Tuesday, February 23 2021

Senator Romney has been critical of extreme rhetoric from prior nominees, and this is consistent with that position. And he believes it's hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets.

That’s the spokesperson for the Republican senator explaining why he will not vote to confirm the appointment of Biden administration’s most high-profile Indian American nominee: Neera Tanden. She has been picked to lead the powerful Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—which basically decides who gets how much money in government. Sadly, Tanden is unlikely to be confirmed thanks to her colourful tweeting history—which includes calling former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “Voldemort.”

Big Story

A vast uprising in Myanmar

The TLDR: Ever since the military seized power on February 1, citizens have been flooding the streets in defiance. So far, the military is showing restraint, but it has been very successful in crushing pro-democracy movements for most of Myanmar’s past. We look at whether a new generation can ensure a different outcome this time around.


A quick history recap

Myanmar has been under military rule for most of its history—with brief dalliances with democracy in between—and struggled with civil war, international isolation, and widespread poverty. Here’s a brief overview:

  • The first military coup took place in 1962, and General U Ne Win held power for the next 26 years.
  • In 1988, there were massive student-led protests triggered by food shortages and economic pain. Millions rose in defiance and an interim civilian government briefly took power.
  • But the subsequent army crackdown killed at least 3,000 and displaced thousands of others who fled to neighbouring countries. 
  • Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence during these protests, and was arrested in 1989. She spent the next 15 years in prison and under house arrest. She received the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her role in the 1988 resistance.
  • Ne Win resigned but the junta stayed in place, renaming Burma as Myanmar in 1989.
  • In 2007, the people rose up again as part of the “saffron revolution”—this time sparked by steep hikes in the price of fuel and led by Buddhist monks in saffron robes.
  • The military again crushed the protests, but put in place a new constitution—which gives it widespread powers even under civilian rule. 
  • In 2010, Suu Kyi was released, and the junta unexpectedly dissolved itself and turned power over to a transitional government.
  • Suu Kyi finally took power as the nation’s civilian leader in 2015 after the nation’s first freest election—but continued to support the military, especially its violent and bloody campaign against Rohingya Muslims. 
  • That’s until the same military kicked her out earlier this month.


Point to note: Many critics argue that Suu Kyi’s ouster may be just rewards for years of appeasement:


”[She has] done little to marginalize the military or push forward real democratic reform. Instead, she had created a party in which she wielded enormous power, disdained important institutions like a free media, and continually defended the military’s often brutal actions, minimizing the armed forces’ massive abuses against the Rohingya.”


But why this sudden coup?

The election: The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) did very poorly in the November elections—while Suu Kyi’s party won 80% of the vote. USDP and the military alleged widespread fraud. So the military moved quickly to take power hours before the Parliament was scheduled to convene—and constitutionally endorse the election results.


Some experts argue, the grand plan is to take charge, rewrite the constitution to give the military even more power—and then negotiate with pro-democracy forces from a position of power. 


A leader-in-waiting: The army has long been projecting Commander-in-Chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was a tough leader. And 166 seats in Parliament are reserved for the military as per the constitution. The plan was that if USDP won at least 167 seats, it would form the government and install him as President. However, it only scored a paltry 33:


“This set the alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called. The Generals may have sensed that even the limited democratic experiment was gradually threatening the military’s entrenched interests with Suu Kyi remaining immensely popular.”


The pandemic: Since the military’s plan to gain electoral legitimacy failed, the military went to Plan B while it still had time: “They’re potentially using this global opportunity, where other leaders are focused on all of the crises around Covid-19 and economic recession, to seize whatever power they can with impunity.”


Will the protests succeed?

It’s hard to say right now since the military have not clamped down with any seriousness. While three protesters have been killed, security forces have shown remarkable restraint. The success of the movement depends on several factors.


A new generation: of protesters have taken to the streets this time—born roughly between the late 1990s and 2012. And they’ve been using an eye-catching range of memes, slogans, cartoons, and cultural symbols—including the three-fingered salute from ‘Hunger Games’. 


Their numbers are certainly impressive, as this image shows:


And they have been quick to use technology to evade the military—and get their message out to the world. The Conversation is optimistic that they will be harder to isolate and crush unlike previous generations:


“They are politically and technically literate. They inhabit a wider world than young pro-democracy activists in Myanmar have done in the past. They have access to new places and spaces of protest thanks to the technological benefits of globalisation. They are actively forging new networks of solidarity and resistance beyond their country and communities.”


But, but, but: since this generation has never experienced the full wrath of the military, they are also a little naive. When Al Jazeera asked one 18-year old if he was worried about a violent response, he laughed: “No, I’m not afraid of the police. I love them. I want them to join us.”


Leaderless or disorganized? As one activist describes it: “This movement is leaderless—people are getting on the streets in their own way and at their own will.” That sounds inspiring in theory, but experts worry that it was this disorganisation that doomed previous uprisings. A veteran of the 1988 protests writes:


“I hope the protesters today soon realize what we learned then: Public pressure alone cannot lead to a genuine political transition. Without a sound strategy for achieving concrete goals, we will always end up, sooner or later, on the receiving end of repression and under some form of military rule.”


A long-term strategy: As Deutsche Welle points out, protesters have to move beyond anger:


“...[T]he decisive factor for success this time around will be whether the protest movement is better organized and coordinated. There is no sign of the military giving in. The stamina of the demonstrators in sticking it out for a long period is therefore critical. Anger has mostly driven the call to action over the past two weeks. However, eventually, anger wears off and gives way to exhaustion.”


A pragmatic approach: Experts are unanimous that ousting the military will be impossible—and such demands are likely to exacerbate its response. Negotiation not confrontation may offer the only way forward:


“Rather than making rhetorical demands (like, ‘restore power to the people’) or demands that the military simply won’t accede to at this point (like endorsing the results from the November election), they must use the current protests as leverage to obtain, via international negotiators, that the Tatmadaw won’t disband or otherwise sideline the N.L.D.”

The bottomline: As one academic told Vox, “Transitions to democracy from a military regime are very, very difficult.” In a few months, Myanmar may well find itself back where it started—under a military boot, and isolated from the world. Or a negotiated compromise may eke out a little bit more democracy from a weakened military. The road to democracy is not a sprint but a marathon.

Reading list

Vox has the best and most detailed overview. The Conversation offers an optimistic view of the new generation of protesters, while Deutsche Welle offers a measured assessment of their prospects. Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent background report on Myanmar’s history. Lowy Institute looks at the definition of a coup. A must read: This New York Times op-ed by Min Zin who leads a think-tank in Myanmar.


Sanity Break #1

Iconic makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin’s book ‘Making Faces’ is considered a bible. Its ‘Great Looks’ chapter is also a testimony to the power of warpaint—transforming Winona Ryder into Elizabeth Taylor, Gwyneth Paltrow into Faye Dunaway… We can’t find a good photo gallery of these images but that makes this rare Twitter thread all the more precious.

Headlines that matter

Boeing grounds its planes

A United Airlines flight in the US had to turn back when one of its engines caught fire soon after takeoff. While no one was hurt, Boeing has already grounded the 69 777s equipped with Pratt & Whitney 4000 engines—this after Japan Airlines, Korean Airlines and All Nippon did the same:


“A preliminary examination by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that two fan blades in one of the United aircraft’s engines were fractured——one nearly entirely and the other about half-broken, the agency said Sunday. The remaining fan blades showed signs of damage, while the airplane also sustained minor damage, the safety board said.”


There have been two other similar incidents in the past. Wall Street Journal is behind a paywall, but The Hindu has a good explainer.


Congress collapse in Puducherry

As expected, the V Narayanasamy-led government failed to pass the floor test—thanks to the resignations of six MLAs—five from the Congress including two ministers and one from the DMK. Coming soon: Their induction into the BJP. Rinse, repeat. (The Hindu)


Varavara Rao finally gets bail

The 80-year-old Telugu poet was arrested back in 2018 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case (explained in detail here)—and recently shifted to a Mumbai hospital as his health began to fail. The Bombay High Court has finally granted him six months of medical bail:


“We are of the opinion that this is a genuine and fit case to grant relief; or else, we will be abdicating our constitutional duty and function as a protector of human rights and right to health covered under right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”


Point to note: Rao has not been found guilty of any crime. Rather, he has spent two years just waiting to go on trial. (Indian Express)


The great pandemic: A quick update

  • A second wave is coming. We added 15,000 cases in the last 24 hours—and most of them are from Maharashtra (6,971) and Kerala (4,070). Reason to worry: “In India we have had a crore of lab confirmed cases so a lot of viruses are in circulation. Larger the number of viruses, more are the chances of new variants emerging.” Mint has more details. Indian Express explains why this surge is different and difficult to explain.
  • Nobody wants Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin—which accounted for only 10% of all doses administered to date. Of the 10.6 million doses, only 10,37,565 are Covaxin.
  • A five-city study across India shows that Covid doesn’t just affect the heart or lungs—it damages every part of the body, including small intestines and the rectum.
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New Yorker dives into the mystery of why some countries and their citizens have been ravaged by the disease—leaving others relatively unscathed.
  • Karnataka now requires travellers from Kerala and Maharashtra to produce a Covid-negative report—and it is creating conflict and confusion since there is no such restriction on its other neighbours: “It will be difficult for us to check if someone from Kerala had traveled to some place in Tamil Nadu and was then headed to Karnataka. The same logic applies to those who come from Maharashtra. They can travel to Goa and then enter our state.”
  • The government is finally moving to recruit private hospitals and clinics to play a bigger role in the vaccination drive—perhaps administering 40-50% of the doses.


Supreme Court disses Trump

Ever since he launched his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to release his taxes—defying an established political tradition. Now, the Supreme Court has ordered him to turn over his financial documents to the state of New York which is investigating… well, no one knows exactly what, but it may include potential crimes like tax and insurance fraud. The ruling said: “No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.” (New York Times)


WhatsApp is a bully?

After great outrage (explained here), the company pushed back the deadline to accept its updated privacy policy. The new accept-by date is May 15. A note sent to the company’s merchant partners reveals that the price of rejecting its terms will be high:


“If they still don’t accept the terms, ‘for a short time, these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app’...

The 'short time' will span a few weeks.”


And the account will be deemed inactive and deleted after 120 days. (TechCrunch)


Big Basket is a bully? The company slapped a “cease and desist” notice on a tiny bootstrapped company in Coimbatore called Daily Basket for using the word ‘basket’. The notice says:


“...the mere mention or reference of a name containing ‘basket’ in word or logo form for any e-commerce business and related products conjure in the minds of relevant class of consumers and members of trade as that of being associated with our client.”


Undeterred, Daily Basket has gone public with a website named BBS Is A Bully—and legal experts agree that claiming a common word like ‘basket’ is definitely an “overreach.” (Economic Times)


In other Facebook-related news: Buzzfeed News has uncovered internal documents that shows Facebook has a US version of Ankhi Das—the India public policy chief who intervened to protect rightwing politicians. The memos show that the American avatar Joel Kaplan “has exerted outsize influence while obstructing content moderation decisions, stymieing product rollouts, and intervening on behalf of popular conservative figures who have violated Facebook’s rules.” So not just India then. 


A brewing BJP scandal?

BJP MP Jayant Sinha is also the chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Finance—a role that comes with lots of clout as it oversees a number of key ministries. But Indian Express has unearthed a letter where he offers his services to an entertainment company for lakhs of rupees per month: “I will dedicate significant time to this project… My goal is to assist Tiger Media in becoming a true champion in the global entertainment industry.” He also offers to help the company secure “sufficient financing at the right terms.” 


When asked about the letter, Sinha said: 


“Members of Parliament routinely continue their professions. My profession is that of a management consultant providing strategic inputs through speeches and advisory assignments.”


As in, being a member of Parliament is just a side hustle? In any case, Indian Express has more details on yet another example of neta-giri.


More Perseverance goodies

NASA has released the first audio clips from Mars, and this video of its rover’s landing:


Two very odd things

One: Rival chaat sellers got into a fight over customers in Uttar Pradesh and it turned into this astonishingly violent brawl. The really astonishing part: No one was hurt.


Two: The Reserve Bank of India has recruited Punjabi singer-rapper Viruss for its public awareness campaign on cyber crime. Lo and behold!


Hidden message from Munch

There is a hidden message in Edvard Munch's famous painting ‘The Scream’—scrawled and barely visible in the top left-hand corner. It says: “Can only have been painted by a madman.” Until now, it was considered to be the work of vandals, but now experts say it was written by the great man himself—upset by critics who questioned his mental health when the painting was unveiled. (CNN)


Hello yellow penguin

A wildlife photographer has spotted what may be the first-ever yellow and white penguin—with zero black markings. He was discovered in a colony of 120,000 king penguins on an island in the South Atlantic. This is likely a “leucistic” penguin, whose cells no longer create melanin, so its black feathers become a yellow and creamy colour. Why this matters: It represents a whole new class of feather pigment. Also it looks like this:

Sanity Break #2

Bombay Begums’ has all the right ingredients: Director Alankrita Shrivastava best known for the excellent ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’; Shahana Goswami from ‘A Suitable Boy’; Amruta Subhash of ‘Choked’ fame; and, of course, Pooja Bhatt. An all-female lead cast directed by a woman. We’re stoked (and have our fingers crossed)!

Smart & Curious

A list of intriguing things

One: Splainer founding member Pooja Pillai sent us this link that lets you draw an iceberg and see how it floats. We absolutely cannot get enough of it. We pass on this perfect time-pass to you.


Two a): We stumbled upon two blood-red waterfalls recently. This one pours out of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica—all thanks to an ancient community of microbes that are the definition of “primordial ooze.” 


Two b): This is a natural Firefall—one of the amazing spectacles offered by Yosemite Park. And it occurs only in February when the setting sun hits this waterfall at just the right angle. 


Three: Your history textbooks must surely have informed you that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I. But did they tell you that he liked to dress up like an Egyptian mummy? We found it as part of this truly awesome list of ‘7 Photographic Tricks, Hoaxes, and Fads Before Photoshop’.


Feel good place

One: Totally staged, totally awesome!


Two: Er, this is a ‘cripfit class. The good news: it’s a parody!


Three: This is a flock of geese… captured by a drone.


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