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EFSAS Commentary

A reminder of the continuing plight of coup-struck Myanmar and the toothlessness of the international response


Many among those who had been overtaken by disbelief, outrage, and concern when images and expansive reporting on the sudden and violently disruptive military coup in Myanmar in February this year had filled the television sets in their lounges and bedrooms may, ten months down the line, have been lulled by the remarkable absence of international attention to Myanmar’s troubles into assuming that things must be back to normal, or at least a solution must be close. The international media has been as bereft of coverage of the unfolding and escalating humanitarian crisis in Myanmar as world leaders have been ambivalent about it. As undesirable as such a state of affairs may be, it is not surprising that it has been allowed to come to pass given how apathetic and toothless the international response to other severe crises has been, whether in Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Belarus, or a host of other nations. In such circumstances, as a mark of respect to the well over one thousands brave citizens of Myanmar who have given their lives in the fight for their voice and their freedoms against an oppressive military, and a salutation to those who continue to endure great hardships and persecution in striving for democracy and human rights, this commentary is a small gesture by EFSAS to gently remind all those who matter, all those who can actually make a difference, and, indeed, all those who are still interested, that Myanmar continues to burn. The degree of solidarity and support that the people of Myanmar deserve has, sadly, not been forthcoming even as the Generals continue to be on the rampage.

At a juncture when Myanmar is spiraling down a severe post-coup economic crisis, and while anti-Junta protests and insurgencies are raging across the country, farcical media reports inspired by the Junta have preferred to highlight that Myanmar has rolled out plans to resume international tourism in the country early next year. An effort to convey a false and misleading sense of calm and normalcy through such reporting is palpable, and it is made more so by the Chinese Xinhua news agency quoting the Public Relations and Information Department of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism of Myanmar as saying, “We are making necessary consultation with government agencies and private associations to systematically receive international visitors when airports and borders reopen”. Xinhua added that Minister of Information Maung Maung Ohn had confirmed that “we intend to resume international air travel in the first quarter of 2022”.

While the Junta, which has been generously approving ambitious Chinese infrastructure projects that had not received the go-ahead from the pre-coup National League for Democracy (NLD) government, can rely on Chinese news agencies to propagate an optimistic outlook on its behalf, very few Western watchers of the region, barring notable exceptions such as long-time regional expert Bertil Lintner, have expended much ink on the economic woes that the Junta has brought upon Myanmar. As per the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor, between October 2020 and September 2021 the economy contracted by a whopping 18%. The World Bank predicted that compared to 2019 levels, the number of Myanmar nationals living in poverty is likely to more than double by the beginning of 2022. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has similarly predicted that political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic would plunge almost half of Myanmar’s 54 million people into poverty by next year, reversing gains made over the past 16 years. Unemployment has already breached the unprecedented 50% mark, and Myanmar’s currency, the Kyat, has lost more than 60% of its value since the coup.

Equally disturbing is the reality that it has largely been left to local publications to highlight the atrocities that the military Junta has been subjecting civilians and members of the resistance movement to. As an example, The Irrawaddy news website, which was founded by Myanmarese refugees in Thailand, reported on 30 November that more than 30,000 residents from about 15 villages in Tabayin township of Sagaing region had been forced to flee their homes due to airstrikes by the Myanmar military, locally called the Tatmadaw, on civilian targets. The Tatmadaw used five helicopters to carry out the attack on the township, and a resident was quoted as saying that “The helicopters opened fire on everyone they could see”. Two civilians were reportedly killed and three others wounded in the airstrikes, after the conclusion of which more than 100 military troops flown in by helicopters occupied the township for two days. The troops left thereafter, but they destroyed houses and set fire to motorbikes and other property before doing so. A villager claimed that this was the eighth such Tatmadaw raid on the township. Even events of such magnitude, which bear an eerie similarity to what the Rohingyas had endured a few years ago, was seemingly not worthy of print space in major international publications.

Another local organization, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent non-profit rights group that was also founded by former Burmese political prisoners living in exile, shed further light on the scale of the atrocities by the Junta. It informed that since the coup, 1,297 people had been killed by the military forces during raids, crackdowns, arrests, interrogations and arbitrary killings. In addition, another 10,536 people, including elected government leaders, have been arbitrarily detained by the Junta. The excesses by the Junta have come at a time when the security situation within Myanmar has turned into a major headache for it.

Opponents of the forcible military takeover and the total disregard for the democratic process that the coup embodied have displayed unnerving verve, commitment and tenacity way beyond what the Generals would have anticipated when they grabbed power. After the earlier nonviolent Civil Disobedient Movement (CDM) was brutally crushed by security forces, the National Unity Government (NUG) with representatives of the NLD and other groups opposed to the Junta, as well as of various ethnic groups, was set up in April. The stated aim of the NUG is to compete with the military junta for international recognition, with the ultimate aim of restoring democracy, excising the military from Myanmar’s politics, and building a “federal democratic union”. The NUG has also formed of a ‘shadow government’, which in May announced the setting up of a “People’s Defense Force (PDF)” to protect its supporters from attacks and consolidate opposition to the military Junta. Khin Ma Ma Myo, the NUG’s deputy Minister of Defense, told Radio Free Asia that “Today, May 5, we formed the People’s Defense Force. Preparations for this army were made a long time ago. A lot of time has gone into training”. A NUG statement described the PDF as a precursor to a Federal Union Army which would seek to come together with Myanmar’s armed ethnic insurgent groups to fight the Tatmadaw. Notably, as many as 3000 members of the military and police defected and joined the PDF. The NUG ‘shadow government’ officially declared a ‘People’s Defensive War’ against the Junta on 8 September.  In a string of attacks against the military, which included bomb attacks on the Military Procurement Department and a Military Intelligence Office, reports estimate that hundreds of soldiers have already been killed so far. To counter this serious threat, the Tatmadaw has intensified Operation Anawrahta, a military campaign of unprecedented scale that has been characterized by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and mass displacement.

While this update on the prevailing situation in Myanmar does put into perspective the incongruous ludicrousness of the Xinhua reports that suggested that tourists would swarm Myanmar later this winter, another aspect that has received neither the attention nor the outrage that it deserved was the arbitrary detention of the 76-year-old former State Counsellor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and her farcical trial on inconsequential and apparently trumped-up charges. More than 50 elected leaders and top officials who served under the ousted NLD government also face lengthy terms of imprisonment for an array of charges, ranging from alleged violation of COVID-19 rules to inciting public unrest, that have been brought against them since the coup.

Suu Kyi, admittedly, had fallen from grace in many eyes after her shocking defence of the military’s crimes against the Rohingyas. EFSAS, like most others, had taken a dim view of her 2019 statement in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The subsequent harsh actions of the Junta, however, suggest that criticism of Suu Kyi ought, maybe, to have been a tad tempered at that time as the sort of pressures that could well have been exerted upon her by the Junta were not public knowledge. That said, whatever Suu Kyi’s real views on the genocide against the Rohingyas may be, it cannot detract from the fact that she is the choice of the people of Myanmar to lead them, and is as worthy of her human rights and dignity as anybody else is. The absence of a bigger hue and cry over her incarceration and ill-treatment is reflective of how loosely invested the international community is to the crisis in Myanmar.

It is not as though democracies and regional groupings have not exerted any pressure at all on the Junta to reform itself. At the 76th UN General Assembly earlier this year, instead of accepting the Junta’s nominee the United Nations (UN) Credentials Committee retained the NLD-appointee, Kyaw Moe Tun, as Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN. The regional grouping that has the most direct influence on Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in an unprecedented move kept Myanmar out of a summit of leaders of the grouping and even issued a statement asking the Junta to adhere strictly to an agreement it had reached with the ASEAN. The statement asserted that “While respecting the (ASEAN) principle of non-interference, we reaffirmed our adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government as well as the need to strike an appropriate balance to the application of ASEAN principles on the situation in Myanmar”. The NUG, meanwhile, has been allowed to establish representative offices in the US, the United Kingdom (UK), France, the Czech Republic, Australia, and South Korea. In a significant development, the French Senate on 6 October unanimously voted to recognize the NUG. If the lower house of the French parliament approves the vote, France will be the first country to formally recognize Myanmar’s ‘shadow government’. The European Parliament on 7 October also passed a resolution supporting the ‘shadow government’ and its parliamentary committee as the legitimate representative of Myanmar.

In the most recent step, the US and six of its allies, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and South Korea, on 26 November urged the military Junta to end all violence in Myanmar and pressed other States to halt military aid to Yangon. In a joint statement the seven countries expressed “grave concern over reports of ongoing human rights violations and abuses by the Myanmar Security Forces across the country”.  It cited “credible reports of sexual violence and torture, especially in Chin State” in western Myanmar, as well as in the central regions of Sagaing and Magwe. “In Chin State”, the statement said, “it is reported the military has burned homes, churches and an orphanage in Thantlang village, and has targeted humanitarian organizations”. The seven countries also expressed concern “about allegations of weapons stockpiling and attacks by the military, including shelling and airstrikes, use of heavy weapons, and the deployment of thousands of troops” in ostensible “counterterrorism operations, which are disproportionately impacting civilians”. The statement called on the international community to “suspend all operational support to the military, and to cease the transfer of arms” as well as “technical assistance” to Myanmar forces. It added that the current situation, as documented by a special UN rapporteur, raises “acute concerns about the risks of future violence” in the country, and concluded by encouraging “the international community to work together to prevent future atrocities in Myanmar”.

Thus, while some pressure is indeed being exerted on the Junta, it is just that this pressure has proved to be sporadic, inadequate, and largely unproductive, just as it has been in the case of other problem countries such as Afghanistan and Belarus. Chinese and Russian support to the Junta and other similarly inclined regimes across the world has, of course, been an impediment to achieving the full results of the sanctions and other punitive measures that have been imposed. Equally as much, each successful obstructive action by China and Russia has only served to showcase the ineffective rut that the United States (US)-led world order has got itself stuck in.

Unless the democratic world finds ways to meaningfully assert itself and to neutralize the disruption that non-democratic powers have been encouraging in problem regimes, occurrences such as the coup in Myanmar will continue to take place with greater regularity and a future marked by dictatorships, autocracies and oligarchies may sadly well become an accepted reality.