In a world of crises and tragedy, we must not forget about Myanmar

By Benedict Rogers

When Myanmar (Burma)’s army reportedly killed 11 children in a helicopter attack last week, those of us who follow Myanmar heaved a sigh and shed a tear, and the rest of the world gave a shrug and averted its gaze. In a world filled with so much tragedy, the crisis in Myanmar seems to be passing so many by. For those of us watching, it was yet another bombing, yet another massacre, yet another atrocity – and dare I say it, yet another attack which has become daily news.

It’s staggering, really. Myanmar’s illegal military regime seized power in a coup just over 18 months ago, overthrowing a democratically elected government, snuffing out a decade of hoped-for liberalization, and turning the clock back by at least ten years – and yet the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders. A brutal, criminal dictatorship has locked up a Nobel Laureate – who had already spent years under house arrest and then a decade sharing power with the military in government – and the world turns its back. A junta arrests and jails a former British ambassador, Vicky Bowman, alongside an Australian academic, Sean Turnell, both of whom I know, and no one really says a word. And that regime spends months relentlessly bombing innocent civilians and the international community is silent. What is going on?

True, the world right now is full of woes. The war in Ukraine. The energy crisis. The threats to Taiwan. Protests in Iran. And many other tragedies – some in the news, others forgotten. Nigeria. Yemen. Syria. North Korea. Hong Kong. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These are all desperate heartaches which sometimes gain the spotlight and yet so often remain forgotten. But Myanmar is a Ukraine in slow-motion, and yet almost no one is speaking about it.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, former US Congressman Tom Andrews, a friend of mine, recently described the human rights situation in the country as having gone from “bad to worse to horrific” since the coup last year, correctly observing that the people of Myanmar feel that the world has abandoned them.

“With each report I have warned that unless UN Member States change course in the way they collectively respond to this crisis, the people of Myanmar will suffer even further,” he told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Mr Andrews presented a grim assessment of 1.3 million displaced people; 28,000 destroyed homes; villages burned to the ground; more than 13,000 children killed as the death toll for innocent people rises significantly; a looming food crisis; and 130,000 Rohingya in de facto internment camps while others suffer deprivation and discrimination rooted in their lack of citizenship.

“Let me be frank,” said the UN Rapporteur. “The people of Myanmar are deeply disappointed by the response of the international community to this crisis. They are frustrated and angered by Member States that are working to prop up this illegal and brutal military junta with funding, trade, weapons, and a veneer of legitimacy. But they are also disappointed by those nations that voice support for them, but then fail to back up their words with action. The stakes could not be higher.”

Reports from groups on the ground, such as CSW’s partners the Free Burma Rangers, confirm this. In one of the Free Burma Rangers’ latest reports, they detail the killing of at least 19 people by the Burma Army in July, with the wounding of 15 more as the Myanmar Army continued a campaign of terror against its own people.

According to the Free Burma Rangers: “In the first week of July, villagers discovered the bodies of an additional five people who had been killed one month before and their bodies thrown in the river. Burma Army airstrikes killed at least three villagers, while others were captured and shot on the spot. Burma Army soldiers captured at least two villagers and tortured them before killing them. Burma Army soldiers burned the villages of Law Mu Per and Ka Nyi Jo. Tens of thousands villagers have fled their homes and are hiding wherever they feel is safer; most of these are struggling to survive in the jungle in the middle of monsoon season.”

So what can we do?

I believe there are four responses we must take.

First, we must wake people up. We must remind people that amidst a world of crisis and chaos, Myanmar matters and that we must never ever forget it.

Second, we must mobilise people to pray and act. In a world of so much need and challenge, we must encourage people to help the people of Myanmar.

Third, in response to the question of what to do, we must respond to the humanitarian needs of the peoples of Myanmar – by urging our governments to provide cross-border aid and by supporting those groups who deliver cross-border aid ourselves.

Fourthly, we must advocate for Myanmar to our elected representatives – urging them to act.

In short: together, we must act, to cut the lifelines to this brutal regime by enacting the toughest and most targeted sanctions, cutting arms supplies, and seeking prosecution for crimes against humanity and genocide. And at the same time we need to provide a lifeline to the peoples, through humanitarian aid via channels that will reach them.

For over two decades I have advocated for the peoples of Myanmar. I have travelled to the country and its borders more than 50 times, been deported twice and written three books about the country. As challenging as times are, I am not about to give up now. I take heart from these words from our friends from the Free Burma Rangers, who say:

“Thank you so much for your care for these people. Please pray with us that the hearts of their enemy would change, or that the enemy would be defeated. Pray for comfort, hope, strength and peace for our friends … all over Burma, who are struggling not just for their lives but for freedom and their future.”

Pray for Myanmar urgently. Act in the ways you can. Tell others. And please, do not allow the world to forget.

Benedict Rogers is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015).