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.

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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.”

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“We are not safe anymore”: Burma’s coup shatters hopes for democracy, religious tolerance and human rights

By Benedict Rogers

Images of tanks and soldiers on the streets of Burma’s cities, and the sound of gunfire against peaceful protesters take us back in time almost 14 years, and reverse a decade of fragile reform and democratization in the country. From the scenes of her release from house arrest in November 2010 via her talks with Burma’s then-President Thein Sein in August 2011, and through to her subsequent election to Parliament, victory in a nationwide election and the past five years as de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi is now back where she started: in detention.

The generals have remained in power throughout, but now they have abandoned any pretense and seized direct control once more.

The coup on 1 February stunned the world. Although it had been rumoured, few expected the military to really do it. It is true that the army in Burma has a history of staging coups – in 1958, 1962 and 1988 – and it isn’t keen on losing elections, as it showed in 1990 when it refused to accept Suu Kyi’s first victory, consigning her to 15 years under house arrest, and her colleagues to prison or exile. In 2008 it drafted a new constitution designed to keep Suu Kyi out of power, rammed it through in a sham referendum and two years later heavily rigged the country’s first elections in two decades. Nevertheless, since then it had appeared that the military had come to some kind of accommodation with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

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Burma elections: This Sunday, the country needs a miracle

By Benedict Rogers

Five years ago, the overwhelming election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma heralded the dawn of a new democratic era after over fifty years of brutal military dictatorship and civil war.

After a total of 15 years under house arrest and more than a quarter of a century of courageous struggle for democracy, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate known to everyone as “The Lady” was poised to head her country’s government. And although the military had deliberately drafted a constitution that excluded her from becoming President, her advisers ingeniously created a new role that circumvented that restriction – the position of State Counsellor, de facto prime minister. With the exception of the three key ministerial roles given to the military under the constitution – home affairs, defence and border affairs – she has absolute oversight of the civilian government.

Yet five years on, it’s a very different picture. Burma approached the crossroads of democratization, peace-building and national reconciliation – and went into reverse.

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Burma’s much needed ceasefire presents a valuable opportunity, provided the military keeps its promises

By Benedict Rogers

Burma’s Cardinal Bo has repeatedly called for peace for a long time. In a statement last month in support of Pope Francis’ plea for a global ceasefire, he warned that during the COVID-19 pandemic continued armed conflict in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) would have “catastrophic consequences for our nation.”

He urged the military – known as the Tatmadaw – and ethnic armed resistance groups to “lay down all weapons and acts of aggression. Be armed instead with sincerity and truth. Let us take the more difficult path of overcoming differences face to face with courage and intelligence. Don’t hide humanity behind guns. In the end that is sheer weakness.”

The Cardinal, who is also President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, argued that: “Soldiers are unnecessarily endangered by exposure to the unseen viral assassin. Civilians are endangered, even by bombardments purportedly aimed at military targets. Peace negotiations are endangered by continued aggressive threats. An economy under severe strain is put at risk by military adventures. Any spike in contagion in IDP camps, among detained persons, or in crowded spaces, gravely threatens the surrounding populations as well.”

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