindness of its people … and much, much more. I said that I hoped, one day, to find the time to sit down and start writing. I never did but I’ve been trying to get friends, family and colleagues to visit this city that recently appeared high up on a list of the most attractive cities in China. It’s attraction is also for its status as the Chinese city that hosts more institutions of higher learning than any other in the country, a place of phenomenal economic growth, a city also that has witnessed growing engagement with Irish business and education, including the long-standing partnership between DCU and Wuhan University that brought me there in the first place.

After returning to Wuhan in early December of last year to take up a position as lecturer in intercultural communication at Wuhan University, everything seemed to have fallen into place for me – I was already familiar with the city and the campus, I was given the warmest of welcomes and I was looking forward to starting my teaching load after the spring festival. I was also looking forward to family and friends visiting so that they could see the place none of them had ever heard of and which I was incessantly talking about.

At the end of December, a few cases of “novel pneumonia” were detected in the city of Wuhan. We all took notice but assumed that this was nothing to worry about. We started wearing masks and decided to be more vigilant, and avoid crowded places. Other than that, it was life as normal and I continued exploring the city for new music venues, exhibitions and the likes. With the impending Chinese Spring Festival and associated holidays everyone was excitedly talking about their holidays – some within China and others abroad. I myself had made plans to travel to Beijing, Shenyang and Dalian to visit friends. There were end of year gatherings and then we all said our goodbyes. I took a small bag and headed to Beijing with the intention of returning to Wuhan on January 30th.

Sylvia Schroeder: 'I consider myself very lucky to be able to call this place my home'
Sylvia Schroeder: ‘I consider myself very lucky to be able to call this place my home’

Between the time I left Wuhan and the moment I arrived in Beijing – a short four and a half hour high-speed train ride – it was becoming clear that something was beginning to change. The news about the number of infected people increasing, and the coronavirus (now often dubbed the “Wuhan virus”) spreading to other parts of China and abroad was becoming more urgent, more serious. I was also starting to receive messages from family and friends, from former colleagues back in Ireland, from other people I had worked with in China and abroad. Many of these people had only known Wuhan from my stories and most would never have got in touch with me, except that they suddenly made a connection – Wuhan had finally entered people’s consciousness, they were able to place it on a map, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

As I spent these last few days in Beijing but the situation changed from one where I had planned to return home to Wuhan a few days ago to one where I cannot return to my home as the city is now under lock down, and it is difficult to know when it will be okay to return. I headed, instead, to Europe with my small bag holding only the most essential items. I also carry with me all my memories and my love for Wuhan and its people. I’m determined to return as soon as I can though, in the meantime, I worry for the people I’ve left behind, the friends I am in daily contact with.

The city of Wuhan
The city of Wuhan

What I’ve seen over the last few weeks is a city that has come together with an unrivalled resolve to overcome a major crisis through combined strength of solidarity in the face of adversity, a people working together in self-sacrifice, an unbelievable determination to get the situation under control, and a hope for normality to return as soon as possible. People are going out of their way to help and support each other. They choose to believe that they can beat the crisis to return life to normal as quickly as possible. But, people are also worried about how the world might now view them and their beloved city.


Iran’s retaliation is more conventional than expected

Iran struck back at the United States early Wednesday for the killing of a top Iranian general last week, firing a series of surface-to-surface missiles at an Iraqi air base housing US troops and warning the United States and its allies in the region not to retaliate.

The Pentagon confirmed the strike at Ain Assad as well as another at a separate base housing US troops.

“At approximately 5:30 p.m. (EST) on January 7, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against US military and coalition forces in Iraq,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US military and coalition personnel at Al-Assad and Irbil.”

A man holds a picture of late Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as people celebrate in the street after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq, in Tehran on Wednesday.

After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week, America braced itself for the unexpected: The Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory warning that Iran may launch cyberattacks against critical infrastructure. New York’s governor deployed the National Guard to New York City’s major airports.

Those precautions are wise and understandable. But Iran’s missile attacks on bases hosting U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday shows that the regime’s retaliation may be more conventional than expected.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has used terrorist groups as proxies to strike at civilians and embassies, attempting to obscure their own responsibility for these attacks.

Now the Iranian regime is signaling a new approach.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told his advisers last week that its response should be a “direct and proportional attack on American interests,” according to the New York Times, and that it should be “openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves.”

That said, there is good reason to doubt that Iran’s response will be limited to this attack. Iran has fought its wars through proxies since the 1990s. This was Soleimani’s legacy. From 2003 until his death last week, he built up militias in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, waging an imperial war in the shadows on Iran’s behalf throughout the Middle East.

Some analysts acknowledge that Iran’s military has the capability to do a lot of damage, particularly to U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it “is not going to be able to out-escalate the United States,” says Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Khamenei understands this, he says, and he may be attempting to convey strength at a moment when the regime has been weakened.

Another possibility is that the U.S. drone strike demolished the strategy of plausible deniability that Iran has relied on for so long. It’s not just that Iran’s generals could no longer count on being spared the fate of the terrorists they cultivated and sponsored. The strike signaled a new U.S. strategy that imposes grave costs for Iran’s broader proxy war.

The regime will almost certainly still depend on its terrorist proxies. But Iran’s missile strike shows that it is prepared to engage in direct military attacks to take revenge for Soleimani. The world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism will also rely on conventional warfare



Plant species named after Arunachal journalist Taro Chatung

Researchers at the Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) in Arunachal Pradesh have named a new plant species found only in a small area in the Upper Siang district, after Taro Chatung, a popular and pioneering journalist from the north-eastern state who died in last October.

The new species, which belongs to the Gesneriaceae family — flowering plants that consist of about 152 genera and over 3,500 species — has been named Lysionotus chatungii after Chatung.

Details of the species were published this week in the taxonomic journal Pleione, brought out by the East Himalayan Society for Spermatophyte Taxonomy.

“It was a new year gift for our dear friend. Chatung was the most popular journalist and one of the pioneers of electronic media in Arunachal Pradesh. That’s why we decided to name it after him as a tribute to his memory,” said Dr Hui Tag, head of RGU’s botany department.

Chatung, who was suffering from cancer, died on October 26, 2019 at the Tomo Riba Institute of Health and Medical Sciences in Itanagar. He left his state civil service job in 1988 to pursue journalism.

Chatung’s show “News and Views”, which aired on Doordarshan, was one of the most-viewed television news programmes in the state. He was also a founding member and former president of the Arunachal Press Club and the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists.

Momang Taram, a research scholar at the university’s botany department, found the new species, a small climbing herbaceous plant, at Geku in Upper Siang district of the state last April.

The plant found growing on rocks and tree trunks has been stated to be endemic to the district. Less 100 plants of the kind were found spread over a three-square-km area.

As per IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List Category and Criteria, due to is the extent of occurrence (found only in an area less than 10 sq km), Lysionotus Chatungii should be listed as critically endangered.

“The plant is available only in this particular area in Arunachal Pradesh. We wanted to dedicate the plant to the journalist community in the north-east by naming it after Chatung,” Taram said. (HT)


Donald Trump: US targeting 52 Iranian sites if Tehran attacks Americans

Mr. Trump took to Twitter after pro-Iran factions ramped up pressure on U.S. installations across Iraq with missiles and warnings to Iraqi troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump. File.U.S. President Donald Trump. File.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Donald Trump warned Saturday that the U.S. is targeting 52 sites in Iran and will hit them “very fast and very hard” if the Islamic republic attacks American personnel or assets.

In a tweet defending Friday’s drone strike assassination of a top Iranian general in Iraq, Mr. Trump said 52 represents the number of Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for more than a year starting in late 1979.

Mr. Trump said some of these sites are “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

Mr. Trump took to Twitter after pro-Iran factions ramped up pressure on U.S. installations across Iraq with missiles and warnings to Iraqi troops — part of an outburst of fury over the killing of Soleimani, described as the second most-powerful man in Iran.

The attack has prompted fears of a major conflagration in the Middle East.

In the first hints of a possible retaliatory response, two mortar rounds hit an area near the US embassy in Baghdad on Saturday, security sources told AFP.

Almost simultaneously, two rockets slammed into the Al-Balad airbase where American troops are deployed, security sources said.

The Iraqi military confirmed the missile attacks in Baghdad and on al-Balad and said there were no casualties. The U.S. military also said no coalition troops were hurt.

With Americans wondering fearfully if, how and where Iran will hit back for the assassination, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin that said “at this time there is no specific, credible threat against the homeland.”


2 Missiles Hit Green Zone Near US Embassy in Baghdad, Rockets Target Iraqi Air Base Hosting US Troops

Baghdad: Two missiles hit the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Saturday, according to security sources, a day after a deadly American strike.

The precision drone strike outside the Baghdad airport on Friday killed the Iran Revolutionary Guards commander General Qasem Soleimani. The US now fears a backlash against its mission and bases where its troops are deployed across Iraq.

Several reports suggested that the twin blasts took place in the Green Zone, the high-security enclave where the US embassy is based. The Iraqi military said one projectile hit inside the zone, while another landed close to the enclave.

Sirens immediately rang out at the American compound in Baghdad hosting both diplomats and troops, said sources.

A pair of Katyusha rockets then struck the Al-Balad Air Force Base hosting US troops in the north of the capital. Security sources there reported blaring sirens and said surveillance drones were sent above the base to locate the source of the rockets.

Soleimani was one of the most popular figures in Iran and was seen as a deadly adversary by the US and its allies. Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack on Friday.

Thousands of people marched in Baghdad on Saturday to mourn Soleimani and others killed in the air strike, with marchers waving Iraqi and militia flags in a sombre atmosphere. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and militia commander Hadi al-Amiri, a close Iran ally and the top candidate to succeed Muhandis, attending the procession.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” after the attack. “Martyrdom was the reward for his ceaseless efforts in all these years,” Khamenei said on his Farsi-language Twitter account in reference to Soleimani.

The US embassy in Baghdad had urged American citizens in Iraq to “depart immediately” over fear of fallout from the strike.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had slammed Soleimani’s assassination as “an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation”.

“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” Zarif had said in a post on Twitter on Friday.

The US embassy in Baghdad as well as the 5,200 American troops stationed across the country have faced a spate of rocket attacks in recent months that Washington has blamed on Iran and its allies in Iraq.

One attack last month killed a US contractor working in northern Iraq, prompting retaliatory American air strikes that killed 25 hardline fighters close to Iran.

Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the US that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the US embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a US air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.


Thousands mourn Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at funeral in Baghdad

  Thousands mourn Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at funeral in Baghdadsend

Thousands gathered in streets across Baghdad on Saturday at the start of a funeral procession for Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by the United States.

Thousands of mourners have joined the formal funeral processions for Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandisand several others others killed in a US air strike in Iraq‘s capital, Baghdad.


‘A more dangerous world’: Iran general’s killing triggers global alarm

PARIS: Global powers warned on Friday that the world has become a more dangerous place and urged restraint after the US assassinated Iran’s top general, although Britain and Germany also suggested that Iran shared blame for provoking the targeted killing that dramatically ratcheted up tensions in the Mideast.

China, Russia and France, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, took a dim view of the US airstrike near Baghdad’s airport early Friday that killed General Qassem Soleimani.

The White House said in a tweet that Soleimani, who led the elite Quds Force responsible for Iran’s foreign campaigns, “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

“We are waking up in a more dangerous world. Military escalation is always dangerous,” France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin told RTL radio. “When such actions, such operations, take place, we see that escalation is underway.”

Russia likewise characterized the deadly US strike as “fraught with serious consequences.” A foreign ministry statement warned that “such actions don’t help resolve complicated problems in the Middle East, but instead lead to a new round of escalating tensions.”

China described itself as “highly concerned.”

“Peace in the Middle East and the Gulf region should be preserved,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said. “We urge all parties concerned, especially the United States, to maintain calm and restraint and avoid further escalation of tensions.”

But while echoing the concerns of other Security Council members about spiraling tensions, Britain and Germany broke ranks, voicing qualified understanding for the US position.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer described the US strike as “a reaction to a whole series of military provocations for which Iran bears responsibility,” pointing to attacks on tankers and a Saudi oil facility, among other events.

“We are at a dangerous escalation point and what matters now is contributing with prudence and restraint to de-escalation,” she said. Germany currently sits on the UN Security Council but is not a permanent member.

The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said “we have always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani.”

“Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate,” he said. “Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Montchalin, the French minister, indicated urgent reconciliation efforts are being launched behind the scenes. French President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign minister were reaching out to “all the actors in the region,” she said.

In the Mideast, the strike provoked waves of shock, fury and fears of worse to come.

Iraq’s most powerful Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a speech during Friday prayers that the country must brace for

“very difficult times.”

In Iran, a hard-line adviser to the country’s supreme leader who led Friday prayers in Tehran likened US troops in Iraq to “insidious beasts” and said they should be swept from the region.

“I am telling Americans, especially Trump, we will take a revenge that will change their daylight into to a nighttime darkness,“ said the cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami.


Democratic leadership in a populist age


With populism and nationalism currently in the ascendancy in much of the world, where should we look for inspiring democratic leadership? It will not come from Trump, of course, but the US has shown enlightened and visionary global leadership before, and it can do so again.

In most airport bookshops, you will see rows of titles offering business travellers advice on leadership. I should not disparage them. It is doubtless possible to rise in the marketing department by learning a lesson or two from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

And, to be fair, some airport books on leadership are thoughtful, and draw on a variety of examples. The investor and philanthropist Michael Moritz, for example, has written very well about business leaders like Steve Jobs and Lee Iacocca, and co-authored a highly readable book on leadership with Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary former manager of Manchester United.

You also may be able to draw lessons in leadership from the careers of great military commanders. In The Mask of Command, the military historian John Keegan notes the inevitably different requirements demanded of leaders at different times and in different technological environments. But the two things I took from his essays on Ulysses S Grant and the Duke of Wellington were the importance of knowing what is happening – easier for Grant because of the telegraph – and the ability to explain clearly what you want to do.

Similarly, in her work on US presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Lyndon B Johnson, the American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has highlighted leadership lessons that modern politicians such as former president Barack Obama have found useful.

Nonetheless, I tend to draw the line at recently retired politicians giving leadership advice (typically for a handsome fee), without much grace about what they got wrong and with a tendency to lecture the generation following them on how much better they did things in their day. The British politician Enoch Powell used to say that most political careers end in failure. That would be a good starting point for essays in well-remunerated vainglory.

So, which qualities are most needed in democratic leaders today? And what should these leaders do to tackle the numerous difficult issues facing their countries and the world, while countering a rising tide of populism and nativism?

The essence of leadership

Some practitioners and philosophers have raised doubts about the very idea of organised, visionary leadership. Oliver Cromwell’s dictum was that “he goes furthest who knows not where he is going.” For Karl Marx, all history was a record of class struggle: on that criterion, he thought that Napoleon III, France’s emperor from 1852 to 1870, was “a grotesque mediocrity.” Men may make their own history, Marx conceded, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Leo Tolstoy, meanwhile, thought that great men were no more than “labels giving names to events.”

I lean toward a rather more positive view of leadership. For the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for example, “the great man of his age is the one who can put into words the will of his age.” The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had a similar view: “The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” At the very least, I believe that great men and women are capable of postponing catastrophe – a point made by the former British prime minister David Lloyd George – and thus making the world a little better than it otherwise would have been.

Some aspects of leadership are common to different areas of activity. For starters, context obviously matters. If you take over a healthy concern in benign conditions, your leadership qualities may not be obvious, and may not need to be. I mean no disrespect, but it is difficult to imagine a political titan emerging from Luxembourg. Conversely, Bismarck would not have forged German unification on the iron of Prussian militarism without the manifest failure of the German Confederation.

Secondly, I suspect that leadership must be about more than personal ambition in order to be sustained and effective. Careers that go up like a rocket can easily come down like wreckage.

Thirdly, in every area there is a difference, as Goodwin notes, between power, title and leadership. This is what makes democratic leadership a supreme challenge. In democracies, you have to earn the right to rule through a combination of temperament and intellect. You must win people over. You cannot lock up your opponents – not even US President Donald Trump can do that – or shoot or poison those who disagree with you. Instead, you have to win their respect.

In his fine recent biography of French President Charles de Gaulle, the historian Julian Jackson describes the mix of qualities that make an effective democratic leader. The general practiced a patient and relentless pedagogy that was the antithesis of demagoguery. He was charismatic but not a populist, and his leadership combined reflective intelligence with intuitive action. Or, as de Gaulle once said, “behind the victories of Alexander lies Aristotle.”

America the great

During most of my life, world leaders largely heeded the terrible lessons learned in the first half of the twentieth century, when xenophobic nationalism wrought political and economic havoc, and human rights and civil liberties were trampled underfoot. After 1945, most of the world became safer and more prosperous under American leadership, which encouraged the spread of welfare capitalism and a belief in – and commitment to – the universality of human rights. In fact, few victorious powers in history have shown the visionary generosity that the United States did in building a better and more stable international order after World War II. Moreover, successive US governments usually accepted that rules and behaviour agreed upon internationally should apply to America as well as to other countries.

Three main assumptions lay at the heart of this approach. For starters, US policymakers believed that nation-states succeeded if others succeeded as well. America’s interest was therefore in helping others, not holding them back. Furthermore, that message needed to be understood by American voters. President Harry S Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” Less well-known is that the reverse side, which faced him every day, said, “I’m from Missouri.” Above all, political leaders in America and elsewhere generally accepted that almost every serious problem that nation-states faced could be addressed only through cooperation with others.


Finland’s transportation minister Sanna Marin becomes country’s youngest prime minister

HELSINKI — Finland’s transportation minister Sanna Marin was selected by her Social Democratic party on Sunday to become the country’s youngest prime minister ever, taking over after the resignation of Antti Rinne.

The 34-year-old Marin, whose party is the largest in a five-member governing coalition, will be the world’s youngest serving prime minister when she takes office in the coming days.

Rinne resigned on Tuesday after a party in the coalition, the Centre Party, said it had lost confidence in him following his handling of a postal strike.

“We have a lot of work ahead to rebuild trust,” Marin told reporters after winning a narrow vote among the party leadership. Antti Lindtman, head of the party’s parliamentary group, was runner up.

Marin has had a swift rise in Finnish politics since becoming head of the city council of her industrial hometown of Tampere at the age of 27.

She will take over in the middle of a 3-day wave of strikes, which will halt production at some of Finland’s largest companies from Monday. The Confederation of Finnish Industries estimates the strikes will cost the companies a combined 500 million euros ($550 million) in lost revenue.

The centre-left coalition, which took office just six months ago, has agreed to continue with its political program stressing a shift to carbon neutrality, after Rinne announced he was stepping down at the demand of the Centre Party.

“We have a joint government program which glues the coalition together,” Marin said.

The timing of the change in leadership is awkward for Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union until the end of the year, playing a central role in efforts to hammer out a new budget for the bloc.

(The New York Times, Reporting by Tarmo Virki; Editing by Peter Graff)

Human Rights, International

Myanmar’s military companies should be sanctioned

Hindu people stand in an IDP camp for Hindus at the Sri Sri Moha Dev Bari Hindu Temple, in Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in Sept. 2017. Thousands of Hindus have been displaced by ethnic and religious violence that has torn through Rakhine state since August 25. (AIDAN JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
by &

During the optimistic years that ultimately led to the National League for Democracy forming a government in 2016, the international community confirmed its faith in Myanmar’s transition from military rule by lifting a succession of economic sanctions that had been imposed on the country. But there were warnings that this response came too soon.

With the army’s involvement in politics protected by the constitution it drafted in 2008, continued progress in the reforms was not guaranteed. Removing the sanctions reduced important leverage against the military, which could have been instrumental to the new government. For its part, the military-allied elite had spent years carefully positioning itself to be the main beneficiary of economic liberalisation and Myanmar’s re-engagement with the global market.

As Myanmar now once again approaches general elections in 2020, the optimism has decidedly diminished. Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the reforms have stalled, and the human rights situation has deteriorated across the country.

Democratic freedoms have been curbed, armed conflict has plagued the lives of hundreds of thousands, and the relentless plunder of natural resources has persisted unabated. The emboldened military leadership retains a firm grip on politics and the economy, while the government has so far proved unwilling or unable to make any significant move against it.

This public alignment between the military and the government has dismayed those who have long fought for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to acknowledge the horrific atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine state by the military and other security forces in 2016 and 2017 has been particularly shocking to the international community.

The extreme violence inflicted during the so-called counterinsurgency “clearance operations” was executed on an unprecedented scale and with an unprecedented brutality and has forced a mass exodus that has created the world’s largest refugee camp across the border in Bangladesh.

Senior military leaders now stand accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for these events, which were a culmination of a decades-long campaign of systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya, alongside allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against various ethnic minorities in Kachin and Shan states since 2011.

Reports of violations of international law continue to mount in the context of current military operations in Rakhine state where conflict with the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army has raged all year, and in Shan state since serious fighting re-erupted in August.

The Rohingya still living in Rakhine state continue to be denied their most basic rights and are confined to either closely guarded internment camps or remote villages. The system of oppression they are subjected to remains unchanged, and they are at real risk of recurring genocide.

Those responsible for these violations enjoy impunity which perpetuates the devastating cycle of abuse. With present conditions in Myanmar making the state incapable of delivering accountability, an international response is needed and is under way. The Gambia has filed a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice for violating the Genocide Convention and the International Criminal Court has authorised an investigation by the Prosecutor into crimes against humanity.

But the military, backed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has responded with defiance, and with the immediate threat of further atrocities present, more must urgently be done to prevent further tragedy. and with the immediate threat of further atrocities present more must urgently be done to prevent further tragedy.

The army is able to fund its operations without government oversight through commercial operations which generate vast revenues while bypassing formal channels. The military leadership owns and directly controls two major conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).

Along with their subsidiaries, they are active in many sectors, including resource extraction, banking, tourism, transport, manufacturing, and telecommunications and dwarf other economic actors in Myanmar. Until 2016, both were subject to US sanctions.

The army also has strong links to several private Myanmar companies through familial or business ties. Its companies are advantaged by their close relationships with Myanmar’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which both regulate and hold commercial interests in their respective sectors. They operate without transparency yet effectively determine Myanmar’s political economy.

The international community must impose targeted sanctions against all army-linked and army-owned companies, especially MEHL and MEC. This will serve as an immediate form of accountability for its assault on human rights. By weakening its financial base, it will reduce its capacity to commit further gross violations.

Private companies and international donors must be required to scour their supply chains and sever any ties with military companies. No one should be doing business with the army of Myanmar given its long track record of violations.

The sanctions could also strengthen the position of those still committed to the reforms. The government is already attempting a comprehensive overhaul of the business sector, intended to improve transparency and competitiveness and promote sustainable development.

In order to be successful, these changes must break the domination exerted by the military-allied elite that drove the country into poverty by syphoning money and resources from the state through decades of secret backroom deals. Wrestling the economy from the grip of the army will be a formidable task that the international community can and must support.

To do this, sanctions must go hand in hand with a concerted effort to divert investment to, and build the capacity of non-military economic actors. The international community must continue to advocate and provide support for transparency in the economy to aid this process. Myanmar’s reporting obligations under the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provide important opportunities.

Transparency is particularly important when it comes to the SOEs. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi urged foreign companies not to enter into joint ventures with one of the most powerful SOEs, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), owing to its lack of transparency and accountability.

This call was not heeded and with the lifting of economic sanctions, foreign investment in the oil and gas sector rushed in, with MOGE a shareholder in all foreign operated fields. Much of this investment activity is centred off the coast of now war-torn Rakhine state.

MOGE remains one of the opaquest economic actors in Myanmar, and yet another round of bidding for offshore oil and gas blocks is expected soon. Without further reforms, this could cement the army’s finances for decades.

Finally, it is critical that economic reforms recognise and respect rights to land use and resource governance of ethnic minorities. The government will not be able to regain dwindling public confidence in its commitment to peace, equality and federal democracy unless it takes measures to secure these rights.

The change that so many hope to see in Myanmar will not come to fruition while the army retains its current dominance. Unchecked trade and investment with military companies will only further inflate its power which it is successfully wielding to obstruct democracy and commit atrocities against the people of Myanmar.

By imposing targeted sanctions and economically isolating the military, the international community has an opportunity to influence Myanmar’s downward trajectory. Now, more than ever, it is time to act.

Rohingya refugees gather to mark the second anniversary of the exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2019 [File: Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters]

Rohingya refugees gather to mark the second anniversary of the exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2019 [File: Rafiqur Rahman/Reuters]