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Our pandemic brains need constant entertainment. With Trump exiled to Florida to yell at clouds, we were starting to worry we’d be forced to sit with our own thoughts 😱.
Instead, diamond hands on r/wallstreetbets short-squeezed Melvin Capital via Robinhood to chase tendies and destroy capitalism. Pretty simple stuff.
And yet, the GameStop saga was somehow more entertaining and less destructive than Trump’s tweets.
🔪 Coup in Myanmar - back to how it was as the military seizes power
⛷ Davos 2021 - the key themes and quotes from everyone’s favourite party
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🔪 Myanmar: the military coup we should’ve seen coming?
After barely surviving the news cycle of January 2021, we awoke on 1 February to see Myanmar in the throes of yet another military coup.
Overnight, the military had arrested the country’s top civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), the country’s de facto head and former global pro-democracy icon. It also imposed a year-long state of emergency and seized power under the guise of national solidarity.
There’s really nothing funny about this piece of news. It was the last thing the fledgling democracy needed while grappling with deep religious and ethnic divisions, economic troubles, and Covid-19.
But that said, you’ve really got to appreciate this zumba instructor, whose upbeat dance video inadvertently filmed the military’s armoured vehicles rolling in behind her. Absolutely surreal, and a seriously 2021 vibe.
How did we get here?
The spark for this coup was Myanmar’s November 2020 elections – an event you likely missed while watching the elections of that other shaky democracy across the pond.
Even though ASSK’s increasingly popular NLD party won 83% of the votes, the military-backed opposition party (USDP) refused to recognise the election outcome. Instead, it alleged widespread voter fraud, demanded recounts, and pressured the courts to overturn results. Talks to resolve the deadlock proved futile.
For those in the ‘overthrowing elected governments’ business, there’s a standard operating procedure for coups:
Make sure you shutdown television, internet, phone, and banking systems, and close transport hubs.
Make sure you arrest the powerful officials you wish to overthrow.
You might even storm the presidential palace.
Then promise to restore normality after a period of emergency rule in the hope that people will just get used to military rule.
And apart from number 3, the Myanmar military followed the playbook to the letter - fresh elections have been promised after one year of ‘national emergency’.
Read this great backgrounder on the coup and its mastermind, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar’s history of military dictatorships
This military coup was not Myanmar’s first rodeo. After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the country endured two cycles of military dictatorships (1962-1988 and 1988-2011), and changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in the process:
Myanmar slowly began opening up to the world from 2011. An uneasy truce saw an elected civilian government run the country day to day, but the military got to keep significant powers under the constitution. They called this a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. Nobody knows what that means but it sounds provocative, it gets the people going.
Myanmar’s scored some wins over the past decade. It has held successful elections, enacted democratic reforms, and shared power between pro-democracy and military-backed political parties.
The country has received sanctions relief from the West, welcoming outside investment and economic growth. But most seriously, it has been in the international spotlight for its persecution of its Rohingya Muslims, regarded by most as an act of genocide.
The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.
- Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian.
Myanmar’s coup shows us how delicate democracy really is, and it doesn’t bode well for the wider region:
Democracy is declining in Southeast Asia. Even with flaws, Myanmar had been one of the most democratic countries left in the region. With neighbours Cambodia and the Philippines framing the issue as an ‘internal problem’, there won’t be much regional pressure on Myanmar’s military to play nice.
The coup has been reported by Chinese state media as a ‘major cabinet reshuffle’. Myanmar has become a vital player in China's Belt and Road Initiative in recent years. China will prioritise its economic interests in the country and won’t press the military regime to return power to the NLD.
Analysts were blindsided by this coup for two reasons: status quo bias, and the assumption that the military is a rational actor and would not stage a coup. After all, the military already held veto power and controlled key ministries and security agencies. But in our experience, analysts in less understood countries rely on the local intellectual elite for information, which doesn’t always paint a full picture of that country’s real situation.
With all that said, this is still a dynamic situation and will likely evolve considerably in the coming days. We’d be fools to predict how.
⛷ Davos ’21: key themes and quotes
What is the Davos Summit?
It's the yearly meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an NGO that brings political and business leaders together to set goals for improving the state of the world.
But you might know it as a cabal of global elite meeting high in the Swiss alps.
This year the meeting was virtual of course, and renamed 'The Davos Agenda', doing nothing to convince critics it isn’t actually a casting call for Bond villains. Bad publicity is better than no publicity?
The theme this year was 'The Great Reset' - yet not one speech asked whether the world had collectively tried turning itself off, waiting ten seconds, and then turning itself back on. That lack of creativity in foreign affairs is precisely what International Intrigue is trying to fix.
Anyway, we trawled through hours of Davos speeches to pull out key quotes and themes, so you don't have to.
1. 💉 Covid-19 and the economic recovery
Covid-19 has brought new urgency to long-standing issues and it predictably dominated the speeches. Israeli PM Netanyahu warned that the pandemic isn't close to over yet:
It's just a question of time before we hit a strain that the current vaccines won't work on.
Covid-19 has hit the global economy unequally - the rich have got richer and everyone else poorer. In response, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced his government was discussing:
[A] profit-sharing system in which the government provides strong incentives to companies that have prospered during the Covid-19 pandemic to share their profits with their hardest hit peers.
We can't imagine that being widely ideological popular, but it's an interesting one-off idea.
South African President Ramaphosa raised 'vaccine nationalism':
We are deeply concerned about the problem of ‘vaccine nationalism’, which, unless addressed, will endanger the recovery of all countries.
We explored that issue late last year and the failure of international institutions to effectively coordinate in poorer regions remains a problem.
2. 🌏 Multilateralism in decline
Xi Jinping, apparently no fan of click bait or subtle metaphors, told us everything we need to know about China's position, right in the title of his speech:
Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light up Humanity's Way Forward
Vladimir Putin, playing the bad cop ( a role you might suspect he insists upon), was all doom and gloom:
[R]egional conflicts are multiplying, the global security system is degrading […] There is a risk of collapse of global development, and a risk of a fight of all against all.
Draaamaaa. But in truth, most political speeches this year doubted the ability of governments to work together in the near future.
The private sector speeches are where it got interesting. Take Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff:
It was the CEOs in many, many cases all over the world who were the heroes. Business has replaced governments and non-governmental organizations as the most trusted institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That's a 🌶 take. Do corporations see the aftermath of Covid-19 as a unique chance to expand the private sector's role in society? Based on some other notable speeches…
3. 👔 Stakeholder capitalism
Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio called for government and corporate supra-nationalism to fundamentally reorient economies and societies:
[W]hat’s needed is something like a bipartisan ‘Manhattan Project' to reconfigure capitalism for a post-pandemic world.
Paypal CEO Dan Schulman even suggested that companies might need to step in where governments and politics are failing:
In light of recent political, societal and social unrest, how can we expect somebody to embrace democracy when they don’t think that the system is working well for them?
So: governments are failing their people, CEOs saved the world, and our future relies on benevolent corporations. Anyone have any issues with that?
4. 💻 Regulating Big Tech
However, European Central Bank President Christine Largarde had an interesting view:
Many advanced economies have leapfrogged by about seven years in terms of digitalisation... technological changes are affecting the world for the better. [Post pandemic we will have] a new economy.
Might Big Tech + Covid-19 have been the disruptive step-change required to build more productive and inclusive economies in the long term? The silver lining of the pandemic is that without it, the scale of necessary disruption would have been politically impossible.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was keen to point out that post pandemic, governments must make sure Big Tech works for all of society:
There is an extraordinarily important role to be played by regulation and independent or non-profit institutions. I don’t think companies alone can do this right.
Perhaps a little humble pie might keep the antitrust regulators at bay.
5. Other key themes
Net-Zero: Bill Gates, Al Gore, COP 26 President Alok Sharma, and others reinforced the need to blend climate goals into business decisions. US Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry triumphantly announced the US was back in the Paris Agreement.
US-China relationship: Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong called for a US-China reset noting that China wasn't going to collapse like the Soviet Union did (‘borrowing’ a line from former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans’ open letter to President Biden a fortnight ago). European leaders echoed those comments and hoped they could work with both the US and China.
There's something offensive about presidents and billionaires lecturing on globalism, inequality, and climate change. We're right to wonder whether the solutions these folks suggest are only designed to make them richer and more powerful. Experts even suggest the WEF itself is a thinly-veiled challenge to democratic values.
And yes, the Davos Summit is comically flawed:
In 2020, delegates were more likely to run into someone from North America than a woman.
Next year, CEOs will be back to flying on private jets and lecturing the poor about CO2 emissions.
But perhaps we can both absorb the Davos set’s analyses of the world’s problems, and refuse to just blindly accept their suggested solutions.
The urgent message of Davos 2021 was that global cooperation is faltering, with potentially catastrophic results for us all. It's a message worth listening to, whether we like the messengers or not.
➕ Extra intrigue
Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo died from Covid-19. Known for his role in the 2017 quasi-coup, Moyo is the third Zimbabwean minister to die from the virus.
Ecuador has secured US$3.5b in funding from the US Government to “refinance predatory Chinese debt”. Expect more of this behind the scenes ‘debt diplomacy’.
Archaeologists in Egypt found a mummy with a golden tongue, apparently so the deceased could speak with Osiris. Lil’ Wayne was on the right track after all.
The UK is trying to join a new trade deal (the ‘CPTPP’ - again with the shocking branding). Friend of International Intrigue and trade expert Dmitry Grozoubinski explains everything you need to know 👇
🔎 Intriguing recommendations
👩🦱 Helen: We’re all in need of uplifting little reads, so here's a delightful story of a paper airplane collector. Between 1961 and 1983 he collected hundreds of airplanes from the streets of New York. Sometimes little things bring so much joy.
👴 John: Shanghai is a remarkable city. Check out this 195 million gigapixel photo of the city I called home for three years. I’m just trying not to think what that technology is used for, or of how many 3 am photos of me drunkenly eating dumplings in my living room half naked there could be.
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