Arrests, torture, violence and oppression, and yet there is still hope for Myanmar/Burma

By Benedict Rogers

Last week, people in Myanmar/Burma marked 100 days since the military coup with yet more protests. For over three months since General Min Aung Hlaing seized power on 1 February, overthrowing the democratically-elected civilian government, people have courageously taken to the streets throughout the country. Almost 5,000 have been arrested, just under 4,000 are currently in jail, and almost 800 have been killed, yet still the demonstrations continue.

Myanmar now stands on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The economy has collapsed, and a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) by public sector workers has led to thousands losing their homes and salaries. Many are facing extreme poverty and starvation.

For those detained by the military, torture is “almost ‘automatic’” according to survivors and eyewitnesses in evidence documented by the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO). “Systematic torture practices are used by Burmese soldiers to extract information or forced confessions from people arrested for exercising their right to peaceful protest or other anti-junta activities,” CHRO report.

According to one former detainee, “Once inside the interrogation center, we are made to kneel down, hands tied behind our backs, blindfolded and forced to lie on our belly on the ground. That’s when the interrogation and beatings begin. Depending on how quickly the soldiers obtain the information they want, detainees are caned with up to 40 lashes, some detainees are made to dig holes in the ground to make them think that they are about to be killed and they are digging their own grave.”

“This is our land… we will not let anyone take it”

A new military assault on some of the country’s ethnic groups, including airstrikes against the Karen and Kachin, has resulted in at least 40,000 civilians internally displaced, fleeing their villages to escape the military’s onslaught. According to the Free Burma Rangers, “deadly airstrikes using rockets, bombs and strafing cannon” began in Karen State on 27 March and continued until 1 April, but then began again from 27 April until the first week of May. Schools and homes have been destroyed, and civilians injured or killed. A 40-year-old villager, Saw Paw Chit, was shot dead by Burma Army troops on 29 April.

In one report, the Free Burma Rangers describe meeting a woman, Naw Mu Wah Paw, who was carrying her injured son in the jungle. He had been wounded by shrapnel to his face and neck on 27 March as he sat on his father’s lap when the first rockets and bombs came. His father was killed.

Naw Mu Wah Paw told the story: “The airstrikes came in at night. There were rockets and bombs. I was outside the house and my son was sitting on my husband’s lap inside the house. There was a huge explosion and I ran to the house as bombs fell. My husband was covered in blood and staggered down the stairs holding our son. He handed our son to me and then fell down and died. Now I am hiding in the jungle here with his father, mother and sister. I miss my husband so much and the airstrikes keep coming to now.”

In another report, the Free Burma Rangers recount the testimony of a Karen grandmother believed to be about 100 years old, who remarked that “it’s not so easy to run away from the Burma Army when you can only walk.”

With a courage and resilience that is typical of so many in Myanmar, she added: “I remember when I was a young girl the Japanese invaded and forced us to flee into the jungle and it seems like I’ve been fleeing from the Japanese or the Burma Army my whole life. But I’m used to it and God is with us and my children take care of me and you all help us. I will be OK.”

The headman of the same village displayed the same faith and determination. He told the Free Burma Rangers: “This is our land, God gave it to us. We are happy to share it and welcome everyone including the Burma Army as guests. But we will not let anyone take it by force and so we will resist the Burma Army and always will keep coming back to our homes, no matter what they do. Thank you so much for being in this with us and please thank the people around the world who pray for us and give us the help we need. Please tell them we have a good life and that God has given us good things in the midst of evil. And that we are together with all people in the world who love freedom, and God is always with us.”

“Help us uproot dictatorship”

Christian leaders in Myanmar have spoken out regularly since the coup. Cardinal Charles Bo, Catholic Archbishop of Yangon, has regularly pleaded for peace, dialogue and respect for human rights. In his most recent statement he called on Christians to pray throughout May, quoting St John Paul II’s words: “There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity.”

In a statement in April, the President of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), Rev. Dr Hkalam Samson, and the KBC General Secretary, Rev. Hpauyawng Tu Mai, appealed to all Christians throughout the world to pray and advocate for Myanmar. “Under the rule of militarised dictatorship, the civilians of Burma/Myanmar are denied all fundamental human rights,” they write. “The citizens of Myanmar live in fear of the unknown future of being arrested or tortured on a daily basis … The unarmed citizens … are suffering greatly nationwide under threat of being killed or arrested … Fear, gunshots, blood, threats, tears, death are the citizens’ daily lives in Burma/Myanmar.”

Religious organisations, the KBC claims, face “discrimination and oppression” if they do not support the military regime. But, the KBC leaders add, “God is at work even in the most silent period.” They appeal to churches around the world to “please help us uproot dictatorship … with any possible strategy available.”

For over thirty years, CSW has been a voice for the peoples of Myanmar, and especially for ethnic and religious minorities. Our friends and partners on the ground – including the CHRO, Free Burma Rangers, the KBC and Cardinal Bo – are an inspiration to us, and they can be certain that we will never cease in our efforts to pray and advocate for true democracy, genuine freedom, real justice and lasting peace.

To secure that, there are many actions the international community could take – including more targeted sanctions against the military’s enterprises; intensified high-level diplomacy by the United Nations Secretary-General and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN); initiatives to hold to account the Generals who are perpetrating crimes against humanity, through international justice mechanisms; and the provision of cross-border humanitarian aid. But in particular, it is vital that the world cuts off the flow of arms that enables the military to continue its killing spree. That is why we’re currently campaigning for a global arms embargo – and urge you to support us in that effort.

Hope for an inclusive Myanmar

The coup has set Myanmar back by more than a decade, plunging the country back into brutal military dictatorship and bloody conflict after ten years of political opening and a democratically-elected, civilian-led government. It puts the country on the brink of civil war.

And yet there is still hope.

The unity among peoples of different ethnic and religious groups opposed to the coup throughout the country is inspiring. The formation of a new National Unity Government (NUG) in exile, made up of those elected to Parliament last November as well as representatives of some of the country’s ethnic groups, is hopeful.

The fact that the Prime Minister of the NUG, Mahn Win Khaing Than, is an ethnic Karen and a Christian, the Vice-President, Duwa Lashi La, is a Kachin and a Christian, and the Minister for International Cooperation is CSW’s long-standing friend Dr Sasa, a Chin and a Christian, and that the NUG Cabinet includes Mon, Karenni, Ta’ang and other ethnic nationalities, is encouraging.

And Dr Sasa’s repeated efforts to reach out to the Rohingyas, who have been marginalised, dehumanised, persecuted and subjected to genocide, as well as other Muslims who have faced severe discrimination in recent years, embracing them as “brothers and sisters”, presents at least the prospect of a new vision for Myanmar: one that is inclusive, respectful of the rights of everyone of all ethnicities and religions, and based on protection of human dignity and the establishment of a federal democracy. That vision will not be easy to achieve, but it is one that is worth continuing to work and pray for.

Benedict Rogers is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW and the author of three books on Burma/Myanmar, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”.

Featured Image: Devastation from airstrikes in Karen State. Credit: Free Burma Rangers.

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