Don’t Ignore Myanmar

The people won’t accept another military takeover. Neither should we.

Protesters flashing the three-fingered salute—a symbol of resistance to last month’s coup—during a vigil in Yangon on Sunday. The security forces are responding to the dissent with a violent crackdown. (Photo: AP)

By Benedict Rogers

With extraordinary courage, demonstrators against the military coup in Myanmar are braving daily attack from the police and military. First, they faced rubber bullets, slingshots, batons and tear gas. More recently, they have been targeted with live ammunition, including military snipers firing at crowds, even shooting indiscriminately into apartments. Scores have been killed, thousands wounded, and hundreds languish in prison.

Until the past decade of reform, Myanmar had been under direct military rule for a half-century. It now faces an epic struggle to escape yet another junta since the coup last month. But the determination of protesters is not fading. A country-wide civil disobedience movement persists, bringing public services to a halt. In almost every city, slogans in huge letters in English are visible from the air, on roads, lakes and rivers—phrases such as “We Want Democracy.”

Perhaps most significantly, the coup has united the country’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. Even the beleaguered Rohingyas, the Muslim-majority group that has faced severe persecution and genocide, are showing support for the movement despite having been the targets of abuse and discrimination from some in the democracy movement in recent years. Certain Buddhist pro-democracy activists, seeing this, have admitted their wrongs and apologized to the Rohingyas.

But why did the military coup take place last month? The armed forces already held considerable sway over the civilian-led government. Under the 2008 constitution, which the military wrote, the armed forces retained several key ministries plus 25% of the seats in parliament. And since the 2015 electoral victory of the National League for Democracy, led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the army had this international icon to shield them from criticism. When the military carried out its offensive against the Rohingyas in 2016-17, leading to genocide charges at the International Court of Justice, it was Aung San Suu Kyi who risked her reputation by going to the Hague to defend them. The coup seems to make little sense.

To understand what is happening in Myanmar, you must look at the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. Under the constitution, he was to step down as commander-in-chief of the armed forces this year. Facing genocide charges and with extensive business interests, he would have been vulnerable out of office. Plus, he had ambitions to be president.

When the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, did worse than he had hoped in last November’s elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won an even bigger majority than five years earlier, his hopes of the presidency were dashed. His only route was through violence. So, in a tragic repetition of Myanmar’s history, guns again overturned the will of the people.

While the past decade has seen grave human rights violations, the reform process did—especially in the first few years—see some relaxation and increased space for civil society and the media; the release of political prisoners; and ceasefires with many armed ethnic groups. It was fragile and, in recent years, the situation became more repressive. But the coup obliterates that progress. Activists and journalists are hunted by the regime, while the army has escalated its offensives against ethnic minorities.

Myanmar has endured more than 70 years of civil war between the military and ethnic minorities, whose simple demand since independence from the British in 1948 has been a federal democracy with autonomy for their areas. The military instead has pursued a campaign of Burmanization, and has shown it plans to intensify its war on the ethnic states.

The coup will also exacerbate religious intolerance; the military is expert at weaponizing identity politics in a country that is over 80% Buddhist and in which Christians and Muslims represent a small, though vibrant, minority. During the past decade it has been fueling a Burman Buddhist nationalism, resulting in a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiment. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s government did not appear to do much to address religious discrimination, it did at least appoint as vice president an ethnic Chin Christian. You can be sure that under the general, the agenda of “one race, one religion”—Burman Buddhism—will dominate.

The coup also drives Myanmar back into China’s arms. One reason for the reform process a decade ago was that some senior generals disliked being a satellite state of China, hated their pariah status, and wanted to improve relations with the West and see sanctions lifted. Now, Min Aung Hlaing has returned the country to China’s fold. Already, China is blocking action at the United Nations, describing the situation as an internal matter for Myanmar.

So that begs the question: What should the world do? Here are six urgent answers.

  1. The international community must not recognize the military regime. It overthrew the elected representatives of the people; it ignored the constitution; it is illegitimate. The credentials committee at the United Nations should not recognize whomever the junta sends as its representative, and should continue to accredit the courageous current ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun.

  2. Targeted sanctions are needed. We must avoid broad sanctions that make life for ordinary people more difficult, and we should not talk about the isolation of Myanmar—just isolation of the illegal regime. We need sanctions not just against the generals individually, as Britain has introduced, which have symbolic value but amount to little more than a vacation ban on people who don’t tend to come to the United Kingdom on vacation anyway. Instead, we should sanction military-owned enterprises, hitting the generals in their pockets. The United States has led the way by freezing $1 billion in the Federal Reserve Bank before the junta could move the funds.

  3. A global arms embargo. There will be countries—China and Russia, notably—that won’t support this. But as many countries as possible should sign up to it, and thereby expose and embarrass those who don’t.

  4. A coordinated diplomatic effort. The U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, should lead a high-level delegation to Myanmar, if possible, or at least to the region, to exert maximum diplomatic pressure on the military to stand down; to release the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi; to recognize the election results; and to begin a dialogue with its opponents. The Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN, must step up its efforts in this regard too.

  5. Humanitarian aid to Myanmar—but not through the regime. The military blocks access to the ethnic states, so the international community should deliver aid cross-border, via reputable and experienced nongovernmental organizations. Support should also be given to the civil disobedience movement, to ensure that—even as they forego salaries or lose access to bank accounts—they have shelter, food and medicines to survive.

  6. Accountability. The international community should support criminal cases against Min Aung Hlaing. Critics will say that this will frighten the generals into taking an even harder line, and that is a risk. But the threat must be there, accompanied by diplomatic efforts to offer the generals a way out. Justice and accountability, though, are different from retribution or revenge, and that distinction should be understood.

Ultimately, this coup needs to be seen by the world for what it is: not just an appalling assault on the people of Myanmar, but a threat to international peace. If we fail to act with more than just rhetoric, if we allow Min Aung Hlaing to do this with impunity, it encourages every potential tyrant in the world to usurp the will of the people, further undermining the international rules-based order.

For the people of Myanmar, and for our own interests, we have a responsibility to protect.

Benedict Rogers—author of three books on Myanmar, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads—is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch and a senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW.