In Timor-Leste, Activists Voice ‘Solidarity’ for Myanmar as Conflict Worsens

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In Timor-Leste, Activists Voice ‘Solidarity’ for Myanmar as Conflict Worsens

At a public hearing hosted by the country’s national human rights institution this week, local and regional activists called for greater action to address the intensifying crisis.

In Timor-Leste, Activists Voice ‘Solidarity’ for Myanmar as Conflict Worsens

Debbie Stothard, founder of ALTSEAN-Burma, speaks during a forum hosted by the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) during a public hearing hosted by the PDHJ in Dili, Timor-Leste, May 27, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/PDHJ Timor-Leste

DILI — Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, Timor-Leste, is once again taking a bold stand for the people of Myanmar.

“It is Timor-Leste’s historical responsibility to defend human rights. We share solidarity with the people of Myanmar,” Virgilio da Silva Guterres, chief ombudsman of the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ), said during a public hearing hosted by his office on May 27.

The PDHJ is Timor-Leste’s national human rights institution (NHRI). NHRIs are independent bodies, established by a country’s law or constitution, mandated to promote and protect human rights in compliance with the Paris Principles.

“When we talk about human rights, we must recognize the Timor-Leste people’s right to know about the situation in Myanmar,” said Guterres.

“We will inform the Southeast Asian National Human Rights Institution Forum (SEANF) that we held this public hearing and we’ll communicate with the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission our concerns based on the testimonies we received, with the expectation that SEANF members will also raise theirs,” added Guterres.

The SEANF – currently chaired by Timor-Leste – is mandated to promote human rights in the Southeast Asian region. Its members include the NHRIs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The public hearing is only one of the many instances in which Timor-Leste has supported its beleaguered neighbor. In July 2023, President Jose Ramos-Horta met with the foreign minister of the Myanmar’s National Unity Government to discuss the two countries’ shared struggles for freedom.

The following month, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, alongside Ramos-Horta, called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to do more to resolve Myanmar’s human rights crisis. Following these comments, the Myanmar military expelled the Timorese chargé d’affaires from Yangon. Unfazed, the small island nation clapped back by condemning the expulsion, reaffirming support for Myanmar, and urging the military to respect human rights.

In September 2023, Gusmao said Timor-Leste “may reconsider joining the ASEAN” if the bloc fails to boost its efforts to revolve the Myanmar crisis. Since 2011, Timor-Leste has been aiming for a full ASEAN membership. In 2022, it was granted official observer status and an in-principle approval to become a member.

This week’s public hearing was co-hosted by Centro Nacional Chega (CNC), a public institute that ensures the implementation of the recommendations of Timor-Leste’s Commission of Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation. “This crisis not only affects the people of Myanmar but also contributes to the backsliding of democracy in the region,” said Hugo Fernandes, the CNC’s executive director.

The event was also supported by the organizations Progressive Voice, ALTSEAN-Burma, FORUM-ASIA, and Initiatives for International Dialogue.

Testimonies From Myanmar

The public hearing, which was also supported by a number of regional human rights organizations, showcased testimonies from human rights defenders representing Myanmar’s different ethnic communities. They detailed cases of harassment, extrajudicial killings, rape, arbitrary arrests, and detention, among other abuses. Due to security concerns, they could not travel to Dili and gave testimonies through videos in which their faces were blurred.

According to the testimonies, there are political prisoners detained with their children, including babies. Meanwhile, pregnant political prisoners do not receive adequate healthcare.

“The Spring Revolution must be the last revolution that we have to fight against the brutal military and I want our generation to be the last to endure it and fight for it,” a woman human rights defender testified.

Since the attempted coup in 2021, the military junta has killed more than 6,000 people and arrested over 26,000, of whom more than 20,000 remain in prison, according to the advocacy group Progressive Voice. The group stressed how torture and summary killings routinely happen inside prisons.

“Our people are suffering greatly, both physically and emotionally,” a young student activist testified.

Progressive Voice noted that the military has carried out approximately 1,600 airstrikes – including on villages, hospitals, IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, and schools — forcing 2.8 million civilians to leave their homes since the attempted coup.

Despite the escalating violence, however, the people of Myanmar remain steadfast in their calls for justice, accountability, and the establishment of federal democracy in the country.

“The Myanmar people’s revolution has been advancing so much. More than 65 percent of the country is now under the resistance movement’s effective control,” said Khin Ohmar, chairperson of Progressive Voice, emphasizing the civilians’ efforts to provide education, health services, and life-saving humanitarian aid across the country. “The people are rebuilding Myanmar even amidst this active war,” she added.

“The military is running out of soldiers, they cannot recruit anyone because people don’t want to fight for them,” said Debbie Stothard, founder of ALTSEAN-Burma. The junta is now forcing men aged 18-25 and women aged 18-27 to serve up to two years in the military. The forced conscription is also targeting the Rohingya, who after having been subject to genocidal attacks by the military are now being forced to fight for it.

“The Myanmar military is doing what it does best: violence. They are using unprecedented arms and weapons – most of which are supplied by China, Russia, India, Israel, and Iran,” argued Ohmar. Human rights groups have long called for more robust sanctions on the arms trade to Myanmar.

Several civil society organizations are questioning the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) regarding the Myanmar crisis.

The AICHR serves to promote human rights through regional cooperation among ASEAN member states.

“I would express my deep disappointment with AICHR as it has never stated anything about the Myanmar people’s suffering. And AICHR still recognizes the Myanmar military in forums,” said Ohmar.

“AICHR has remained quiet amidst the Rohingya genocide and even when there’s an average of 27 military attacks – including airstrikes – every single day,” Stothard said. “This is why we depended on the PDHJ to host us so we can speak about Myanmar.”

Joint Struggles for Freedom

The public hearing was followed by a gathering of Timorese civil society, which offered solidarity with the Myanmar people’s revolution, highlighting their own country’s long battle for freedom.

Just nine days after its independence from Portugal’s 455 years of colonial rule, Timor-Leste was invaded by neighboring Indonesia. From 1975 to 1999, the Indonesian occupation claimed an estimated 250,000 lives, or around a third of Timor-Leste’s population. This dark period in the country’s history was marked by sexual violence, famine, and enforced disappearances. A similar pattern has been haunting Myanmar for many years, and particularly since the attempted coup.

In November 1991, the world was finally forced to pay attention as Indonesian security forces massacred around 270 pro-independence protesters in a single day in the capital’s Santa Cruz cemetery. The brutality was captured on film by journalist Max Stahl, who hid the videotapes in a graveyard before smuggling them to the outside world.

In 2002, Timor-Leste gained independence following a 1999 referendum.

Ohmar, a lifelong activist who longs to someday return home to Myanmar, believes that given Timor-Leste’s history of resistance, it is only natural for its people to understand Myanmar’s revolution. “In Timor-Leste, civil society and government are on the same page in supporting Myanmar’s revolution. We don’t see any other country doing that. We’re thankful for Timor-Leste’s solidarity,” Ohmar said.

“When the people lead, the leaders will follow,” added Stothard. “This is what happened in Timor-Leste. When civil society made noise, the government had to take a strong policy on Myanmar.”