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Myanmar Junta’s Surprise Pardons Show International Pressure Is Working

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Myanmar Junta’s Surprise Pardons Show International Pressure Is Working

That the generals felt the need to offer pardons – albeit largely empty ones – of top NLD leaders suggests that the junta is feeling the heat from international isolation.

Myanmar Junta’s Surprise Pardons Show International Pressure Is Working
Credit: Depositphotos

Myanmar’s brutal ruling generals know only one modus operandi: repression and lies. That means arresting, imprisoning and torturing critics, raping and bombing civilians, and persecuting ethnic and religious minorities, and then denying it. From time to time they make a gesture that is designed to imply leniency but is in fact purely cosmetic – akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

Today was one of those moments. The decision to issue a “partial pardon” to the country’s jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, just a day after moving her from prison to detention in “a more comfortable state-owned residence,” is an absurd propaganda gimmick and an attempt to lull the international community into believing it has gained a concession. The international community must not fall for the junta’s lies. There is no concession. She has not even been moved to house arrest in her own home – where she spent a total of 15 years under previous military regimes from 1989 until 2010. She is still in prison.

The pardons – for Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s ousted democratic President Win Myint – are a con-trick on stilts.

First, Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint should never have been arrested or jailed in the first place. In November 2020, their party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – won an overwhelming victory in Myanmar’s second genuine free and fair elections, securing a second term in government. They should be in office right now, halfway through that second term, not in prison. The military, under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, is only ruling now because it seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, overthrowing the NLD’s elected government and jailing many of its ministers and Parliamentarians.

Second, the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint are fabricated and ludicrous. In Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, she faces 19 charges ranging from trumped up false accusations of corruption to defying COVID-19 restrictions, possessing walkie-talkies, electoral fraud, and breaches of the official secrets act.

There are issues over which I profoundly disagree with Aung San Suu Kyi, and about which her record in government left me deeply disillusioned and disappointed. Her complicity with the genocide of the Rohingya and failure to speak up for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities caused a lot of soul-searching among her many international supporters, including me. Despite having supported and campaigned for her over many years, I was unable to defend her when she came under intense international criticism for her position. Had she chosen silence in the face of atrocities, one could perhaps have understood it, due to the political tightrope she was navigating, but her support for the military’s actions and denial of their crimes were inexcusable and indefensible. When she went to the International Court of Justice in the Hague to defend the military against a case brought by the Gambia, I was horrified and heartbroken. 

But despite that, of three things I am in absolutely no doubt: Whatever her mistakes and faults, the charge of corruption is one that can never be justified; the idea that she did not win re-election legitimately is absurd; and the fact that she is in jail and not in government is an outrageous injustice. If we care about democracy, the rule of law and human rights, then whatever our profound misgivings about Aung San Suu Kyi’s record over the past decade, we must not allow our disillusionment to cloud our judgment. We must campaign for her release, both because her imprisonment is in itself a gross injustice, and because this is about more than one woman – it is about the fate of a country and its peoples.

Third, the so-called “pardons” issued today only apply to five of the 19 charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, cutting just six years off her total 33-year prison sentence. Unless the remaining 14 charges are dropped, the 78 year-old Nobel Peace Prize Laureate will spend over 25 years in jail – effectively a life sentence.

Not only are the pardons meaningless for all these reasons, but they come just as Myanmar’s illegal ruler, General Min Aung Hlaing, extended once again the state of emergency that has been in place since the coup, postponing yet again the elections he had promised. While no one expects any elections under this regime to be credible, especially with the NLD outlawed and over 19,000 political prisoners behind bars, the fact that the junta keeps postponing them shows it is afraid of the ballot box, even if it is heavily rigged in its favor. An election, if it ever does come, would not be a general election, but an election of generals – and yet even that is unlikely now. The generals to derive their power from bullets rather than ballots.

Min Aung Hlaing’s regime is committing crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, as a recent powerful Sky News investigation illustrates. Since the coup it has caused the displacement of over 1.5 million people, scorched at least 70,000 homes, and killed more than 3,747 civilians. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, has said the junta is perpetrating “sexual violence, mass killings, extra-judicial executions, beheadings, dismemberments and mutilations” and has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, plunging millions into dire poverty. According to the United Nations, at least 17.6 million people in Myanmar require some form of aid, while 15.2 million need urgent food and nutrition support. 

If there is one thing today’s meaningless gesture from Naypyidaw shows, it is that the junta is feeling pressure. It feels the isolation and economic strangulation resulting from international sanctions. And it is struggling to eliminate resistance to its illegal rule that has proven far stronger than it anticipated. The fact that it feels the need to offer “pardons” today suggests that it knows it must do something. 

All the more reason for the international community to increase and intensify pressure – economically, politically, and diplomatically. Steps in the right direction have been taken, with the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union imposing targeted sanctions against the military’s enterprises, but they have been too slow. Much more is needed, and faster. 

Governments must wake up to the scale of the human rights and humanitarian disaster in Myanmar today, and act urgently. While actions taken by some, such as the United Kingdom, to sanction aviation fuel, to impede the military’s airstrikes against civilians, are very welcome, more governments need to be persuaded to join this effort, and urge insurance companies to stop providing cover for aviation fuel deliveries. The United Nations introduced a global arms embargo in a non-binding resolution at the General Assembly in 2021, but more countries must be urged to enforce it. 

Turk has called for Myanmar to be brought to the International Criminal Court for its atrocity crimes – that is a call member states should heed and explore ways to act upon. For Myanmar to have any chance of peace in the future, there must be accountability, justice and an end to impunity. 

The country, warned Turk at the U.N. Human Rights Council last month, is in “deadly freefall” into “even deeper violence and heartbreak,” with the military regime engaging in a “systematic denial” of humanitarian aid to its people. International humanitarian assistance is desperately needed. Aid must not fall into the military’s hands, but there are ways – through local agencies working cross-border – to deliver assistance to those who need it. 

The international community must see today’s news for what it is – lipstick on a pig. And not very good lipstick for that matter, on a very sick pig. But we must also recognize that pressure can make a difference, so now is not a time to let up, but rather to step up. We must cut the lifelines to the junta, provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar, and work for the day when Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Myint and all of Myanmar’s political prisoners are freed.

Guest Author

Benedict Rogers

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the senior analyst at CSW, deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar and a new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny” (Optimum Publishing International, 2022), which includes a chapter on China-Myanmar relations.