The Debate | Opinion

After a Brutal Week for Myanmar and Hong Kong, the UK Must Take Action

The United Kingdom – as the former colonial ruler in both places – has a special responsibility to both Hong Kong and Myanmar.

After a Brutal Week for Myanmar and Hong Kong, the UK Must Take Action
Credit: Pixabay

This week has been a tragic time for two places that once gave the world hope and inspiration: Myanmar and Hong Kong.

February 28 saw (to that point) the bloodiest day in Myanmar since the February 1 coup, with over 20 protesters killed and thousands injured and arrested. That same day, 47 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were charged under the draconian National Security Law, simply for the “crime” of organizing a primary election last July to choose candidates for the Legislative Council elections, which were subsequently postponed, using the COVID-19 pandemic as the justification.

Since then the situation in both places has descended into even worse tragedy. In Myanmar the death toll is mounting, with more than 38 people killed on March 3 alone, according to the United Nations. Horrific scenes have shocked the world: medics being brutally beaten with rifle butts by soldiers, ambulances ambushed and destroyed, and the murder of a 19-year-old girl, Kyal Sin – also known as Angel – who was wearing a T-shirt with the poignant slogan “Everything will be OK.” It is estimated that over 100 people have been killed since the coup, and the army – which initially showed, by its standards, some signs of restraint in response to the daily protests by thousands of people – is now firing gunshots into apartments, beating people indiscriminately, and rampaging through Myanmar’s cities in a reign of terror.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, 32 of those charged at the end of February were denied bail, and although 15 were granted bail, the Justice Department immediately appealed the decision. So all 47 remain in custody, and are likely to do so until sentencing. To deny bail to many of the most moderate of Hong Kong’s democrats is yet another assault on their freedom, human rights, and dignity, and represents further erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the rule of law.

As if that were not enough, today the National People’s Congress (NPC) – the Chinese Communist Party’s rubber-stamp legislative body – has torn up the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Beijing plans to delay the Legislative Council elections by another year and give the committee that selects the city’s chief executive the power to nominate all candidates to the legislature and directly elect some of them. The NPC is also considering a package of measures to change the size, composition, and formation method of the electoral committee that chooses the chief executive.

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The Basic Law, guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, provides a guarantee to leave Hong Kong’s electoral system unchanged until 2047, but Beijing has thrown that out of the window. As the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said, “China’s communist parliament has taken the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law.” He described the Chinese regime as “a continuing and brutal danger to all who believe in free and open speech.”

The international community, and especially the democratic world, must respond to both situations robustly. The dismantling of Hong Kong’s promised rights, the rule of law, and autonomy represents an egregious breach of an international treaty and a direct assault on freedom itself. The coup and subsequent crackdown in Myanmar turns the clock back more than a decade, destroying a decade of fragile reform, which, despite many challenges and setbacks, still offered some hope of further democratization. In both places, constitutional promises are being discarded and democracy is in the firing line. It is in all our interests to stand up to such travesties.

Within the international community, the United Kingdom – as the former colonial ruler in both places – has a special responsibility to both Hong Kong and Myanmar. It has a legal responsibility as a signatory to the Joint Declaration in the case of Hong Kong, and certainly a moral and historical duty to Myanmar. It should lead the international response in both cases.

Yet what has the U.K. done? So far, it has issued several very strong statements in both cases. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab made a powerful speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council, singling out both China and Myanmar and calling for international action. It has placed some of Myanmar generals on its Magnitsky sanctions list, and opened a very generous new migration program that allows potentially up to 5 million Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) status to come to the United Kingdom on a “pathway to citizenship.” It has initiated discussions on Myanmar at the U.N. Security Council and mobilized its Five Eyes allies – the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – into joint statements on Hong Kong. These are all extremely welcome steps. But they are not enough.

With the exception of the BNO scheme – which is courageous, generous and historic – the U.K.’s other actions on both Myanmar and Hong Kong amount only to words. Statements are important – and certainly preferable to silence, for silence is complicity – but rhetoric alone does not cut it. Neither Xi Jinping’s criminal regime in Beijing nor General Min Aung Hlaing’s illegal military junta in Naypyidaw are likely to be bothered by statements condemning their rejection of elected representatives of the people or police brutality. Even the sanctions placed on the generals in Myanmar are purely symbolic, because they are the wrong type of sanctions. They prevent the generals from travelling to the United Kingdom or banking here, but they don’t do either anyway. These measures amount to little more than a holiday ban. And no Magnitsky sanctions against officials in Beijing or Hong Kong have been imposed, even though in this case they could make a difference.

So what more should be done? In the case of both Myanmar and Hong Kong, three steps should be taken.

First, the United Kingdom should lead the world in imposing the right kind of sanctions: carefully targeted, but effective.

In the case of Myanmar, that means sanctions against military-owned enterprises. Not broad-based sanctions that would hurt the people, but sanctions against the military’s interests. Hit the generals where it hurts, in their pockets, and it is possible that may make some in the military re-think. This coup has always been about the interests and vain ambitions of one man – its leader Min Aung Hlaing – and the rest of the military has only gone along with it out of a culture of obeying orders, and a climate of fear. But make life uncomfortable for the military, and some may begin to question their loyalty to that one man.

In the case of Hong Kong, targeted Magnitsky sanctions against key officials in Beijing and Hong Kong could make a difference. A wider strategy of decoupling from China, diversifying supply chains, ending strategic dependency, and sanctioning key enterprises linked to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army is also needed.

Second, the United Kingdom should lead international diplomatic efforts.

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Security Council discussions are definitely welcome and needed, and Human Rights Council resolutions are important, but diplomatic approaches need to be elevated, escalated, and intensified. The United Kingdom should urge the U.N. secretary general to lead a high-level delegation to Myanmar, or at least to the region, to press the military to back down, and at the same time it should insist that the U.N. Credentials Committee does not recognize whomever the military dispatches to represent it to the U.N. The courageous current Myanmar ambassador to the U.N., Kyaw Moe Tun, who made an incredibly brave speech to the General Assembly a week ago denouncing the coup, should retain his credentials and continue to be recognized as the legitimate representative of the legitimate government of Myanmar. The U.N. should also engage with the newly formed Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the elected members of parliament of Myanmar, and their special envoy, Dr. Sasa.

In regard to Hong Kong, the United Kingdom should mobilize momentum behind proposals for a U.N. special rapporteur on Hong Kong – or China as a whole – and a special envoy, and should intensify engagement with other U.N. special procedures and mechanisms to shine a spotlight on Hong Kong.

And third, the United Kingdom should explore and lead support for international justice and accountability mechanisms.

For Myanmar, that means supporting the Gambia’s existing case at the International Court of Justice on grounds of genocide, and encouraging the International Criminal Court to address crimes against humanity in the country.

For Hong Kong, it means exploring the idea of bringing a case against China for violations of the Joint Declaration, and establishing a mechanism to investigate alleged genocide of the Uyghurs, which – while a distinct issue – can no longer be separated from the question of how we deal with Beijing. The United Kingdom should also re-examine and reform regulations for the financial services sector, to stop British investment funds being complicit either with genocide or with the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms. The case of HSBC, headquartered in London, which has already frozen the bank accounts of several Hong Kong activists at the behest of the authorities, must be tackled.

There are other things the United Kingdom could do too, but in essence it must step up to the plate by showing global leadership in response to the crises in two of its former colonies. Its enemies will accuse it of neoimperialism, but in reality it would be about righting wrongs and fulfilling duties. If the United Kingdom wants to live up to its post-Brexit “Global Britain” slogan, it must be about more than words. It must be about leading robust actions in response to grave injustices.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the author of three books on Myanmar.