By Benedict Rogers
Two years ago today, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar/Burma’s military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, shattered the dream of a democratic, free Myanmar and plunged the country back into bloody, brutal repression. When he seized power in a coup d’etat on 1 February 2021, overthrowing the country’s democratically elected civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, he tore up a decade of the military’s own reform process and returned Myanmar to pariah status in the international community.
The coup unleashed a new war on this beautiful but benighted country that has already endured 76 years of civil war. The impoverished country which had been beginning to emerge into the world economy, attracting foreign investment as it liberalised politically, has been consigned to even harsher levels of poverty, and a humanitarian and human rights crisis even more severe than under previous military regimes.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 17,492 people have been arrested in the past two years since the coup, and 13,689 are still in prison. The junta has killed at least 2,894 people, including 282 children. At least 143 people have been sentenced to death, including 42 in absentia. But these are only the figures recorded – the real death toll, taking into account the military’s offensives in the ethnic regions, is likely to be much, much higher. Indeed, in his September 2022 report, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews estimated that more than 13,000 children have been killed, while 1.3 million people have been displaced and 28,000 homes have been destroyed. He said Myanmar’s crisis was spiralling from ‘bad to worse to horrific.’
Among those executed by the regime are prominent pro-democracy Member of Parliament Phyo Zeya Thaw and activist Ko Jimmy in July last year. Previous military regimes in Myanmar of course had plenty of blood on their hands from crackdowns and military assaults in the ethnic states, but the death penalty had not been used judicially for many years – until Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. I had met Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy several times, and their murder by this illegal, criminal junta shocked me profoundly.
An equal opportunity oppressor
The current regime is in many ways an equal opportunity oppressor, in the sense that it kills, arrests, imprisons and seeks to silence anyone who opposes it. Burman Buddhists are just as likely to be locked up or shot as anyone else if they march for democracy. But Min Aung Hlaing’s regime is also inherently motivated by a racist, religious nationalist agenda which sees Myanmar as a Buddhist nation and wants to crush non-Burman, non-Buddhist ethnic and religious communities. The military has long stirred up anti-Muslim hatred, resulting in the genocide of the Rohingyas five years ago and a wider campaign of discrimination, hate speech and violence against the Muslim population throughout the country. Now, it appears that Min Aung Hlaing and his dictatorship have Christians in their sights.
According to a report last year by Radio Free Asia, since the coup the military has destroyed at least 132 religious buildings, including 66 churches in Chin State alone and 20 churches and a mosque in Karenni State. But that figure is even higher now. In the first few weeks of 2023 alone, several churches have been bombed or attacked, including two in Karen State. A mother and her two year-old daughter were killed in the airstrikes on the churches. On 15 January, a 129-year-old Catholic church was set ablaze in the Sagaing region, and on 30 December last year a Catholic church in Kachin State – St Michael’s in San Hka village, Hpakantt township – was shelled. And these are just three examples, out of many.
Last November, Mon Hla, the home village of Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, was attacked by the military. Hundreds of homes in this central Sagaing village were burned down. I visited Mon Hla with the Cardinal in 2015, to celebrate his 25th episcopal Jubilee, a quarter of a century as a bishop. It is an area with a mixed population of Catholics and Buddhists, where the two communities have lived in harmony for centuries.
According to the Free Burma Rangers, fighting between the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – and ethnic armed groups has been particularly intense in recent months in predominantly Christian Kachin State, in the north of the country. Free Burma Rangers also reported in January that two of their team members were killed within one week in Karen State. I have known and worked with the Free Burma Rangers, who are among CSW’s closest partners in Myanmar, for over 20 years and so I urge readers to pray for them at this terrible time, and for the loved ones of Saw Hser K’Paw Moo, killed on 5 January, and Saw Baw Boe, killed on 9 January. The Free Burma Rangers do extraordinary, courageous, life-saving humanitarian work and documentation of human rights violations in Myanmar’s conflict zones.
One of the most alarming developments has been the arrest and imprisonment of Reverend Dr Hkalam Samson, one of Myanmar’s most prominent Christian leaders. Reverend Samson, whom I know well and whom CSW hosted as part of a delegation from northern Myanmar visiting the UK in 2018, was arrested at Mandalay airport on 4 December as he attempted to travel to Bangkok, reportedly for medical treatment. He had served as President of the Kachin Baptist Convention from 2018-2022 and previously two terms as General Secretary, and is an internationally respected advocate for religious freedom and human rights in Myanmar. In 2019, he was among religious leaders from around the world who met the President of the United States in the White House, on the sidelines of the International Religious Freedom Ministerial Conference in Washington, DC.
Reverend Samson is now held in Myitkyina prison, charged with two offences under the Unlawful Association Act. According to media reports, he is in poor health. Please pray for Reverend Samson, and his family, and write to your Member of Parliament to urge them to ensure that his case is not forgotten. To arrest, jail and prosecute one of the country’s most prominent Christian pastors is a sign of how hostile this regime is to the church.
The crisis in Myanmar is Asia’s Ukraine. Indeed, the comparisons with Ukraine do not stop with bombing, killing, rape and displacement. Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is, along with China, Min Aung Hlaing’s biggest enabler – his most significant supplier of arms, economic support and political and diplomatic cover. The fact that Russia and China did not veto the recent historic UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar, and instead abstained, was nothing short of a miracle.
But unlike Ukraine, the perpetrator of crimes is not an invader, but the country’s own illegal regime, that displaced a legitimate elected government and launched a campaign of terror. And unlike Ukraine, Myanmar is far from the headlines. On this second anniversary of the coup, it is our responsibility to ensure that it is not forgotten, and that the international community acts to stop this continuing humanitarian and human rights crisis.
We need to do four things.
Firstly, cut the lifeline to the military regime. Some action has been taken on this front, but more is needed. We must cut the flow of money that keeps the regime afloat, cut the flow of aviation fuel – as Amnesty International has documented – that keeps the military’s planes in the skies bombing civilians, and cut the flow of arms to the regime.
Secondly, we must provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar, through cross-border humanitarian aid to those who are displaced, on the run in the jungle or as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Thirdly, hold the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. A step forward on this front was made last week when the human rights group Fortify Rights, together with 16 individual complainants from Myanmar, filed a criminal complaint in Germany under the principal of universal jurisdiction against senior Myanmar military generals. Similar actions are already underway in Argentina, and at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
And fourthly, pray for Myanmar. On Sunday 12 March the annual Global Day of Prayer for Burma/Myanmar will take place. For almost three decades, the Free Burma Rangers have run the worldwide prayer day ever since their founder, our friend David Eubank, met Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996. She urged him to pray for the country, and he took her request seriously. Today, she is back in prison, facing a total sentence of 33 years in prison, on multiple fabricated charges. If the regime is allowed to stand unchallenged, and if they do not release her, she – aged 77 – faces the rest of her life behind bars.
Both Pope Francis and Cardinal Bo have made repeated appeals for prayer for Myanmar. On 20 January Cardinal Bo and two other Catholic bishops in the country issued a statement pleading for peace. ‘Recent months have seen great threats to the sacredness of human life, the lives lost, the lives displaced and the lives under starvation,’ they said. ‘In a country blessed with so many great resources, the destruction of lives is a heart-wrenching tragedy,’ said Cardinal Bo. ‘Increasingly, the places of worship and monasteries where communities sought peace and reconciliation are themselves under attack and carnage. International instruments like the Hague Convention call for the protection of places of worship, places of learning and places of healing.’
Let us take that call seriously. Just five days ago we marked Holocaust Memorial Day. While that tragedy was unique and we should be cautious and sensitive about making any comparisons, let us learn lessons from it and from the repeated promises made over the years: “Never again”. Too often, repeatedly, it is “never again, all over again”.
Please join us in prayer and action. Let us ensure that this tragedy is neither ignored nor forgotten and that we don’t keep saying “never again” without meaning it or without acting. Let us ensure that we do everything possible to stop the carnage, to appeal for peace, to help those who need aid, to ensure there are consequences for the perpetrators, that there is no impunity, and that we protect places of worship, learning and healing. Failure to do so would be an indictment on our moral conscience, and will have implications for us all.
Benedict Rogers is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, author of seven 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). His new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party” (Optimum Publishing International, 2022), includes a chapter on Myanmar.