Dan Merino: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.
Gemma Ware: Each week we bring you expert analysis on the world’s biggest stories.
Dan: And groundbreaking new research, explained by the academics behind it.
Gemma: This week, we’re talking to two experts about Myanmar, where tens of thousands of people have been protesting after the military seized power on February 1.
DB Subedi: They know the difference, how it feels to live under under a democratically elected government with political freedom.
Dan: And we hear from a researcher in the US who has been testing wild animals for COVID-19.
Kaitlin Sawatzki: Because this is a pandemic, every animal is at risk.
Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London
Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco and you’re listening to The Conversation Weekly.
Dan: So it’s been a dramatic couple of weeks in Myanmar – what’s been happening?
Gemma: Well it all started early in the morning on February 1, when the military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the country’s de facto leader, and they also arrested President Win Myint.
Dan: So how have the people in Myanmar reacted to this?
Gemma: Well initially, it seemed they were waiting to see what would happen next. Some people did start to change their social media profiles to black with red portraits of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Red that’s the colour of her party, the National League for Democracy.
Dan: Ok, so we’ve got online protests … what are the new military rulers doing about that?
Gemma: They shut down Facebook, which is one of the biggest communication channels in the country … and at times they’ve also just down the internet completely. But people started banging pots and pans out of their apartment windows in the evenings, and going and honking their car horns.
Dan: And what was the symbolism of this?
Gemma: Well, they were trying to ward off demons and evils.
Gemma: Yeah, basically the military. And there were also boycotts and acts of civil disobedience by different professional groups, including some health workers.
Then last weekend, people started taking to the streets to protest against the coup in cities all across Myanmar, including the biggest city Yangon and the capital, Naypyitaw.
Dan: So what have the police and the military done in response to these protests?
Gemma: Well, in the capital, protesters were sprayed with water cannons by police, and then also with rubber bullets in some cases.
After one of the most violent days of protests so far on February 9, there were reports of some serious injuries including one woman who was shot in the back of the head.
There’s now a ban on large gatherings and a nighttime curfew in place, but people have kept coming onto the streets.
So I’ve spoken to two academics who research Myanmar to help understand us the events that led up to the coup, and the way people there have reacted to it.
DB Subedi: People do not want to return to the dark time under the military rule.
Gemm: This is DB Subedi
DB: I’m a post-doctoral research fellow in the school of humanities, arts and social sciences at the University of New England in Australia.
Gemma: Myanmar has experienced military coups before, but DB says this time the country is a very different place.
DB: The Myanmar in 1962 was totally different. The Myanmar in 1988, when the second military coup happened was also very different than what it is today.
Gemma: Myanmar has gone through huge changes in the past decade since nearly 50 years of military rule came to an end.
DB: Mynmar has been rapidly changing since the military nominally transferred the power to military-backed civilian government in 2011. And then the National League for Democracy, which is the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi, came into power in 2015.
Gemma: Since 2011, the country has operated under a form of parliamentary democracy, although the military has always retained a firm grip on power. Until her arrest on February 1, Aung San Suu Kyi was the de facto leader of the government. And Win Myint, a close ally of Suu Kyi’s, and like her, a former political prisoner, served as president.
One major difference between Myanmar today and life under the former military junta is how much easier it is for people to communicate.
DB: During the military regime, for example, someone would pay around US$1,000 to buy just one SIM card. But today around 90% of the people out of 54 million population have access to a phone with internet connectivity and 50% of the population uses Facebook as a source of online information and news.
Gemma: It’s been a significant transformation.
DB: And as a result of that, Myanmar also has been more connected with the outer world, the world outside Myanmar, because during the military regime, it used to be a pariah state, totally disconnected from the rest of the world.
Gemma: The rise of the internet in particular has brought with it a new form of political openness.
DB: That means they are no longer living under the military regime and they know the difference, how it feels to live under under a democratically elected government with political freedom. And as a result of that, I have also noticed in my research that the people in Myanmar have greater desire for political freedom. The desire for change is very much there and that is very significant to look at this particular moment when the military has seized the power.
Gemma: To understand a bit more about the events which led up to the coup, I spoke to Adam Simpson, a senior lecturer in international studies at the University of South Australia and an expert on Myanmar and Thailand. He says the trigger for what’s happened was the November 2020 elections.
Adam Simpson: This was the second election that the NLD, the National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, contested in recent history. The first one was 2015. On both occasions they won a landslide. They won over 80% of the contested seats in the union parliament.
Gemma: The USDP, the party backed by the military, won just 7% of the seats in November – even fewer than they had in 2015.
Adam: So they immediately started arguing that there was massive fraud and arguing for the election to be re-run.
Gemma: The electoral commission has rejected these claims. Both local election observers and those international ones who were able to be present, due to COVID-19 restrictions, also said the poll was an accurate representation of the people’s will.
Adam says that initially the military didn’t really follow-up on these fraud allegations from the USDP.
Adam: About a week after the election, the military spokesperson said that the military wasn’t part of these USDP claims and that Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, on the day of the election had basically said that this was the will of the people being reflected in those results.
Gemma: But that didn’t last long and tensions began mounting in January.
Adam: So February 1 was when, is the crucial date, and that was when the new parliament was due to sit and be sworn in. At about five o’clock local time the military and police started, well they arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint as well as other key leaders in the NLD.
Gemma: With the president under arrest, the vice president, Myint Swe, became acting president, and then promptly declared a state of emergency for 12 months, passing all powers to General Min Aung Hlaing. The military promised to hold a new set of elections, a promise the general reiterated a week after the coup when the general made his first televised address amid the rising protests. Adam says there are a few different theories about why the military seized power.
Adam: One theory is that Min Aung Hlaing is due to retire at 65, and he turns 65 in July. So he’s been commander in chief of the armed forces since 2011. He’s been very clear about his political ambitions in the past.
Gemma: His smoothest path into politics would be the USDP, a party of ex generals. But as it only managed to win 7% of the seats in November, that path looked less and less likely to make him president. And it had been clear for a long time that it was the NLD that was establishing itself as the party of power in Myanmar, with the support of a large majority.
Adam: Maybe in the days after the election Min Aung Hlaing was considering his options, and over the next few months they saw the claims of electoral fraud in the US be quite successful in terms of mobilising the population and undermining an election.
Gemma: Yet, Adam says that it’s difficult to see what the military will gain from seizing power in this way.
Adam: The military’s had such a cosy situation ever since the new constitution and the transition to a sort of semi-democracy.
Gemma: As Myanmar’s society opened up after 2011, the military took advantage.
Adam: They have two large conglomerates. One’s called Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the other one is Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). These conglomerates are owned by the military and controlled by the military and bring in vast revenues.
They own ports. They’ve got precious metals mines, jades, ruby, sapphire mines, banking, real estate, tourism. All these profits and these economic benefits have been just piling in over the years while Aung San Suu Kyi, to a large extent, has been taking the flak for human rights abuses.
Gemma: In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international condemnation for defending the military against charges of genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in 2017. Those pogroms caused an estimated 750,000 people to flee the country, and the majority still live in overcrowded refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.
The coup has already put some of the army’s revenue-making activities in jeopardy. A few days after the takeover, Kirin, the Japanese beer manufacturer, pulled out of two joint ventures with MEHL, one of those two army-owned conglomerates.
Adam: The point is it just puts at risk their very cosy relationship and that’s why many people, myself included, see the political ambitions of Min Aung Hlaing as being probably the deciding factor in this.
Adam: So what might the military’s next steps be? A few days after their arrests, Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint were charged with a series of seemingly petty offences.
Adam: Suu Kyi was charged with violating section six of the import-export law after the police military went to her Naypyitaw home, Naypyitaw’s the capital, and it turned up six unregistered walkie-talkies that were being used by her security team. Of course she was arrested before they found the evidence. So clearly they arrested her and then did a search of her house and thought, “What can we charge her with?”
Gemma: For his part, Win Myint was charged with violating COVID-19 restrictions, during election campaigning back in September 2020.
Adam: And as far as can be determined he, at that time, he emerged from his presidential residence to wave at a passing NLD convoy. So both those charges carry a potential prison term of three years and certainly means if they’re in prison or under home detention that they won’t be able to compete in the next election, whenever it is held. And if they are in that situation the NLD will have to expel them if it wants to compete in those elections.
Gemma: But Adam says that another part of the constitution states that the president is immune from prosecution if he or she is carrying out duties related to their office.
Adam: So what this means is if Win Myint actually asserts that he was undertaking his presidential duties when he came out to greet the NLD convoy last September, which is highly likely, then he can argue that he is immune from prosecution. And I imagine that’s exactly what his legal team will be arguing.
Gemma: The scale of the popular resistance to the takeover represents a real challenge to the military. Here’s DB Subedi again.
DB: So Myanmar has a history of non-violence protests and resistance against the military regime in the past. But the kind of non-cooperation and civil disobedience that we have seen this time is really sort of a new phenomenon.
Gemma: Under past periods of military dictatorship in Myanmar, when the society was largely closed off to the outside world, the military used a number of tools to maintain its grip on society.
DB: Political violence, imprisonment, torture and some kind of coercive control of the society used to be their major strategy for political and social control in Myanmar.
Gemma: But with the opening up of society, the military will have to find other routes.
DB: One is controlling the digital space, controlling social media, controlling internet. Myanmar already has surveillance apparatus available. They have technology, they have people in place, for example the president’s office funds social media monitors.
Gemma: Another strategy will be to use some of Myanamar’s draconian laws.
DB: So there are laws that the military will actually rely on and apply those laws to selectively identify people and process them under these existing laws.
Gemma: But the situation is still very fluid.
DB: I also assume that given the nature of the military, which is extremely powerful, which has culture of violence and which has actually also built the culture of creating fear and ruling through the fear, their strategies can actually change in future depending on how the protests and movements will evolve over the time.
Gemma: I’ve spoken to Adam Simpson a few times over the past week, as protests against the coup continued to grow. He said he’s been struck by the bravery of those taking to the streets.
Adam: There’s even been civil servant groups in Myanmar who have protested and gone on strike as well as medics and various other groups and it really is a testament to the strength of feeling that this is happening because civil servants protesting in Naypyitaw, the capital, which is quite isolated, is actually a very courageous thing to do when the military is telling you to go back to work.
Gemma: On Tuesday February 9, as more reports emerged of police firing water cannon at protesters and even shooting in the air to disperse the crowds, I asked him what he thought the military’s options were now.
Adam: So the military has a few options in relation to their response. None of them are probably attractive to them at the moment. They can wait until their patience wears thin, then undertake a violent crackdown, which they’ve done plenty of times in the past. And as in the past, it would probably result in many lives lost. However, there’d be a significant international price to pay for this, not only isolation and condemnation from the west and democratic countries, but also I think China would be very unhappy with this. I don’t think they’re happy with the coup as it stands but if there was a violent suppression of protests, then I think even China would be firm in their condemnation.
Gemma: Adam says another option would be for the military to return to a form of power-sharing with Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic minority parties. But this won’t be easy.
Adam: It would be very difficult to go back to the situation as we had before. And that would cause a huge loss of face of Min Aung Hlaing. There are already rumours of divisions within the military, and I think if he backed down in any significant way that would probably be the end of his position.
Gemma: And he says that at this stage, if the protests continue, there really aren’t any good options for the military.
Adam: But I think they really need to understand and recognise that the protests and the protesters they’re dealing with now are very different to the protests and the protesters that they have dealt with in the past, in 1988 and 2007 when there were both very violent crackdowns,
Any crackdown will be documented, just as the protests right now are being documented in quite a lot of detail. And many of these protesters are young, the 20 somethings are some of the most vocal and visible members of the protests. So these people have spent their teens and their twenties with political and economic freedoms that basically no one in Myanmar has ever experienced. So these people are very unlikely to give up without a fight.
We’ve seen time and time again, that the military’s demonstrated how detached it is from the rest of society. And, it’s possible that on this occasion they may have badly misjudged, the anger and the collective fury felt by the people, at the moment, over their hard-earned votes being annulled by the military.
Gemma: Myanmar’s coup comes at a delicate moment for Asian politics. In recent years protesters in countries such as Thailand and Hong Kong have been demanding greater freedoms, justice and stronger democracies. But there’s a broader pattern going on, DB Subedi says, that worries him of governments becoming more illiberal.
DB: There are the rise of nationalist governments, authoritarian governments and populist governments. We can see in south and south-east Asia, countries are now adopting this idea of more development and less political freedom, less democracy. Myanmar is probably going to follow the same path if this coup will continue. And it also becomes a one more country in the region where the future of democracy is uncertain.
Daniel: This sounds like it’s a very fast-moving situation still, Gemma?
Gemma: Absolutely. We’re recording this on Tuesday, but protests are showing no signs of stopping. And it’s a really very dangerous situation.
You can read pieces by Adam Simpson from the University of South Australia and DB Subedi at New England University in Australia on The Conversation. We’ll keep following what’s going on Myanmar in the coming weeks.
Dan: Now we are going to switch over to this weeks second story, and we are going to explore an angle of the coronavirus pandemic that hasn’t gotten too much buzz in the news. So Gemma, I’ve got a question for you. Have you been on a walk in the last year and seen a dead bird or something and thought, “Could that be COVID?”
Gemma: I mean I tend to give most dead animals a pretty wide berth but I guess I’ve seen a few dead rats. I guess I didn’t think it could have been COVID. Should I have?
Dan: Maybe I’m just a little paranoid, but I’ve been kind of wondering that and its actually an important scientific and public health question too.
Gemma: I did hear, come to think of it, that there were some tigers that got COVID in a zoo, perhaps near you, Dan, right? And also some in a mink farm in Europe?
Dan: Yes, there have been some infections in animals. And the coronavirus is mostly a human disease, but it will happily jump to any host it can. And research has shown that a bunch of different mammals are actually susceptible.
Gemma: Susceptible, but are they actually getting COVID?
Dan: That’s what I’ve been wondering and it turns out I’m not alone. To learn if COVID is getting in loose into the wild, and what risks it might pose for both animals and humans, I spoke with Dr Kaitlin Sawatzki.
Kaitlin: I’m a post-doc at the Runstadler Lab at Tufts University, at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Dan: She’s actually running a project that is looking for SARS-CoV-2 in wild animals across the US.
Kaitlin: I have actually a dream job where I get to go out into the field and meet cool animals and pet everybody’s pets. Because what we’re doing is we look for viruses in all of these different critters. So, you know, from your dog at home to a wild seal out on Cape Cod.
Dan: How did you end up working on this?
Kaitlin: In general, I’m interested in what’s happening genetically that allows a virus to move between species and that’s genetically in the virus, but also genetically in those different animals. So when this pandemic started, my day was primarily at a computer. I was doing a lot of genetic research saying, you know, what do we already know? What can we predict?
A little bit later on in the pandemic I was doing more field work. I was sending out kits. I was getting samples from animals. Doing this active surveillance. And now we’re in the lab, we’re testing these hypotheses that we were able to generate from that surveillance work.
Dan: So you started off with genetics, right?
Dan: And you were asking what animals could be susceptible to the coronavirus?
Kaitlin: There’s two types of this type of coronavirus, generally infects mammals. So we don’t think that non-mammalian species like birds or amphibians or insects are going to be susceptible at all. So that’s good. But you know, we did these analyses on lots of different mammals.
Some of them started to pop up. Again, this is just the prediction, this isn’t what we were actually seeing, but things like rabbits seem to be susceptible. Cattle were something I really wanted to keep my eye on. And I was especially worried about that for like food security. You know, if it turned out that cattle were super susceptible, what would that mean for our meat industry?
Dan: Why are some animals more susceptible than others?
Kaitlin: For a virus to infect an animal, it has to overcome a lot of barriers. So like, it has to be able to recognise that animal in the first place. People may have heard about ACE-2, that is probably the primary protein that this virus will bind to so that it can actually enter into that cell and cause infection. So the closer ACE-2 is between animals, the more likely it is to be able to transmit between them. So for instance, we know that humans are really susceptible to COVID, obviously. The closest ancestor to humans is going to be a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees are probably at pretty high risk for COVID infection.
But there’s other genes too, that’s that’s just one of them. There’s a myriad of genes and they all interact with each other. It’s a really complex story. And we’re just at the beginning of teasing this out.
Dan: And then I assume step two was to go and test these predictions, go actually look for this stuff in wild animals. So where are you looking? Are you looking at wild animals, captive animals, pets like cats and dogs and stuff?
Kaitlin: Because this is a pandemic, there is uncontrolled spread. And so that means that basically every animal is at risk. So we have a bunch of study arms. We’re looking at domestic pets and people’s houses. We developed this really cool swab and send kits. So we would send a package to people’s homes who thought they might have COVID and they can swab their own cats and dogs for instance, and send them back to us. We can test them securely in the lab.
We’re working with veterinarians, of course. They see lots and lots of animals all the time. But also we’re looking at different places where humans and animals have a strong interface.
So places like zoos where we have seen these transmission events and also in wildlife, which has all of its own concerns and risks. So for wildlife, we’re really focusing on rehabilitation facilities where you have that incredibly strong human animal interface where you wouldn’t normally have it.
Dan: So specifically, what wild animals are you looking at?
Kaitlin: Primarily right now, we have been looking at bats. This is something that I really started to think about when I learned that a lot of states in the US were just stopping all bat rehabilitation. For instance, if somebody finds a hurt bat, normally you can bring it to a wildlife rehab center and they were just saying, absolutely not, you have to leave it there.
Dan: Any other animals you’ve tested?
Kaitlin: Oh, yeah. You name it. Coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, lots and lots of mammals. It’s been a wild ride, literally.
Dan: OK, OK, hold on. How does this work? It’s hard enough to get people to let you stick a swab up into their noses. How in the world do you do that with a coyote?
Kaitlin: That is a great question and truly sometimes the bane of my existence. So a lot of animals will you to get a pretty good oral swab. Nasal is a little bit tougher. Fortunately, mostly this is being done by veterinarians or licensed rehab professionals, so they can get a pretty solid swab there.
Occasionally if an animal’s already being anaesthetised or sedated for something else, we can get those swabs then with really, really nice deep ones. And then the more rare scenario, but we have done, is getting animals that are very large and very awake and you just, you just go for it.
Dan: So you’re testing all these animals, assuming that they can get sick with a human virus. Animals aren’t wearing PPE, but they aren’t exactly breaking social distancing guidelines either. How common is that? Do we see human viruses jumping back into wild animals a lot?
Kaitlin: So we’ve actually seen this pretty regularly in chimpanzees in Uganda, Tanzania, and also Côte d’Ivoire. But particularly in these national parks, we’ve seen chimpanzees that acquire human respiratory viruses. This is not just one virus, this is multiple human viruses. And they get it, they get really sick, and in some cases they die.
It’s really weird because these are viruses that really cause almost, you know, very mild disease, you know, sneezes, sniffles, colds in humans.
Dan: Do you know how viruses jump back from people into animals?
Kaitlin: It’s not just happened in the past it’s ongoing, it’s happening today. It happens all the time. In fact, for some of these populations, it’s one of the major ways that they die. The question of how it’s happening though, that’s not really clear. I mean, they’re human viruses. They come from humans, but there’s lots of ways for viruses to travel. There could be aerosol transmission or maybe something on a fomite, that’s a contaminated surface that maybe a chimpanzee could be touching, eating, touching their face. Like you said, chimps, aren’t going to be using a lot of PPE out in the wild.
Dan: The big million dollar question here then, Kate, have you found any wild animals infected with the coronavirus in the US?
Kaitlin: I am incredibly happy to report that we have not. We have screened coming up on about 300 wild animals so far, and there is no sign of any COVID infection in them.
Dan: But there was that one wild mink found in Utah that was infected with the coronavirus – and you guys wouldn’t be looking if this wasn’t a possibility. So. What happens when a virus spills back over from people into animals?
Kaitlin: Well, I think we’re seeing an example of that in real time right now. Nature is the biggest laboratory in the world, as it turns out. We’ve seen now lots of independent transmission events from humans into mink at these mink farms. And there were a few farms in Denmark that acquired a cluster of mutations that were of a lot of concern to people because they were in this part of the virus that might affect how the vaccine works.
Dan: Definitely bad for animals, potentially bad for the vaccine effort too. But what about other more long-term potential health impacts? Are there any other risks from this back and forth?
Kaitlin: There is a potential that if this virus gets into an animal, particularly into like a wildlife species, it could become a novel reservoir.
So a reservoir is an animal that has a virus or a pathogen, and can spread it among others of that same species. And it can just contain that virus in the population, but that also poses a risk that then in the future, maybe when humans think that we’ve gotten rid of COVID, that it could spill over again into humans from this new reservoir.
So this is actually an active area of research for other scientists right now, where we’re seeing an increased rate in these novel viruses. So these emerging and re-emerging viruses that are coming from wildlife into humans, and this is clearly linked to climate change and encroachment into new environments of humans into wild environments.
Dan: If more of this is going to be happening and it’s obviously a bad thing. Are you and your colleagues working at all to figure out how to stop the coronavirus from jumping to animals or spreading in those wild populations? Or do we like not even have enough information to start worrying about that?
Kaitlin: I think, just like we know how to stop human spread, we know how to stop spread from humans to animals. It’s the same system, you know, using PPE, isolating when you’re sick, just being cautious. It’s our responsibility to protect these species right now. We’re the only ones who can.
Dan: Anything else we can do about this?
Kaitlin: It’s a big problem, right? Part of this is climate change. So being a better world citizen. We could do better at pandemic preparation. So looking at a wildlife, like with the PREDICT project, where they were doing a major surveillance effort around the world, so that we can look at these viruses and know what’s coming ahead of time.
Dan: Kate, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time and thanks for being willing to talk about your work with me today.
Kaitlin: Thank you.
Dan: If you want to read more about Kate’s research, you can find a link in the show notes to an article she wrote with her colleague Jonathan Rundstadler about their ongoing research
Gemma: Alright, so to end off this week’s episode, we’ve got a few recommendations sent in via voicemail from our colleague Catesby Holmes, based in New York. There’s one big story on the minds of our US politics team this week: impeachment.
Catesby Holmes: Hi, I’m Catesby Holmes, reporting from New York City. The big news here in the United States this week is impeachment. Specifically the unprecedented second impeachment of former President Donald Trump on the charge of incitement of insurrection. Trump’s trial got underway in the Senate on Feburary 9 and is expected to last at least five days.
The Conversation asked Kurt Braddock, Assistant Professor of Public Communication at American University to investigate the prosecution’s case against Trump, which hinges on the idea that words can move people to violence. In a February 5 article, he wrote that there is a scientifically valid case for incitement. His article cites decades of research on social influence, persuasion and psychology and it runs through the laundry list of inflammatory Trump claims that may have driven his supporters to attack the US capitol on January 6.
We also have a curious history story explaining what could happen if Trump is acquitted. Gerard Magliocca, a professor of law at Indiana University writes that there may be another way to hold Trump accountable for the attack. It’s section 3 of the 14th amendment, what Magliocca calls an “obscure part” of the US Constitution. His article explains how a Civil War-era provision meant to bar insurrectionist Confederate officials from ever holding public office again, could be dusted off and used against Trump. We originally published this story in late January when Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives but we’ve just re-posted it on The Conversation’s website for the Senate trial. Thanks for listening and for reading.
Gemma: So that’s it for this episode of The Conversation Weekly. Thank you to all the academics we’ve spoken to in this episode.
Dan: And a special thanks to The Conversation editors Justin Bergman and Catesby Holmes. You can find links to all the expert analysis we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode in the show notes. Or head to TheConversation.com, where you can sign up to get a free daily email by clicking “Get newsletter” at the top of the homepage.
Gemma: This episode is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. Final thanks go to Alice Mason, Stephen Khan, Imriel Morgan and Zoe Jazz.
Dan: And one final thing … if you like this podcast, please tell your friends about us and go please give us a review on Apple Podcasts – it really does help!
Gemma: Thanks for listening. Til next week.
This article was originally published on The Conversation Weekly podcast Ep #2 transcript: Myanmar’s collective fury