“We are not safe anymore”: Burma’s coup shatters hopes for democracy, religious tolerance and human rights

By Benedict Rogers

Images of tanks and soldiers on the streets of Burma’s cities, and the sound of gunfire against peaceful protesters take us back in time almost 14 years, and reverse a decade of fragile reform and democratization in the country. From the scenes of her release from house arrest in November 2010 via her talks with Burma’s then-President Thein Sein in August 2011, and through to her subsequent election to Parliament, victory in a nationwide election and the past five years as de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi is now back where she started: in detention.

The generals have remained in power throughout, but now they have abandoned any pretense and seized direct control once more.

The coup on 1 February stunned the world. Although it had been rumoured, few expected the military to really do it. It is true that the army in Burma has a history of staging coups – in 1958, 1962 and 1988 – and it isn’t keen on losing elections, as it showed in 1990 when it refused to accept Suu Kyi’s first victory, consigning her to 15 years under house arrest, and her colleagues to prison or exile. In 2008 it drafted a new constitution designed to keep Suu Kyi out of power, rammed it through in a sham referendum and two years later heavily rigged the country’s first elections in two decades. Nevertheless, since then it had appeared that the military had come to some kind of accommodation with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

In 2015, the NLD won an overwhelming parliamentary majority in Burma’s first credible election in a quarter of a century, and a reasonably smooth transition to the country’s first civilian-led government in over half a century took place. Suu Kyi became ‘State Counsellor’, while her nominees took the presidency, but the military – under the constitution – held control of three key ministries: home affairs, border affairs and defence. Moreover, the army controlled its own budget and a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

In 2020, the NLD won an even bigger victory at the polls, but that did not really threaten the military’s entrenched authority in government. Indeed, the military had the best of all worlds – real power without any accountability, leaving it to Suu Kyi and her party to defend their actions to the international community. Suu Kyi had already sacrificed her global reputation by defending the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas, not merely in the media but at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

So why throw all this away in a coup? Essentially, the only rational explanation is that this was about the vain ambitions of one man, the military’s Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing. Knowing that he is due to retire from his position this year, and disappointed that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) performed so poorly at the polls, it seems he decided in a fit of pique to take matters into his own hands. He wants to be President, not least because he wants to defend his family’s financial interests, and if he could not do so by ballot, he would do it by bullet. Perhaps ‘face’ played a part too – the USDP’s rejection by the voters was, for the general, an insult.

What does this mean for human rights and freedom of religion or belief in Burma?

The past decade of reform saw some initial opening – increased space for civil society and the media in particular – but in recent years we have witnessed significant regression. The rise of ultra-Buddhist religious nationalism led to anti-Muslim violence and discrimination throughout the country, and the genocide of the Rohingyas. Christians also continued to face restrictions, discrimination and occasional violence as a result of Buddhist nationalism in society, as well as targeted attacks by the military in the ethnic conflict regions.

Any hopes that democracy would lead to religious tolerance and freedom, or genuine peace, seemed far-off. But the military coup sets things back much further.

With the army back in charge and unashamedly in uniform – as opposed to the business suits of the former generals who led Burma’s ‘reforms’ a decade ago – and without even a veneer of democratization, the fragile freedoms which the peoples of Burma had begun, tentatively, to develop are being trampled on. Among those arrested in the past two weeks are not only former NLD government ministers and party activists, but journalists, writers, artists, civil society activists and at least three Buddhist monks. Military leaders have reportedly been visiting other religious leaders in the country in an attempt to co-opt their support.

The military has a long history of weaponizing religion and repressing the rights of religious minorities. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has already expressed concern about the coup, and the year-long state of emergency imposed by the military. USCIRF’s Vice-Chair Anurima Bhargava said: “Given the history of brutal atrocities by the Burmese military, our fear is that violence could quickly escalate, especially towards religious and ethnic communities, such as the Rohingya and other Muslims. We urge the Burmese military to honor the faith and will of the Burmese people and restore democratic civilian rule as soon as possible.” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza added: “We fear for the safety of the remaining Rohingya Muslims and Christians in Burma that are indiscriminately targeted by the Tatmadaw.”

“We are not safe anymore”

The impact of the military coup is already being felt in Burma’s ethnic states. On 8 February the Joint Strategy Team, a group of local humanitarian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) providing assistance to people affected by armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, issued an appeal to the UN and the international community, calling for “safe and unimpeded humanitarian access” for NGOs providing assistance to IDPs and in response to COVID-19.

The Joint Strategy Team said that “the military coup is severely affecting the IDPs communities in Kachin and Northern Shan states. The military are taking more positions with armed troops and artillery, even in towns; and it has impacted on the transportation and movement of local people including IDPs. The civilian population is very worried, fearing that armed clashes will occur.”

According to the Joint Strategy Team, “accessing humanitarian assistance has been constrained since 1 February … In some IDP camps, the food support has covered only for January and the transportation to provide food particularly to non-government controlled areas is a major concern and challenge.”

Meanwhile in Karen State, according to the Free Burma Rangers, over 5,000 people have been displaced in the past two months due to Burma Army attacks, despite a ceasefire. Over 70,000 people are displaced in Arakan State, while over 100,000 remain displaced in Kachin State and northern Shan State. The Free Burma Rangers echoed the call for “direct humanitarian relief to the ethnic groups or cross-border relief groups who have proven track records for providing relief efficiently, accountably, and transparently.”

David Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, describes the situation in Karen State in a report on 7 February. He writes: “Here in Karen State, the Karen people feel like the coup only reveals overtly what they and every ethnic already knew, that the army is totally in charge. The people here hope that this revelation will cause people who are ignorant of that fact or try to ignore it to not be able to ignore it anymore and realize the evil of the situation. Their own lives haven’t changed: they were attacked before the coup and they are being attacked now after the coup. Holding their babies in hiding places under the trees, they told me, ‘We don’t need you to give us food and medicine and shelter just stop the Burma Army from attacking our villages. We are not attacking them in their cities, why are they attacking us? If you stop them, we can take care of ourselves.’”

Just this week, the Free Burma Rangers reported further attacks and shelling in Karen State, causing at least 212 villagers to flee.

After over 20 years of advocacy for Burma, involving more than 50 visits to the country and its borders, the events of the past two weeks have been heart-breaking for me personally. And they involve people I know personally, some of whom are my friends. Suu Kyi’s economic adviser, Australian academic Dr Sean Turnell, has been detained – he is a good friend of mine whom I respect deeply for his intellect, knowledge, humanity and commitment to freedom.

Last Sunday I received messages from friends in Myitkyina, Kachin State, pleading for help as soldiers shot at and arrested protesters and reporters. I have visited Myitkyina several times, so picturing gunfire on streets I have walked in was heart-rending. One good friend told me: “We are not safe anymore. We are being followed.”

What can be done?

One thing is clear: statements alone, no matter how strongly worded, don’t cut it. Min Aung Hlaing doesn’t care much about international condemnation. We need robust, targeted pressure.  That means sanctions against the military and its enterprises. We must absolutely avoid broad-based sanctions that hurt the people of Burma, but we cannot let a coup and the resulting human rights violations occur with impunity. We need a global arms embargo. We need cross-border humanitarian aid to the ethnic states, because aid delivered in-country can’t reach many of the most vulnerable. And we need greater support for the Gambia’s case against Burma at the ICJ.

Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen must be made to pay a very high price for what they have done. If their position becomes uncomfortable enough, it might just make them re-think and back down, or potentially split, but if they believe they can get away with it, they will simply carry on.

In a powerful statement two days after the coup, Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo expressed the world’s “shock and agony” at the seizure of power by the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, undoing a decade of reforms and the peaceful transition to an elected government in 2015.

Addressing the military directly, Cardinal Bo said: “You all promised peace and genuine democracy. Democracy was the streak of hope for solving the problems of this once rich country. This time millions voted for democracy. Our people believe in peaceful transfer of power”. He called for peace and dialogue, and for the release of everyone who has been arrested. “They are not prisoners of war; they are prisoners of a democratic process,” he writes. “You promise democracy; start with releasing them.”

That must be our prayer and our protest for the people of Burma today. Release the captives, put down the guns, respect the will of the people and help the country on to a path towards genuine democracy and real peace.

Benedict Rogers is CSW’s Senior Analyst for East Asia and author of three books, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. He also researched and wrote CSW’s report, “Burma’s Identity Crisis”.

Featured Image: Myanmar soldiers are seen inside City Hall in Yangon, Myanmar. 1 Feb 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Stringer