How the Olympics contributed to Suga’s downfall

Author: Ben Ascione, Waseda University Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games under the one-year postponement plan inherited from the Abe administration revolved around his need to face a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in September and a lower-house election by October. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, proceeding with the […] The post How the Olympics contributed to Suga’s downfall first appeared on East Asia Forum.

How the Olympics contributed to Suga’s downfall

Author: Ben Ascione, Waseda University

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games under the one-year postponement plan inherited from the Abe administration revolved around his need to face a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in September and a lower-house election by October. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, proceeding with the Games was intended to protect Suga, who lacks a factional base in the LDP, from the threat of internal challengers.

The critical question was what level of infection control and vaccinations were needed to safely hold the Games without stretching Tokyo’s medical system? And what sort of measures would prevent spill over infections from the ‘Olympic bubble’? When pressed for details the Suga government insisted that Japan would hold a ‘safe and secure’ Games, evaded establishing definitive criteria for success and moved the goal posts when new information came to light.

The head of the Tokyo Medical Association, Haruo Ozaki, suggested in May that Tokyo needed to bring daily cases below 100 to safely hold the Games — advice that was ignored. A simulation presented at a Tokyo Olympic Organising Committee expert roundtable in June predicted that infections in Tokyo would increase to about 1000 per day in late August if the Games went ahead, compared with 800 a day if they were postponed or cancelled. A Tokyo Metropolitan Government monitoring meeting in July estimated that daily infections would reach 2400 by 11 August. These two scenarios were thought to be acceptable.

On vaccinations, Japan was too slow to reach anywhere near herd immunity before the Games. It was the slowest among the G7 to procure vaccines while its rollout ranked 33 out of 38 OECD countries when the Games opened on 23 July.

Medical experts questioned the integrity of the Olympic bubble in the lead up to the Olympics. With about 80 per cent of athletes, media and International Olympic Committee officials vaccinated and 30,000 COVID-19 tests conducted per day during the Games, the bubble was reasonably successful in limiting infections to the hundreds and preventing clusters.

But problems managing volunteers and local contractors, who commuted in and out of the bubble on public transport, were never resolved. Despite strict regulations, many volunteers didn’t undergo COVID-19 testing. The Japanese government made vaccination available to volunteers from 30 June — not leaving enough time for most of them to get a second dose. Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa was criticised for her ‘unscientific’ comments when she claimed that one dose would give volunteers ‘primary immunity’.

In the leadup to the Games, Tokyo had already entered its fifth wave. A fourth state of emergency was declared and spectators were banned. The record for daily infections in Tokyo more than doubled to a new high of over 5000 during the Games. Nationally, daily infections surged from a pre-Games fourth wave high of 7900 in April, to over 20,000 the week after the Games.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Tokyo awaiting guidance on hospital admission spiked from less than 2500 at the opening of the Games to over 13,000 as the Games closed. With medical facilities around Japan pushed to the limit, the government announced that only patients at high risk of developing ‘severe symptoms’ would be eligible for hospitalisation.

One reason for the surge of infections surrounding the Olympics was the spread of the Delta variant. Sample screenings of positive COVID-19 cases in Tokyo show that Delta accounted for less than 5 per cent of cases at the start of June, over 20 per cent at the start of July, over 60 per cent in late July and almost 90 per cent the week the Games closed in early August.

The Suga government and Tokyo 2020 organisers painted the rise in infections as unrelated to the Games, emphasising that cases in the bubble were ‘within expectations’. The government also argued that Olympic TV ratings were encouraging people to stay at home and decrease foot traffic. Yet contact tracing of cases between the bubble and the public is so politically sensitive that transparency was problematic. The government was found to have withheld information about an Olympic accredited official testing positive in Japan’s first case of the Lambda variant.

While the Delta variant, delays in the vaccine rollout and public fatigue with repeated states of emergency contributed to Tokyo’s surge in cases, the Olympics added fuel to the fire. Japan’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy relies on the public following voluntary government requests. Holding the Olympics, coupled with requests for people to stay at home under the state of emergency, resulted in confused public messaging and a diminished sense of urgency as people held Olympic viewing parties and crowded outside venues.

Despite the deterioration in its COVID-19 situation, Tokyo avoided a worst-case scenario of a global super-spreader event and a ‘Tokyo Olympic variant’ of the virus. Yet post-Olympics polling showed that almost 60 per cent of the public cited the Olympics as a contributing factor worsening Japan’s fifth wave of infections and two-thirds wanted Suga to resign by the end of his term in September.

Although Japan celebrated a record Olympic medal haul, Suga’s bet to bask in Olympic gold didn’t pan out. Whatever marginal political boost there was from the Olympics was dwarfed by public concern over the distraction of the government from its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Ben Ascione is Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University.

A version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Confronting crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No 3.

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More Than Seven Dozen Reporters Arrested Since Myanmar Coup

Observers say that more detentions are expected as the junta faces growing resistance to its rule.

More Than Seven Dozen Reporters Arrested Since Myanmar Coup

Authorities in Myanmar have arrested over seven dozen journalists since the junta seized control of the country more than seven months ago, and the number is rising as political tensions reach a new high with the shadow National Unity Government’s (NUG) declaration of war on the regime last week.

As of Tuesday, the military had arrested 87 journalists since its Feb. 1 coup d’état and had only released 14 as part of a June 30 general amnesty that saw 200 detainees freed from detention across the country.

Since the coup, security forces have killed 1,089 civilians and arrested at least 6,477, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

The junta says it had to unseat Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government because the party engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.

Last week, the NUG declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias and ethnic armed groups.

The declaration came weeks after the NUG announced plans for a “D-Day” operation to purge the country of the junta through a popular uprising supported by the PDF militias, formed to protect the public from the military.

Throughout its rule, the military has repeatedly vowed to clamp down on the media, including on July 12, when Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun accused journalists of “tricking the public.”

“These media outlets are a danger to the people and traitors to the State, as they are broadcasting fake news and incorrect opinions,” he said at the time.

Zaw Min Tun called the independent media “only less treacherous than the groups they are working with,” suggesting they were aligned with the NUG and were working to “destroy the State and the economy,” but providing no proof of his allegations.

In the two months since, authorities have continued to target journalists for their work, with at least two believed taken into custody in the past two weeks alone.

Over the weekend, family members of former RFA Myanmar Service reporter Thuzar said she went missing on Sept. 1 and was likely detained.

The freelancer had been in hiding since police raided her Yangon home in March after she reported on anti-coup protests and the difficulties facing government employees that take part in a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) opposing the junta.

“She knows her family members would be worried sick if she didn’t contact them,” her husband Ye Ko told RFA, saying he is convinced that Thuzar was arrested and had already contacted a lawyer to represent her.

“We know the authorities have been arresting journalists, but journalists will cover the news, no matter who the government is.”

Days after Thuzar went missing, authorities arrested Hmu Ein Zaw, a former journalist and current humanitarian worker, together with his wife, sources said.

Meanwhile, authorities have filed an additional charge under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act against veteran journalists Sithu Aung Myint and Htet Htet Khine. The pair were already facing charges for “committing an offense against the State” under Section 505(A) of the Penal Code following their arrest on Aug. 16.

No letup in arrests

Veteran journalist Myint Kyaw told RFA that the release of journalists in the June 30 amnesty should not be taken to mean that the junta has stopped targeting the media.

“Many people assumed that journalists were no longer being arrested after the release, but by early August they were being detained again,” he said.

“This shows that the authorities have not relaxed their policies concerning journalists. In fact, I think they are targeting journalists even more to discourage coverage of the situation in the country. Reporters need to be even more cautious these days.”

Myint Kyaw noted that there had been an internet blackout in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State after the NUG declared war on the junta last week and suggested that such a tactic could be “extended to other regions” as well.

Court attorney Khin Maung Myint, who has been helping arrested journalists, told RFA that a recent addendum to the Counter-terrorism Law which designates groups like the PDF, NUG and Parliament’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives (CRPH) as terrorist organizations has led to the detention of even more reporters.

“The new additions in the law enable the authorities to punish anyone who is involved with groups designated as terrorist organizations, so when journalists interview members of the NUG, CRPH and PDF, they are accused of supporting or propagating for these organizations,” he said.

“They are simply targeting journalists for providing news to the people.”

Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index and singled out junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as among the world’s 37 worst leaders in terms of media crackdowns. The country has fallen in position every year since it was ranked 131st in 2017.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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