Benedict Rogers: We must not forget the people of Myanmar, living under military rule

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

Today is the start of the Lunar New Year, Year of the Tiger. It is also the first anniversary of the bloody coup in Myanmar (Burma). A year ago today, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, unravelling a decade of fragile democratisation and plunging that beautiful but benighted country back into the nightmare of brutal military dictatorship.

As we mark these two dates, we should reflect on the tragedy in Myanmar, and our response. We should also consider the role of the Chinese Communist Party regime in repressing its people, propping up other dictatorships and increasingly threatening freedom around the world. And we should resolve to develop the characteristics of the Tiger – fearlessness and courage.

It is said that this Year of the Tiger symbolises recovery and growth, both much needed following two years of Covid-19. But let this be a year of recovery and growth not only economically, but also for democracy, human rights and the international rules-based order, all increasingly threatened.

Myanmar is facing a dire humanitarian, human rights and economic crisis. The military, known as the ‘Tatmadaw’, has conducted over 7,000 attacks on civilians. Villages have been subjected to heavy artillery shelling and air strikes. In a country that, even during the past decade of quasi-democracy, still faced civil war – as it has for 70 years – this represents a shocking 664% increase over the previous year. Almost 1,500 people have been killed, including 100 children. Over 330,600 people have been displaced since the coup, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Tatmadaw’s bombardment of civilians has been accompanied by gruesome atrocity crimes. In one township on 7 December last year, soldiers tied up 11 civilians, tortured them, then burned them alive. Among the victims were five teenagers. On Christmas Eve, in a village in Karenni State, at least 37 people, including women and 10 children, were massacred. Again, their hands were tied and they were burned to death. They included two Save the Children aid workers.

Ten years ago, political prisoners were being released in Myanmar. But since the coup, the junta has arrested at least 11,776 people. Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint remain in jail, likely to be locked up indefinitely. At least 432 members of their party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), are in prison. Twelve have died in custody, some from Covid-19, others from torture.

At least 114 journalists have been arrested, and 43 remain behind bars. Before the coup, there were no journalists imprisoned, but today, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Myanmar ranks second only to China for jailing the most journalists.

The coup and the conflict have led to a humanitarian crisis in a country already suffering from Covid-19. The military has compounded the crisis by blocking or stealing humanitarian aid. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that 46.3% of the population will be living in poverty and 14.4 million people – including five million children – will need humanitarian assistance this year.

In the face of this tragedy, what has the world done? The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada have imposed some targeted sanctions on the military, which is welcome. But apart from that, there have been strong statements and much handwringing, but little else. There is a need to do much more.

The goal should be two-fold: to cut the lifeline to the Generals and provide a lifeline to the people. That means more sanctions, and – crucially – enforcing an arms embargo. Russia and China – already major challenges to the free world – are the key providers of arms to the junta. We should explore every avenue to expose and penalise them for their complicity with Myanmar’s mass murderers.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – whose response has been low-key and lacklustre – needs to step up. He should mobilise a diplomatic effort and a humanitarian coalition to provide aid along the borders. Britain and others should increase aid, and fund cross-border delivery.

Crucially, pressure should be put on China to stop keeping this junta alive. China is the junta’s primary provider of diplomatic cover and financial support. China is no friend of human rights, obviously, but it does not like instability on its doorstep, so we should try to persuade Beijing to help prevent a humanitarian disaster in Myanmar. Sustaining the Generals in power while Myanmar’s economy collapses, is in no one’s interests.

In three days, Beijing will host the Winter Olympics. A regime accused of genocide, dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms in breach of an international treaty, repression in Tibet, persecution of Christians and Falun Gong, forced organ harvesting and an all-out assault on freedom at home and abroad, is not one that should have been accorded this honour.

It is right that several countries, including the United Kingdom, have imposed a diplomatic boycott. It is now right that we use the Games to spotlight the atrocities in China – and the regime’s complicity with crimes against humanity in Myanmar – and shame the butchers of Beijing.

In this Year of the Tiger, let us rediscover the courage of our convictions. Even as we face the most immediate challenge to freedom in Ukraine, let us not forget Myanmar. Indeed, let us stand up for the peoples of Myanmar – and China – and for freedom everywhere.

Benedict Rogers: It seems plausible that this brazen assault on democracy in Myanmar is driven by one man’s ambition

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar (Burma), including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”, and a former parliamentary candidate.

Today’s coup in Myanmar (Burma) is a devastating blow to a decade of fragile democratization, and a major setback for a beautiful but benighted country that has already suffered decades of war, poverty and repression.

Although Myanmar has a long history of military rule, this latest move comes as a surprise. Despite a transition to a civilian-led democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi five years ago, the military has in any case retained real power.

Under the constitution which it wrote, Myanmar’s military has direct control of three key government ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – as well as a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the armed forces. It controls its budget, and many enterprises. Aung San Suu Kyi has bent over backwards to compromise with the military, even defending them in The Hague on charges of genocide. So why would the army move against her now?

One theory is that the military is driven by power and is incapable of relinquishing it. Ever since General Ne Win’s first takeover in 1958, the military has been the dominant political force in Myanmar. His caretaker regime handed over to a democratically elected government in 1960, only to seize power in a coup in 1962.

For over 50 years the army ruled Myanmar directly, rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first election victory in 1990 and transitioned to a ‘civilian’ government led by former generals dressed in suits rather than military uniforms in 2010. Only after the NLD’s overwhelming win in 2015 did the military move from centre stage to the wings of politics, but even then it continued to exercise overwhelming influence. But perhaps it wasn’t satisfied with that, and wanted to play a starring role again.

Another theory, however, is more plausible, and it is that this coup is not so much driven by the military as a whole, but by the personal ambitions of one man – the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

He wants to be President and was dissatisfied that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), did not do well in last November’s election. Knowing that he has to retire from his current post in June this year, he appears to have decided that if he can’t be President using legitimate, constitutional means, he would seize power anyway.

The pretext for the coup – the army’s claim of voter fraud in last year’s election – is risible. An institution that for decades has defrauded the electorate has no right to make such an allegation. While there are concerns that some of the country’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in the election, there is no evidence of voter fraud at the ballot box and no legitimate reason to doubt the NLD’s victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, government ministers, regional chief ministers and a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and a state of emergency imposed for a year. This is truly an outrage, and the international community must not stand for it. Britain, the United States, the European Union and others invested significantly in the reform period that began a decade ago, and so cannot allow this coup to pass without consequences.

Reaction has been swift – but so far only rhetorical. Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, called on the military to reverse their actions “immediately” and “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement in which he described the developments as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the coup in a tweet, calling for the military to release all those who have been detained unlawfully and for the restoration of the democratic process.

And Boris Johnson condemned the coup and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.

Now the free world must set out what it will do if the military do not back down – and the United Kingdom should take a lead. We should impose co-ordinated, targeted sanctions – not broad-based sanctions against the country, which would hurt the people, but sanctions specifically against the military’s enterprises and assets.

In July 2020, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against two high ranking members of the Burmese military under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – otherwise known as “Magnitsky” sanctions – for human rights violations, but what is needed now is measures against military companies and the economic interests of the military as a whole.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Japan and other allies must work together on this, though if a unified approach cannot be reached, those that are willing to go down the sanctions path should do so anyway, and work with allies on other measures they can agree on.

If it is the case that this coup is more about Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambitions, then it may be possible to cause a split in the military if international pressure is perceived to hit its economic interests. If that happens, perhaps wiser, cooler heads in the military may prevail and force the Commander-in-Chief to back down.

Certainly one thing is clear: if the Myanmar army is allowed to get away with this brazen assault on a fragile democracy, not only will Myanmar’s development and progress be set back, but it will send an unwelcome green light to others in South-East Asia and beyond, that unconstitutional seizures of power will be allowed to go unchecked. And that – in a world where the cause of freedom and democracy is already on the back foot – would be devastating.