Analysis & Comment

Your Wednesday Briefing

Rohingya genocide, Belarus, AstraZeneca trials: Here’s what you need to know.

By Natasha Frost

Good morning.

We’re covering the first testimony from soldiers involved in the mass killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the attempted expulsion of a Belarusian opposition leader and the sudden pause of a global coronavirus vaccine trial.

‘Kill all you see, whether children or adults’

Two soldiers from Myanmar have publicly confessed to taking part in the executions and mass burials of civilians in 2017, in what United Nations officials say was a genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. One of the men, Pvt. Myo Win Tun, said he was ordered by a commanding officer: “Shoot all you see and all you hear.”

The soldiers’ video testimony, recorded by a rebel militia, is the first time that members of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, have admitted to such crimes, which also included rape and the destruction of entire villages. The soldiers have been taken to The Hague, where the International Criminal Court is investigating the Tatmadaw’s actions against the Rohingya.

Our reporters say that details in the soldiers’ testimonies align with satellite photos and accounts from witnesses and survivors, many of whom are now in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Myanmar has repeatedly denied any orchestrated campaign against the Rohingya.

Step back: “There can be, after hearing 100 stories about a village being burned to the ground, a kind of sameness to the stories that detracts from the horror,” said Hannah Beech, The Times’s Southeast Asia bureau chief. “To now have the accounts of the people who did it, who were ordered to do it, I think it will make some people in the camps feel some kind of closure or justice.”

A foiled plan to expel a Belarus opposition leader

Maria Kolesnikova, the prominent opposition leader in Belarus who vanished on Monday in what her supporters said was a kidnapping, reappeared overnight at her country’s southern border with Ukraine. There, after passing through a checkpoint, she destroyed her passport, ripping it into pieces to make it impossible for Ukraine to admit her.

Ukraine’s deputy minister for internal affairs, Anton Gerashchenko, confirmed that the authorities in Belarus had planned a “forced expulsion” of Ms. Kolesnikova, but said the plans were not completed “because this brave woman took action to prevent her movement across the border.” He added that she “remained on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.”

Her supporters have denounced the apparent abduction as the work of government security forces. They called it a sign that the authorities had shifted their strategy in response to nearly a month of protests over a disputed election on Aug 9.

Official account: In an interview with Russian journalists, President Aleksandr Lukashenko said that Ms. Kolesnikova had tried to flee Belarus illegally in a car with two fellow activists, but had been thrown out of the vehicle on the way to Ukraine. He said Belarusian border officers then arrested her.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine trial is put on hold

The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca halted global trials of its coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday because of a serious and unexpected adverse reaction in a participant, the company said. The participant was enrolled in a Phase 2/3 trial based in Britain, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Whether the illness is directly linked to AstraZeneca’s vaccine remains unclear.

The trial’s halt will allow the British-Swedish company to conduct a safety review. In a statement, AstraZeneca described the pause as a “routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials.”

The company’s vaccine is in Phase 2/3 trials in England and India, and in Phase 3 trials in Brazil, South Africa and more than 60 sites in the United States. The company intended for its U.S. enrollment to reach 30,000.

Here are the latest updates and maps.

In other virus developments:

The head of Britain’s testing program has apologized for a backlog in which people said they were directed hundreds of miles from their homes to be swabbed. And the country has banned gatherings of more than six people, effective Monday.

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, said the country’s success in suppressing its outbreak was a vindication of Communist Party rule.

Japan approved a plan to spend more than $6 billion from its emergency budget reserves on coronavirus vaccines.

The director of the Tour de France tested positive for the virus.

Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate said they would vote to advance a scaled-back coronavirus stimulus plan, expected to reinstate federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week, half the previous level.

If you have 8 minutes, this is worth it

Chess (yes, really) is now a streaming obsession

Since the start of the pandemic, life for Hikaru Nakamura, above, a 32-year-old chess grandmaster, has taken a drastic turn. He is still playing (as exceptionally as ever, of course) — but to an audience of tens of thousands of fans, who watch him stream live on Twitch, the Amazon-owned site where people more often broadcast themselves playing video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty.

Watching livestreams of chess games? Could one of the world’s oldest, most cerebral games really rebrand itself as a lively enough pastime to capture the interest of the masses on Twitch? Turns out, it already has.

Here’s what else is happening

China’s media crackdown: Two Australian journalists fled China after a five-day diplomatic standoff that began when Chinese state security officers paid them unannounced visits, prompting fears that they would be detained.

Brexit: Negotiations fell into disarray again on Tuesday, as the British government’s top lawyer resigned over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to override a landmark agreement with the European Union. One of Mr. Johnson’s own ministers said that would violate international law.

“Mulan”: Disney’s live-action remake of its animated film, about a Chinese folk heroine who disguises herself as a man to join the army, is facing a fresh wave of criticism for filming in Xinjiang, the far western region of China where up to a million Uighur Muslims have been detained in internment camps.

Snapshot: Above, the Village Vanguard, a New York City jazz club where legends like John Coltrane have played. The concert world as a whole is in crisis, but perhaps no genre is as vulnerable as jazz, which depends on a fragile ecosystem of performance venues.

Lives lived: Gerald Shur, the architect of the federal witness protection program, who realized that witnesses would be more likely to testify against organized crime figures if they didn’t fear assassination, died last month at 86.

What we’re reading: This gripping New Yorker article about how a writer and her mother became pawns for Chinese propaganda. The author, Jiayang Fan, describes it as “the most difficult piece I have ever written.”

Now, a break from the news

Cook: An easy recipe for pan-roasted salmon with jalapeño allows wild-caught fish, especially, to shine.

Read: Eugenia Cheng’s new book, “X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender,” introduces math to the gender debate.

Redecorate: With limited restaurant and travel options, some people are sprucing up their homes. Call it an “amplified nesting response.”

Staying safe at home doesn’t have to be dull. At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch, and do.

And now for the Back Story on …

A crucial step for the Rohingya

Our reporters described the accounts of two soldiers who confessed to atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Melina Delkic, from the Asia briefing team, spoke to Hannah Beech, our Southeast Asia bureau chief, about what this means.

Why did these two soldiers confess?

They deserted from the Myanmar military earlier this year. They said they deserted because they were upset that the Tatmadaw persecutes ethnic minorities. Both of them are ethnic minorities in a country well known for persecuting not just the Rohingya, but also many, many other ethnic groups.

What does this testimony mean for Myanmar moving forward?

I think it’s important not only to highlight what they did, but I think it’s also really important for the Rohingya themselves, who are living in horrible conditions in Bangladesh. They are living in this fiction that they will someday soon return and be repatriated to Myanmar — that’s not going to happen.

And to see that some of the perpetrators are actually confessing is really important, not just from a legal perspective but also from a human perspective.

The government has repeatedly denied that genocide was taking place in the country, even with evidence to the contrary. Why?

It fits into a narrative of global Islamophobia. Back when we all celebrated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was fighting for democracy, we sort of assumed that if she and people connected to her were to come to power, that it wouldn’t be easy but they would promote human rights for all people living in the country. It quickly became clear that that was not the case.

That’s it for today’s briefing. See you this time tomorrow.

— Natasha

Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at

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