Tuesday. 2/2/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Getty Images

Opinion / Gwen Robinson

Tipping point

Myanmar’s colourful trajectory from pariah state to (semi) functional democracy turned dark again yesterday. The country woke to the news that Aung San Suu Kyi, its de facto leader, and key figures from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party had been detained by the military following pre-dawn raids. The coup came just hours before the national parliament was due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide win in the country’s November election and triggered panic-buying in supermarkets and long queues at ATMs as banks remained closed.

Investors, who have streamed into Myanmar since it opened up to the world in 2011, appear stunned. Many are questioning whether the country is returning to an era of harsh and secretive military rule. Yesterday the military, known as the Tatmadaw, said that it was imposing a state of emergency for a year but few believe its promise that it will hold “free and fair” elections when that period is over – and even fewer accept the Tatmadaw’s allegations of election fraud in November’s poll.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who came to power in 2015, is wildly popular and her call for people to protest against the coup, posted on social media yesterday, has set the stage for an inevitable showdown. The Burmese, having lived through two of Asia’s bloodiest military takeovers since the early 1960s, are in no mood to surrender their newfound freedoms. That much was already clear when I stood in a Yangon street amid elated crowds cheering the NLD’s landslide first election victory in 2015. A wealthy Burmese businessman standing beside me reached over to glad-hand a street-food vendor, yelling, “This is the moment we have waited for; no one will ever take this away from us.”

Gwen Robinson is editor-at-large of Nikkei Asia, senior fellow at the Institute of Security & International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and Monocle’s Bangkok correspondent. Read her report on Myanmar in issue 130 and hear more of her thoughts on today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

Image: Getty Images

Politics / France

Winter blues

Discontent with the authorities boiled over this weekend as tens of thousands took to the streets in French cities to protest against coronavirus lockdowns and a lack of support for cultural institutions, as well as against a security bill that critics say will make it harder to hold police accountable for abusive and discriminatory practices. France yesterday hoped to turn the tide by launching a public consultation to devise ways of improving the nation’s confidence in its police force. Recent incidents, including the brutal clearing of a Parisian migrant camp, have reinforced the public image of the police as excessively violent. Last week a class-action lawsuit was filed by a group of six human-rights organisations, including affidavits from police officers themselves, over French forces’ practice of ethnic profiling. Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, tells The Monocle Minute that the time for consultation has passed. “The focus should be on making sure that the police can’t get away with breaking the law, rather than pretending to ‘consult’ on what those problems might be,” he says.

Image: Getty Images

Business / Japan

Tracks of the trade

Passenger numbers on Japan’s Shinkansen rail system have dropped sharply over the past year as more people work from home and fewer travel up and down the country. To stem the exodus, East Japan Railway is trialling an idea to turn carriages on its Tohoku Shinkansen into mobile offices. Passengers who wish to work on the journey between Tokyo and northerly Aomori can sit in allocated cars and will be able to talk on phones (frowned upon in regular carriages), hold online meetings and move freely around the space (another no-no).

Masks are obligatory and wipes are provided. JR East is looking into telecommunications and other requisite equipment during the trial, which runs until 26 February. As timetables are cut and workers are put on leave, Japan’s hardworking train companies are continuing to think creatively.

Image: Alamy

Transport / USA

Work in progress

According to the state’s cycle lobby, Virginia could soon be home to the safest roads in the US for bike riders. This follows the passing of the Bicycle Safety Act through the Senate’s transportation committee last week. The proposed bill, which still has to go through several legislative steps before approval, will require vehicles to fully change lanes when passing bikes and allow cyclists to ride side-by-side within lanes. Although such a move should be lauded for encouraging greater respect and protections for cyclists, it still fails to guarantee their physical safety. To do this, legislative changes need to go hand-in-hand with better infrastructure, especially in terms of protected or off-street bike lanes, which are more common in Europe. Until more of these are rolled out, Virginia’s claim to have the safest roads in the US will be scant consolation for those who regularly commute by bike.

Image: Novac Solutions

Hospitality / Zürich

Staying power

It wasn’t so long ago that the lights went out at Zürich’s 31-storey Swissôtel, which closed in November due to a lack of business during the pandemic. But in the past few days, Zürichers have been surprised to find the lights back on as a big “Go” was illuminated on the building’s façade. It’s all thanks to a young start-up, Novac-Solutions, which is transforming the otherwise empty hotel into what is probably Switzerland’s biggest apartment-share. Starting this month, 250 of the 350 rooms in the new Nôtel are being made available for rent, while the remainder will still serve as a layover option for tourists and businesspeople. It’s a temporary measure before the space is fully renovated in 2022 when, according to owner Credit Suisse, the refurbished building will include a hotel over the first 12 floors and apartments above. Still, the Nôtel concept is a smart option for keeping empty hotels afloat right now.

M24 / The Menu

Alice Waters, Richie Hawtin and Solla Eiríksdóttir

Continuing with highlights from the past nine years of The Menu, we meet Alice Waters (pictured), who has changed the way Americans eat, DJ Richie Hawtin, who launched his own saké brand, and Solla Eiríksdóttir, who popularised raw food in Iceland.

Monocle Films / Georgia

Tbilisi’s architectural revival

Rather than erase all evidence of Georgia’s Soviet past, the country’s architectural community is keen to preserve its history and give its once-foreboding buildings another – happier – lease of life.

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