One year on from the coup in Myanmar, today must be a turning point

By Benedict Rogers

A year ago today, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar/Burma’s military, ordered his troops to take over government buildings, raid the offices of the governing party, arrest members of Myanmar’s democratically elected government and Parliament, shut down independent media, take control of the state media and seize power in a brutal coup d’etat. His decision turned the clock back by more than a decade, reversing ten years of fragile democratisation in which the country had seen credible elections, an independent media, the release of political prisoners, a vibrant civil society and opening up to the international community.

Of course, that decade of reform was far from perfect – not least because it included the genocide of the Rohingyas, continued conflict in ethnic states, particularly Kachin, Shan and Rakhine, and the rise of extreme religious nationalism leading to increased religious discrimination and persecution. But nevertheless, it allowed some seeds of political liberalisation to grow, and enabled the people of Myanmar to vote freely.

Twice – in 2015 and 2020 – Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming mandate to govern. After years under house arrest, prison, hiding or exile, the NLD – whose mandate from the 1990 elections was never accepted by the military – was now in government.

The constitution gave the military a built-in power base, creating a hybrid civilian-military power-sharing arrangement, which seemed advantageous to the military in many ways. Their influence in key decisions continued by controlling the home affairs, border affairs and defence ministries; their stake in the political process remained by reserving a quarter of the parliamentary seats for the military; and their ability to thwart any changes that threatened their interests was clear.

Yet despite all that, on 1 February 2021 Min Aung Hlaing launched a power grab, rejecting the results of the November 2020 elections and reinstating direct military rule. Why? Because he wanted to be President and if he could not gain office by the ballot box, he would do so with bullets instead.

Attacked with full force

In the past year since the coup, Myanmar has been plunged into an appalling political, economic, humanitarian and human rights crisis. Min Aung Hlaing and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, clearly underestimated the scale of resistance to the coup. Having tasted some degree of freedom, the people of Myanmar did not want to return to the dark days of dictatorship. But in response, the Tatmadaw has unleashed its full force against its own people.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 11,776 people have been arrested, and 1,494 people killed. Among those arrested are at least 573 NLD members, of whom 432 remain in detention. Twelve have died in custody, including seven tortured to death during interrogation. It has also been reported that at least 92 people have received a death sentence.

Journalists are especially targeted, with at least 114 journalists arrested since the coup, of whom 43 remain in jail. At least one, a photojournalist called Soe Naing, has died in custody. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Myanmar today ranks second only to China as a country that has jailed the most journalists. In 2020, before the coup, no journalists were jailed in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s elected President Win Myint remain in jail, and have received the first sentences from a range of charges levied at them, with more to come. Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, has so far been convicted on trumped-up charges of breaking COVID-19 restrictions and illegal possession of walkie-talkies, but she faces at least a dozen charges in total and is likely to be held in detention indefinitely.

The Tatmadaw have carried out at least 7,053 attacks on civilians, which represents an increase of 664% from 2020. Among the dead are at least 94 women and 100 children. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 330,600 people have been internally displaced since the coup, although this figure is likely to be a serious underestimate. In Karenni State alone, at least 156,935 people – over half the population – has been displaced.

Most shocking has been the military’s use of air strikes against civilians, particularly in Chin State, Karenni State, Karen State and Sagaing and Magway Divisions, breaking both international law and Myanmar’s own laws. These attacks have been accompanied by appalling atrocities, including murder, torture, sexual violence, rape and the destruction of property.

On 7 December last year, Tatmadaw soldiers bound 11 civilians and tortured them before burning them alive, in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Division. The victims included five teenagers aged between 14 and 17. A twelfth victim was found the next day, with a severe knife wound in her neck.

On Christmas Eve, in Moso village, Hpruso Township in Karenni State, at least 37 people, including women and about ten children, were massacred. Soldiers tied the victims’ hands behind their backs, forced them into vehicles and set them alight, burning them to death. Among them were two humanitarian aid workers from Save the Children.

The religious element

Everyone in Myanmar is suffering the consequences of the coup, but it does seem that Christians have been targeted with particular intensity. At least five pastors have been murdered and four others jailed in Chin State alone, and several churches in Karenni and Chin states have been shelled and destroyed.

On 18 September, for example, Pastor Cung Biak Hum, 31, was shot dead by soldiers as he tried to help extinguish a blaze caused by artillery fire, which destroyed 19 homes in Thantlang township.  On 13 December, another Chin pastor was found dead – with bullet wounds to his head and stomach – in Kanpetlet township, having been arrested two days before.

Pastor Cung Biak Hum

Meanwhile Muslims throughout the country, and especially Rohingyas, continue to face grinding persecution at the hands of a military regime driven by extreme Burman Buddhist nationalism.

‘Let today be a turning point’

A year on from the coup, Myanmar faces a humanitarian emergency, compounded by COVID-19 and by the regime’s deliberate blocking of aid. The military has stolen, looted or obstructed humanitarian assistance, leaving hundreds of thousands without food, medicines, or shelter. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that 46.3% of the population will be living in poverty in 2022. It is estimated that 14.4 million people – including 5 million children – will need humanitarian assistance this year. According to the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), this represents a dramatic increase of 1340% over estimates before the coup of one million people needing aid.

This harrowing litany of horrors compels a response, and yet the apparent apathy of the international community has added to the nightmare. Apart from some welcome sanctions from the United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom, and some robust statements, the unfolding crisis has been largely met with inaction.

As we reflect on the first anniversary of the coup and its dire consequences, the world needs to wake up and do two things: cut the lifeline to the Generals and provide a lifeline to the people.

Cutting the lifeline to the Generals requires applying the most robust, targeted and co-ordinated sanctions possible. Some countries have made a start on this, but there is more to do. It is vital that we cut the cash-flow to the junta, and at the same time stop the flow of weapons, through an enforced global arms embargo. That is why last month 286 organisations issued a statement calling on the UN Security Council to convene an open meeting to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Myanmar. Norway, as the Security Council’s current President, along with the UK, as the “penholder” on Myanmar and all allies on the Council must table an urgent debate to mark the anniversary and coordinate action. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should step up and use the moral authority of his good offices to mobilise a response to the crisis. And Member States, including the United Kingdom, should provide urgent humanitarian assistance to those displaced along Myanmar’s borders.

So let us redouble our prayers and our efforts. Pray for those in prison, pray for the displaced, pray for the bereaved, pray for those in danger, pray for national leaders – among the democratic opposition, the government-in-exile, the civil disobedience movement, the resistance – and for religious leaders across faith communities. Pray for the international community to act. Pray for the generals, that their hearts would be miraculously turned, or they would be brought down. And join in CSW’s efforts to press our policymakers and Parliamentarians to speak out.

A year of bloodshed, torture and inhumanity in Myanmar has so far been met by a year of little more than handwringing and sympathy – at best – from some in the international community, and apathy or even complicity from others. This has to change. Allowing the generals to seize power illegally from a democratically-elected government and commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocity crimes with impunity is unacceptable. Let today be a turning point in our resolve to help the people of Myanmar out of the nightmare engulfing them.

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 via Unsplash/@tsawwunna24