I thank the Chairman, Deputy Flanagan. I thank all the members for their questions and, in particular, for their interest and concern. Let me start with Deputy Brady's questions. I would 100% reiterate and underline the way in which the Deputy depicted the sinister nature of the atmosphere in Myanmar right now. The actions of the military have been appalling in the extreme. I mentioned just some of them. There are all sorts of allegations against the military in how it has been treating its own citizens during this period. It is the indiscriminate nature of the violence that is really adding to the sinister nature of society in Myanmar right now.
On the question of information, the Deputy makes an important point. I do not think all the information is getting out. Communications systems have been limited. The Internet is not available during the night. Access to the Internet is patchy and completely non-existent in some parts of the Myanmar. In this situation, information is absolutely critical to the opposition, in particular. It is critical to allow it to organise and to protest, and to facilitate the coming together of protesters. It is also critical to allow the protesters and the opposition movements to communicate with the rest of the world and to give a true sense of what precisely is happening on the ground in Myanmar. The international community is not quite getting a full picture at the moment because of the ways in which the military has been limiting communications systems.
I refer back to one of the points I made in my recommendations for ways in which the committee and the Oireachtas could engage with the tech community and tech companies. I am aware there are moves among many in Myanmar and among those who are following the situation to connect with Elon Musk's Starlink project. This is important because the Starlink project tests low-orbit satellite Internet provision in different parts of the world. What is critical about this facility is that it offers access to an open web and allows the user to bypass a state's Internet controls. There is enormous optimism about the way in which these technological developments have the potential to disrupt authoritarian regimes such as the military coup we are seeing in Myanmar right now. It means that one can effectively cut off the extent to which a regime can control and dominate information, because a state simply cannot regulate this particular service. It also means that Internet access can be offered in the most remote areas of the planet, and parts of Myanmar fit that category. China and Russia are opposed to this form of technology, but many countries across the West are enthusiastic about the way it can help to assist with democratisation processes, and the provision of information freely and fairly around the world.
The Rohingya crisis has been a particularly appalling aspect of what has been happening in Myanmar in recent years. The Rohingya community is concentrated mainly in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Since the beginning of the military coup there appears to be some latent empathy emerging for the Rohingya community more broadly across society in Myanmar, across the ethnic groups and across the main Burmese ethnic population, which accounts for some two thirds of the population. It has been interesting to watch this. Given all they have experienced since 1 February, the ordinary citizen in Myanmar seems to be developing a degree of empathy for the way in which the Rohingya were treated by the Myanmar since 2017.
On the other ethnic groups, reference was made to the Karen National Liberation Army, KNLA, which has a very long history of fighting for self-determination against the military. Many of the ethnic groups, not just the KNLA, are seeing an opportunity during this period of instability for them to proceed with their attacks against the military and to push even further for some of their political and constitutional goals. We are also seeing some young people, especially in and around urban areas, now choosing to align somewhat with some of these ethnic groups, and choosing to contribute to the military effort to defeat the military coup itself.
Again, it has been quite interesting in the period since the coup began on 1 February 2021, to see some degree of unity among disparate groups in Myanmar that had previously been opposed to each other. They are now, effectively, all united against a single force, which is the military coup. There is some capacity for the international community and for national institutions such as the Houses of the Oireachtas, to assist the ethnic groups, to assist the civil disobedience movement, to offer them some degree of capacity building and to help them to stabilise the partnerships that are emerging between these groups in their attempts to defeat the military coup.
We are seeing the beginnings of a refugee crisis, which Deputy Brady also mentioned. With regard to those countries that border Myanmar that are seeing an influx of refugees at the moment, the Oireachtas and governments around the world might encourage those states to consider granting asylum to people who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Covid-19 is a very serious issue in Myanmar right now. The Covid-19 crisis had caused enormous disruption up to this point but now there is the near collapse of the health system and the complete absence of testing since 1 February.
That protests groups have been gathering in such large numbers makes it likely that the Covid-19 crisis will deteriorate even further. The fear is that as the refugees move across borders, we will see an intensification of that problem and a degree of hostility between refugees and populations in those countries. There is an enormous amount to be aware of here and it is very hard to know precisely the extent to which Covid-19 is problematic simply because of a lack of information and any process of testing right now.
I thank Senator Joe O'Reilly for his comments and his kind words about the two reports with which I was involved. I feel particularly saddened reading those reports again and reflecting on those brief periods I spent in Myanmar. It was clear the democratisation was proceeding and there were certainly challenges and difficulties. On the whole there was an atmosphere of enthusiasm and optimism. There was a clear preference for a future based on democratic principles. That was absolutely self-evident, despite the challenges and difficulties. It is an enormous tragedy to see the way in which there has been a rolling back of all that progress over a period of ten years or so.
With regard to the geopolitical position, there was mention of China. This is a complex matter in itself. As the committee is aware, China blocked the UN Security Council condemnation of the coup but has, nevertheless, backed calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to democratic norms in Myanmar. China has a policy of non-intervention in cases like this. It is fair to suggest China has not lent decisive support to the military in Myanmar. China's key and overriding interest is to maintain stability in Myanmar. To a certain extent, maintaining stability, whether in the context of military or civilian rule, is the priority.
Relations between the National League for Democracy and China were relatively harmonious in the period before the coup and there has traditionally been some wariness of China in the national capital, Nay Pyi Taw, about the role China may have in Myanmar as it proceeds through the democratisation process. China is very important to Myanmar in that it is its biggest trading partner and it is also one of the largest sources of inward investment. Approximately 1 million tourists from China visit Myanmar every year. China, therefore, has an important role to play. Myanmar is also important to China in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. There are more than 30 bilateral agreements between China and Myanmar, including everything from the development of railway systems to deep sea port projects. This is important to Beijing because it provides an alternative route for energy imports. Aside from this there continues to be a degree of wariness in Myanmar about Chinese intentions. They fear this may be costly for Myanmar and they also fear that some of these facilities may be put to military use in future.
China's interest in stability is sort of based on its economic interests in Myanmar, or it is at least linked to them. I tentatively suggest that China would see a civilian government in Myanmar as offering a greater prospect for stability than a military-led Myanmar. It is not simply a case of China supporting Myanmar without there being any restrictions or nuance in that respect. It is a complex relationship and China's approach to this has not been decisively supportive of the military. It is important to note that.
With regard to the perspective of the United States and the West more generally, the condemnation of the coup has been wholesale and quite vociferous. I mention the UK in this context as well as it has been quite outspoken. There are some difficulties for the US, the West and Britain. Recognising the legitimacy of the National Unity Government is challenging because that government is completely disparate now; some of the members are in exile but most are hiding and they are not necessarily in contact with each other. They do not have any access to the resources of the state. There are difficulties.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, has been playing a very delicate role in trying to navigate this terrain. It invited the leader of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, to the ASEAN summit last Saturday but it did not invite representatives from the National Unity Government. There is some dismay in Myanmar that ASEAN appears to be prioritising the military coup in that context. However, it is more nuanced, challenging and sensitive than that. ASEAN is trying to create a scenario and conditions whereby it can draw the military into longer-term negotiations aimed at addressing the situation and moving back to the democratisation process as it has been experienced. There are enormous challenges and major sensitivities and none is simplistic. All of them pose problems or difficulties for those trying to navigate the area.
Ireland has by all means been speaking out on this very well. Its position on the UN Security Council means it has some capacity to engage other members on a bilateral basis, particularly other countries in the region, including Vietnam, for example. Norway is also on the UN Security Council now and it has been quite outspoken. It has an embassy in Myanmar. There is capacity for all that to be developed and I have no doubt Ireland's contribution to the UN Security Council is ongoing.
Humanitarian aid to Myanmar is something promised by the ASEAN summit. We must be very careful about who would distribute this aid and how it would filter into Myanmar. It is fair to say that if the military was given access to that aid and asked to distribute it, the civil disobedience movement would refuse to accept that humanitarian aid. That speaks to the resilience and resoluteness of the civil disobedience movement, so care must be taken on how aid is distributed in Myanmar and who is given responsibility for that.
I thank Deputy Stanton for his questions. He mentioned the international arms embargo and the access to weaponry or defence resources that the military in Myanmar has. It has very substantial reserves of power in that context. In particular, it has very strong defence links with Russia, with defence contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The committee is aware that Russia is another member of the UN Security Council that did not support a statement condemning the coup earlier this year. Russia supplies arms and equipment to Myanmar. It sees the coup as a domestic matter and it also has a policy of non-intervention in these cases. Russia is an important player in facilitating what is happening in Myanmar.
The only different point I could make is that an international arms embargo also has an impact on the ethnic groups and the emergence of what has been called an embryonic federal army that aims to take on the military in Myanmar. An arms embargo would also affect those groups and there must be an awareness of that.
Deputy Stanton also asked about Covid-19 and I repeat the points I have made. The healthcare system in Myanmar is close to collapse. There is no testing capacity and there has been mass mobilisation of people but we do not have adequate information or data on the extent of Covid-19's spread. We can only assume it is spreading.
That causes all sorts of problems within Myanmar, where there is no functioning healthcare system to deal with the fallout and, in addition, the movement of refugees across borders creates its own difficulties in the wider region.
In terms of destabilisation in the area and the broader geopolitical concerns, the committee will be aware that Myanmar borders not just China but also India, Thailand, Laos and other countries in the region. There are concerns about conflicts on the borders, particularly if the ethnic groups, many of which are confined to border areas, step up their aggression against the military. There are fears that conflict would spill over into other countries. There are also concerns about the way in which a substantial humanitarian and refugee crisis may put pressures on neighbouring states. There are already hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees located in Bangladesh and adding to those numbers in any way, shape or form has the potential to destabilise the area.
There are important points to be made about the economic situation in Myanmar, as Deputy Stanton mentioned. Oil and gas are two important resources in Myanmar and this speaks to one of the recommendations I made in the discussion paper I submitted to the committee. There are companies such as the US company Chevron with substantial sway and considerable interests in Myanmar. For decades, Chevron has been working there through a subsidiary called Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. This is a State-owned company that is now controlled by the military junta and probably represents the largest source of funding for the military at the moment. That company runs a massive gas pipeline that has also been linked, in the past, to alleged human rights abuses. Myanmar's army has been accused of permitting those abuses, including rape and murder, while providing security for the pipeline.
Chevron and the French company, Total, transport natural gas from the Andaman Sea to Yangon, Myanmar's most populated city, and to Thailand. These two companies have substantial stakes in these particular projects. They have paid hundreds of millions of US dollars in recent years to this State-owned company, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which is now, effectively, run by the military. There have been international calls for these companies not to pay the many taxes and production rights they owe to this particular State-owned company and to instead put those taxes and production rights into escrow accounts to safeguard those resources until such time as there is a return to democratic rule in Myanmar. There is a strong sense among many in Myanmar that stopping the oil and gas money is a vital way of assisting the democratic struggle there.
I will say a few words about the fashion industry. There has been rapid growth in the garment sector in Myanmar, concentrated particularly around Yangon. Major brands and retailers use the facilities around the city and source materials from Myanmar, including Adidas, H&M, Zara, Primark, which has some interest, Samsonite and Benetton. We have seen a big increase in exports to the European Union since approximately 2011, when the economy began to liberalise and the democratic system began to take shape. Many of those companies have severed their links with Myanmar in the aftermath of the coup. There are, obviously, fears about disruption but there are also fears about reputational damage. The issue is that this has left many in Myanmar without jobs and income. It also critically threatens to undermine the advances in worker conditions which had come on the back of these companies taking an interest in Myanmar. The industry has, of course, also been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the ground in Myanmar, the civil disobedience movement has been very critical of the fashion industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people, for the way in which companies have been so tepid in their condemnation of the coup. The military has also targeted the garment district because many of the workers there live in hostels and dormitories that are relatively easily targeted. Workers want the fashion industry to make it clear that the suspension of their business in Myanmar is until such time as a democratic government is restored. They want the fashion companies to speak up and to defend their interests because many of these workers have been fired for attending protests. Many have been locked into their factories to prevent them attending protests. Limiting the ability of the military in this context and speaking out against the military would be a considerable moral boost for the protestors in Myanmar. The garment sector predominantly employs women in Myanmar. They are a cohort of society that has traditionally encountered a higher degree of discrimination relative to their male colleagues and counterparts.
I hope I have addressed the bulk of the Deputy's questions.