Six months after the coup, what are we going to do about Myanmar’s new nightmare?

By Benedict Rogers

Exactly six months ago yesterday, Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, was plunged into yet another dark chapter in its history – perhaps one of the darkest yet.

On 1 February the army’s Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, seized power in a bloody coup that overthrew the democratically elected civilian government, led to the arrest of most pro-democracy leaders, and ushered in a new era of brutal repression which many of us hoped had been consigned to Myanmar’s history.

Relentless repression

In the past six months, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the junta has killed 940 civilians, arrested 6,994 and currently holds 5,444 political prisoners in jail. Among them are many of my friends – including the incredible Thin Thin Aung, Myawaddy Sayadaw and others.

Another 1,964 are on the run, evading the arrest warrants which the military has issued for them. Over 100 have been forcibly disappeared. An unknown number have been tortured and raped. On top of that, several hundred thousand people have been internally displaced as the army intensifies its assaults on many of the country’s ethnic states, with aerial bombardment as well as ground offensives.

Among the dead are at least 75 children, some of whom were killed in their own homes, according to the United Nations Child Rights Committee. In Mandalay, a five year-old boy was gunned down in the street, while a six year-old girl was shot in the stomach and died in her father’s arms. And over 1,000 children are detained in prisons, police stations and army detention centres, held hostage – according to the UN – because the army have not been able to arrest their parents. They include a five-year-old girl whose father organized protests against the coup.

Journalists have also been key targets in the crackdown. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 43 journalists in Myanmar are currently in jail, although altogether 98 have been arrested since the coup. These include Democratic Voice of Burma reporters Min Nyo and Aung Kyaw, Mizzima News contributor Zaw Zaw, and Frontier Myanmar managing editor Danny Fenster, a US citizen.

As the editor of Myanmar Now Swe Win told RSF, “we are now at a point where continuing to do our jobs means risking being jailed or killed.” The regime has removed the licenses of all independent media outlets, prohibiting them from publishing or broadcasting legally in the country. And in a new decree issued by the military dictatorship, the terms ‘coup,’ ‘junta’ and ‘regime’ are prohibited. On 17 March, the junta issued a new decree imposing the death penalty for 23 ‘crimes,’ with no possibility of appeal. These so-called crimes include violating the media law and spreading ‘fake news.’

No right to breathe

On top of the carnage caused by the coup and the ensuing crackdown, as well as the resulting economic collapse, COVID-19 is now rampaging through Myanmar causing death and destruction. And the military appears to be weaponizing the virus – or at the very least, looking out only for its own interests.

With oxygen supplies running out, there are reports that the military is hoarding whatever is left for their own use. Indeed, earlier this month soldiers fired live ammunition into a line of people in Yangon queuing for oxygen.

First they stole the people’s right to vote, and now they’re taking away their right to breathe.

Myanmar’s health care system was rudimentary even in the best of times, but it is now in a state of collapse. Hospitals are overcrowded, cemeteries are overflowing, and yet the military is hounding and harassing medics – particularly because many doctors opposed the coup and went on strike in the early weeks following the overthrow of democracy. In the first few months after the coup soldiers actually raided hospitals and opened fire on doctors. In Britain, we clapped for our doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers at the height of the pandemic – in Myanmar, the army shoots them.

Tragically, the virus is doing the regime’s work in killing off those of its critics it hasn’t shot. Earlier this month Aung San Suu Kyi’s longstanding lawyer and key spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Nyan Win, died of COVID-19 in prison. I knew him well. I always met with him every time I visited Yangon. I first met him over a decade ago, covertly, when Suu Kyi was previously under house arrest, prior to the decade of political reform that began in 2011, and was dramatically terminated with the coup this year. Nyan Win was an unassuming, humble man, but a person of great wisdom, courage and loyalty to the democracy movement.

Another senior NLD leader whom I know, U Han Thar Myint, has been moved to hospital from prison, after being diagnosed with COVID. My friend Naing Lin, Yangon’s former social affairs minister, also has the virus, and Yangon’s former chief minister Phyo Min Thein is in a critical condition.

In the Chin region, 48 Christian pastors died of COVID last month alone. The Catholic Bishop of Pathein, Bishop John Hsane Hgyi, has also died.

Among those in prison, I worry for my good friend Dr Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who served as an advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi and who was arrested five days after the coup. His wife, Ha Vu, has posted two appeals on Facebook given the COVID-19 crisis, and last week the regime’s state media published photographs of him apparently having a check-up. I have known Sean very well for almost 15 years. He is a most wonderful, courageous, humble, generous, clever and delightful man, and he deserves to be honoured, not jailed. Please pray for him.

What are we going to do?

In the face of this crisis entirely inflicted upon Myanmar by Min Aung Hlaing, what has the coup leader done to mark the six-month anniversary of his illegitimate assent to power? Extended the ‘State of Emergency’ until 2023 and named himself ‘Prime Minister.’ Prime suspect more like, who should be on trial and in prison, not in power.

Min Aung Hlaing pledged yesterday to hold a “free and fair multi-party election” in 2023. But there are two points of response to that.

The first is that there’s no need – Myanmar just had free and fair multi-party elections last November, which yielded a clear and unambiguous result. The people have spoken and their will should be respected.

And second: we do not believe you, Min Aung Hlaing. Even if you hold actual elections in two years time, no one in their right mind is going to believe that they will be remotely legitimate. We know that you will rig them to ensure you or your chosen candidates win. We know the NLD will be banned from participating, Aung San Suu Kyi will likely be in jail as a result of a kangaroo court and totally trumped-up charges, and we know that the ethnic parties whom you and your army have persecuted for decades won’t get a look-in. So don’t give us this nonsense.

The real question we must face today is not what is Min Aung Hlaing going to do, but what are we – the international community – going to do?

For the past six months, we have heard some handwringing, some condemnatory statements, some discussion at the UN Security Council and a few sanctions. Condemnation of course is essential, statements are needed, dialogue is important and targeted sanctions are very welcome. But they are nowhere near enough.

If we are to prevent Myanmar becoming a totally failed state, torn apart by civil war and economic collapse, facing a humanitarian catastrophe as a consequence both of the virus and the displacement of hundreds of thousands, in which freedom of religion or belief, alongside all other freedoms, is completely trampled on, we need a plan.

What is needed is a two-fold strategy with these clear aims:

  • Number One: Cut the lifeline to the military
  • Number Two: Provide a lifeline to the people

We need tougher, more targeted and more robust sanctions against the military’s assets and enterprises, to cut its financial lifeline, and a global arms embargo to limit the flow of arms that it uses to stay in power.

We must hold the army accountable for its crimes against humanity, as Human Rights Watch has so rightly laid out in a recent statement.

And we need humanitarian assistance to the people – delivered through whatever mechanisms can circumvent the military and avoid being blocked, seized or siphoned off. That means COVID-related aid – vaccines, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other medical aid – as well as basic food and emergency relief. It means cross-border aid.

As Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo called for earlier this month, the military must “drop all guns” and “bring medical care.” Only international pressure and assistance can deliver that.]

A new nightmare

I vividly remember the moment I heard about the coup. It was past midnight in London, I was about to go to sleep, and just before I reached out to switch off my light my phone flashed with a message: “Coup in Myanmar.”

I had had some prior warning. Two days previously I had had a conversation with Cardinal Bo, who warned me of rumours of a coup. But I had hoped, prayed, believed that they were unfounded.

When the news reports made clear that it was reality, I was heartbroken. For over 20 years Myanmar has had a central place in my heart. I have visited the country more than 50 times, written three books about it and been deported twice. I have been deeply inspired in my faith in a particularly personal way by the witness of the Church in Myanmar, and have developed many friendships in Myanmar and along its borders. I had witnessed over the past decade some positive changes in the country – always bittersweet, always juxtaposed with yet more abuses, yet nonetheless some reasons to be cautiously optimistic as, in a fragile, faltering way, space for democracy, independent media and civil society opened. Now the clock has been turned back by well over a decade, and the country faces a new nightmare.

Last week, I received the following message from Reverend Hkalam Samson, the President of the Kachin Baptist Convention, whom I have known for many years and had the privilege of hosting in London in November 2018. In a message with the subject line “Remember,” he writes a prayer:

My dear almighty Lord God, please hear my humble prayer.

I believe the power you have entrusted to us human beings is to build a peaceful world where love, generosity, humility, and justice thrive. However, when power-hungry people claim governing power by force, they abuse their power by becoming dictators to stay in control for a long time. In world history, because of the inhumane authoritarian leaders, many people were killed in tragic deaths, many societies were destroyed, and many lives were ruined. For instance, the very first fighting for power through evil deeds started with Lucifer, the angel. Then throughout human history, many leaders brought destruction upon human society, such as Egyptian Pharaohs, Roman Emperors, Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jung-il, Saddam Hussein, Marcos of Philippines, Gaddafi of Libya, etc. In addition, there were wars like the crusade war, the First and the Second World War, which power-hungry people ignited. A similar scenario of destructions caused by power-hungry people is still happening in the present. People are dying in the present and will continue dying in tragic deaths if the authoritarian system continues in this world. So, oh Lord my God, please help us end this cruel authoritarian leadership for good.

Especially here in Myanmar, the citizens of Myanmar have been facing tragic deaths for generations and have been forced to live under injustice and persecuted lifestyle, and poverty for more than seven decades. Recently, the spread of Covid has added fuel to the fire in Myanmar. As a result, people feel helpless and desperate to fight to live. Moreover, the citizens of Myanmar feel like being abandoned like orphans because the country has become without good governance. I pray for God’s protection and blessing be upon those in sufferings.

​Hence, my heartfelt prayer is: The almighty God, my Lord, please help us and give us wisdom and strength to end the cruel authoritarian system in Myanmar by blessing the foundation and formation of a fair and justice Federal System in Myanmar. Also, Lord, please bless this devastating country with leaders who do not look for self-interest but lead with love so that the citizens will feel secured. In the name of Christ Jesus, may my humble prayer be fulfilled, Amen.

As we mark the sixth month anniversary of the coup, we have a choice to make. Do we take Reverend Samson’s prayer and make it our own, or do we walk on by?

Do we shrug wearily, resigned to the fact that repression has been Myanmar’s story for most of the past seven decades, and looks set to be its future too?

Or do we refuse to be defeated, and insist that hope, faith, justice, peace and freedom can still be the path, and vow to work for that vision? Do we listen to the appeals of Cardinal Bo, Reverend Samson and so many others from Myanmar and respond?

Most of my friends from Myanmar are either in prison now, or in hiding, or have fled into exile. For the sake of my friends in Myanmar, for the sake of the values of freedom and justice, for the sake of my conscience, I choose the second path. I choose not to give up, and to continue to fight for a free Myanmar for all its people, of all ethnicities and religions. I choose, in the words of CSW’s motto, to “pray, protest and provide” as best I can. I choose, as we all do in CSW, to defend the right for everyone in Myanmar to be free to believe – to believe in God, to believe in a religion of their choice, to believe in hope, to believe in justice and peace.

Will you join me?

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

Featured Image: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun