The Debate

In Myanmar, We Pay With Our Lives for the Choices of World Leaders

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

In Myanmar, We Pay With Our Lives for the Choices of World Leaders

Nearly 18 months after the coup, the world’s reaction to Myanmar’s anguish continues to be one of statements, inaction, and business as usual.

In Myanmar, We Pay With Our Lives for the Choices of World Leaders

Russian and Myanmar defense officials chair an Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism under the auspices of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in Moscow, Russia, on July 21, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Justice for Myanmar

On July 20-21, the Russia and Myanmar militaries co-chaired a counter-terrorism meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in Moscow.

Given that both militaries have committed a series of serious international crimes under the pretext of combating “terrorism” without remorse – the Myanmar military with its ongoing terror campaign against its own citizens and Russia with its invasion of Ukraine – this prompted outcries from Myanmar civil society and activists. A total of 448 civil society organizations, including our organization Students for Free Burma (SFB), sent open letters urging the governments of the United States, Japan, and South Korea to boycott the meeting.

In a perfect world, our efforts would have been unnecessary. We should not have to alert world leaders to the obvious fact that Russia and Myanmar commit terrorism rather than counter it.

Neither military uses the term “terrorism” as we conventionally define it in international affairs: “the unlawful use of violence against civilians in pursuit of political aims.” Because if they did, they would be two of the most brutal terrorist organizations out there. Instead, in their eyes, fighting for democracy and freedom translates as terrorism. As a protest organizer and leader of a pro-democracy organization, I would be branded a terrorist under their definition, as has Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government and the People’s Defense Forces opposing the military junta’s rule.

The Myanmar junta has unleashed waves of extreme violence since its seizure of power on February 1 of last year. As of July 25, it had killed at least 2,120 civilians and arrested more than 14,000, nearly 12,000 of whom are still in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The junta’s military tribunals have sentenced at least 117 political prisoners to death, over 20 of them under the Counter-Terrorism Law.

As the nationwide anti-coup resistance grows, the military continues a scorched-earth terror campaign across the country’s heartland, burning villages and committing massacres, especially in Sagaing Region and Chin State in the country’s northwest. Myanmar Witness, “a group of open source researchers documenting human rights violations,” has verified more than 200 reports of villages being destroyed by the military’s arson attacks, with the pace of attacks increasing. The depravity of the military’s atrocities was revealed in a recent BBC report in which six soldiers who defected from the Myanmar military admitted in horrific detail to the killing, torture, and rape of innocent civilians. As appalling as it may be, this is only the tip of the iceberg of the Myanmar military’s brutality.

So, the last thing the Myanmar people needed was international governments emboldening the rogue regime and giving it a multilateral platform to seek cooperation in their repression of citizens and civil liberties.

Still, it happened. Russian and Myanmar military brass were seen chairing the meeting, sitting side by side in full regalia, a small ASEAN flag on the table in front of them. The Myanmar military was treated as if they were a legitimate government, though they are as far as can be from legitimacy. And this is not without consequences.

Last week, the Myanmar junta executed four pro-democracy activists under the Counter-Terrorism Law, the first such executions in over 30 years. The executions included two top political dissidents: Ko Jimmy, a beloved veteran activist of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw, a former National League for Democracy MP. The families were denied access to the bodies of the executed activists. When asked by the reporters about the execution, the junta’s spokesperson simply said, “no need to explain.”

This unspeakably chilling and outrageous act of state violence is a direct result of the appeasement by the international community of the Myanmar junta. Not only have international governments allowed impunity through impotence, but they have also emboldened the junta by holding water for them. The blood is not on the hands of the junta alone.

Since the onset of the coup, the people in Myanmar have called for the international community to disengage with the junta, cut business ties, and isolate them financially and diplomatically. The people flooded the streets with anti-coup protests nationwide. Civil servants and workers from across industries – from doctors, teachers, and bankers to engineers and rail workers – went on strike as part of the powerful Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), refusing to work under a military regime. Fans called out military-affiliated celebrities, and the public refused to pay electricity bills and mass-boycotted military-owned businesses. We hoped that world leaders would follow suit.

Instead, nearly 18 months after the coup, the world leaders have done only what is easy: statements, inaction, and business as usual, as if our lives are trivial. The international community has not only turned a blind eye to us, except for repeating the broken record of prayers and condemnations; it has also turned against us in favor of helping the junta.

Just to name a few recent and glaring examples, the Australian government has so far not imposed any serious sanctions on Myanmar. Instead, its embassy spent more than $750,000 of taxpayer money at the luxury Lotte hotel in Yangon, which is linked to the military. Because the hotel pays rent to the Quartermaster-General’s office, the Australian money has effectively gone toward the purchase of bullets and bombs used in the junta’s indiscriminate killings of Myanmar civilians.

We also felt betrayal from the Japanese government when it invited the Myanmar junta to former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s state funeral on September 27. This gives a veil of legitimacy to the junta and creates a possibility for its leader Min Aung Hlaing to visit Japan for the first time since the military takeover. Even more appalling, the Japanese government has been training Myanmar military personnel at Japan’s defense facilities, despite those same soldiers having committed atrocities since the coup. Like Australia, Japan is yet to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s junta.

Yet, ASEAN has been the most disappointing. Despite being the region’s key multilateral organization, ASEAN has repeatedly failed to take serious actions to pressure the junta. Instead, the bloc has shielded them by impeding wider, stronger international actions and provided the generals with tacit support. ASEAN’s continued engagement with the military, such as allowing its participation in the bloc’s recent defense ministers’ meeting,  has given the junta legitimacy and a global platform that it does not deserve.

In addition, the ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) has let down the people of Myanmar since its very inception last April, when the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing was invited to the negotiations despite our outcries. To this day, the consensus has been nothing but an utter failure that has only served to stall time for the Myanmar junta to crush the resistance. Yet, despite acknowledging the Myanmar military’s “gross lack of will” to implement the consensus, the ASEAN remained committed to the Five-Point Consensus, according to the bloc’s chairman in his latest statement.

Unfortunately, governments around the world are still deferring to ASEAN and hiding behind the Five-Point Consensus, making it an excuse to justify their own failures. Even the world’s largest democracies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have been slow to act when it comes to Myanmar. The two countries have still yet to sanction the military’s largest source of foreign revenues, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

The war in Ukraine has shown how much a strong international response and severe sanctions can do to deter authoritarian injustice. In a matter of days after the invasion, the world poured out in unprecedented international support to Ukraine which has certainly delivered a hard blow to Moscow. Yet, we in Myanmar cannot even dream of such support. We are only asking that the international community completely disengage with the junta and not further fuel the machine that is killing us.

Is that really too much to ask?