The military crackdown on protesters escalated in the last month and drew the attention of the international community. After the democratic election in Myanmar last year, the junta claiming for election fraud took over. The power of the military has been challenged by the democratic party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, since the early 90s. The paper elaborates on the military involvement in the 2017 Rohingya crackdown and examines the democratic efforts till the current turmoil, and it gives a summary of the coup. Furthermore, it aims to inform on the international response by the international community, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the neighboring countries with the main focus on China. Among others, the paper elaborates on measurements and sanctions imposed by international companies and actors. Last but not least, the paper ends up with a summary including the possible outcomes of the situation.
Crackdown on human rights
A few years ago, Myanmar got attention and happened to be in the middle of the international spotlight due to the gravely concerning human rights abuses against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas. They have their own culture, language, and even though they have been in the region since 1970, Myanmar denies them citizenship, excluding them from the census (BBC 2020). Rohingyas living in the northern Rakhine State have been facing systematic discrimination, statelessness, and violence (OCHA). According to the United Nations Human Rights-chief, what happened in Mynamar in 2017 is a „textbook example of ethnic cleansing“ after security forces burned down villages and killed citizens (UN news 2017). A report issued by Amnesty International records that girls and women suffered rape, furthermore, violations, massacres, and arbitrary detention of men and boys were committed (Amnesty International 2018). Destroyed villages and their names disappeared from the map making the return of over 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees a complex issue as authorities arrest them on entry claiming illegal entrance (McPherson 2020). The government of Myanmar does not see any evidence of genocide and, the country’s Independent Commission of Enquiry in charge of the investigation says that the military committed „war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law“ (BBC 2020).
The government led by Aung San Suu Kyi at that time failed to stop and prevent the violence. In 2019, at the hearing of the International Court of Justice, she defended the military. This statement ruined her international reputation. The Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the head of the National League for Democracy and a famous figure since the 1990s. She has been arrested and kept in solitary confinement many times between 1989 and 2010 for organizing democratic movements and speaking out for free elections. Like father, like daughter, General Aung San fought for the independence of Myanmar. The lady, how people call her in Burma, studied in the United Kingdom and later worked in Japan and Bhutan. For her leadership in the democratic movement and activities, she has been detained several times during the past decades. She rejoined the political arena, and in 2015 she won the first democratic election hold in Myanmar (Cuddy 2021). Although her victory, the constitution of Myanmar forbade her to rule as president because her children are foreign nationals, yet international actors accept her as the de facto leader. Last year after the five years ago election, she won again, receiving more votes than in 2015. During her leadership, the military remained dominant in the parliament, having a quarter of the seats and being influential in ministries like Home and Border affairs leading to the current democratic turmoil. After the November 2020 election, the military announced voting fraud, arrested democratic leaders, and announced a year-long state of emergency (BBC 2021).
In 2007, people took the streets to protest against the sudden spike in fuel prices, but the aim of the demonstrators quickly changed against the ruling military. The so-called Saffron Revolution- referring to the saffron-colored clothes of monks- spread over the country. The military crackdown caused at least 13 casualties, but the movement became an important milestone voicing democratic demands (RFA). That was not the first peaceful upraising for democracy when the military responded with violence. Prior to that, in 1988, approximately 3000 people lost their lives in the demonstration, chiefly led by students (Mydans 2007).
The military takeover
The military called Tatmadaw seized power in February this year. After the coup, people in Myanmar took the streets and started peacefully demonstrating. Their goal is to free the leader Suu Kyi and restore the democratic government. The military junta responded by using force and oppressing the demonstrators. On the first day of March, Myanmar’s Security Force deployed tear gas, flashbangs, and grenades on the protesters, across the country, killing 18 people and injuring 30, stated the United Nations Human Rights Office. The well-known three-finger salute became the symbol of demonstration, using it outside Myanmar too (Gigova 2021). Since the junta took power, the 75-years old Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained and has not seen in the last month. She is in Naypyidaw in solitary confinement, and the military denied her to have access to her lawyer before the court hearing. She faces four different charges among those importing walkie-talkies and violating Covid-19 rules during the election campaign (AFP 2021). She was seen via video call when appearing at the court hearing, being in a good health condition, said by her lawyer.
According to human rights activists, military oppression gets brutal, and more and more people lost their lives. Several video records prove the bloody raid of the junta (Regan 2021). Military Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is in charge, leads the Tatmadaw, and has been always influential. He says that once the state-of-emergency is over, the junta will hold a free and fair election (Cuddy 2021). Journalists pay a high price for doing their jobs and reporting on the incidents; many of them are detained by the authorities and imprisoned for up to 3 years. According to the military and the law they amended, everyone is punishable, who causes fear, spread false news, agitates directly or indirectly for a criminal offense against the government (CNBC 2021). Among protesters, medical personnel also let their voice out. Their participation hampers the vaccination beyond that food and medicine supplies stuck, and fabrics operate erratically (Wiriyapong 2021).
Voice of the international community
In response to the coup, the international community imposed sanctions on Myanmar. The country highly depends on FDIs. The World Bank decided to suspend development project payments, multinationals from Singapore are more careful with the military regime. Japan, the largest donor to Myanmar, will halt new assistance. New Zealand cut ties to Myanmar at the beginning of February, condemning the coup. Neighboring country China has not commented on the change of power, although its relation to the democratic government has been always decent. Countries cutting ties to Myanmar will create a more China-dependent state of affairs. As a Chinese interest, Myanmar is part of the Belt and Road initiative, meaning that China will play a crucial role in infrastructure, mining, and power, announced by China in 2019 (Wiriyapong 2021). Since the early 90s, China follows the „non-interference“ principle when it comes to Myanmar. China is highly interested in trafficking arms to Burma, and assumingly she influences domestic affairs too. Myanmar accused China of supporting rebel groups against the military in the past however, Beijing backed Aung San Suu Kyi and the military in the dispute over the Rohingya crackdown. Alongside China, another permanent member of the United Nations Council supported Myanmar, while the USA claimed genocidal intent, which helped China tighten ties with Myanmar. In return, Myanmar supports Chinese interests in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and backed the implementation of the security law in Hong Kong. As part of the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor – a strategic plan aiming to bring the two countries closer- the parties signed billion worth projects but due to the current turmoil, China has to count with a delay (McLaughlin 2021). Indonesia aims to create a peaceful region and therefore pushes for a dialogue supporting democracy. Thailand and Cambodia remain silent following the non-interference principle. Japan plans to halt new funds to the country (Wiriyapong 2021). Tokyo has a military partnership program with Myanmar, including capacity building and training support. India has defense ties to Myanmar too, they carry out joint exercises, operations, and it contributes military hardware to Myanmar (Chellaney 2021). Foreign Minister of Singapore calls for immediate releasement of Aung San Suu Kyi and stop using lethal force against the demonstrators. Indonesian Foreign Minister and his Thai counterpart met the military-appointed foreign minister in Bangkok to negotiate (Reuters Staff 2021).
Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, urges the international community to pressure Myanmar to end violence and release detainees (Foreign 2021 (a)). He announced sanctions against the military members of Myanmar, including the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The Foreign Secretary accuses the member of the military of committing serious human rights violations. The Department for International Trade guarantees that no UK businesses will deal with companies tied to the Tatmadaw. Furthermore, the United Kingdom will redirect aid to the most vulnerable in Myanmar to ensure that the military cannot access it (Foreign 2021 (b)).
The United States is the current president of the United Nations Security Council, represented by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stands by democracy and supports the restoration of the elected government. Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations quaveringly asked the international body to take any necessary actions to restore democracy. The United Nations does not recognize the military junta as the leader of Myanmar and condemns the coup (Nichols 2021). At the same time, both sides hold their representative as officials. The military announced that the deputy ambassador has been pointed out by the junta to represent Myanmar, meanwhile, Kyaw Moe Tun told the Council that he still fills the position (Roth 2021). The resignation of the military pointed ambassador brought an end to the debate (CNA, March 5, 2021). The Security Council voiced concern over Russia and China, who remained silent and consider the coup as an internal affair of Burma (News UN, 2021). The European Union plans to implement sanctions and ask to end the repression (Anadolu Agency 2021). Joe Biden, President of the United States, call the military to free detainees and warned the military of facing the consequences of the coup. The US initiated a negotiation with China to urge her to act and bring an end to the violent Burmese military takeover (Lee 2021). Joe Biden banned a $1 bn transfer after the junta installed a new central bank governor of the Central Bank of Myanmar and has tried to take the money from the Federal Revenue Bank of New York (Al Jazeera 2021).
Western companies like Coca-Cola, Facebook, and many more voiced disagreement with the violent regime change, while Asian companies did not react yet. Human Rights Watch calls the Working Group on Businesses and Human Rights of the United Nations to carry out investigations regarding Japanese businesses having ties to Myanmar, just like Norway does (Regalado 2021). YouTube announced to take action and banned five channels related to the junta claiming violation of community guidelines and terms of service (AP 2021). Protesters organized and coordinated the demonstration on Facebook, but the military banned the platform. Facebook did not hesitate to take steps and block individual military leaders and prominent nationalists immediately, hearing the coup (Perrigo 2021).
As demonstrations continue, life gets desperate within the country. Many citizens rely on money transfers by relatives working in Thailand and neighboring countries. Remittances are frozen, and bank services are irregular. Due to the pandemic and the political dispute, livelihood became an issue for many (CAN 2021).
The will and the demand for democracy have been around since the early 90s in Myanmar. A figure like Aung San Suu Kyi is the symbol and the leader of the democratic transition. Her bravery and courage to speak out and act put her many times in a difficult situation. She has been arrested and jailed several times in the past decades for being the leader of the democratic movement. Her international reputation has been dramatically damaged while ignoring the first ethnic clashes; meanwhile, her domestic institutional position has not weakened as the demonstrations show. The civil population supports and believes in her leader, and they want her to her return. The military presence is recognizable in every stage of the government operation, yet in the democratically elected government, the Tatmadaw and its senior leader hold their position. The junta maintained its power over important Ministries, like Home and Border affairs. In 2017, the military carried out a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya minority in the northern region. They destroyed villages, raped women and girls, and committed ethnic cleansing, stated by the United Nations. Last year as the outcome of the democratic election, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won the election, but claiming election fraud, the military sabotaged the takeover. Since the coup, thousands of civilians took the streets- just like they were marching the streets in 1988 and 2007- demanding the release of the party leader and they want the democratic leadership back to power. The peaceful demonstration turned into oppression; the junta uses tear gas and bullets to fighting protesters, causing casualties. The international community did not hesitate to express condemnation towards the suppression. Permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, such as the United Kingdom, proposed to put international-joint pressure on Myanmar to end the violence. Alongside the UK, another permanent member of the Council, the United States imposed sanctions against Myanmar, while Russia stays silent. Several companies, organizations, and many countries support the democratic restoration and impose measures against the military.
Although demonstrators expectedly might not give up, since the military apparat tends to influence domestic affairs, most likely it is not willing to stand back and hand over the power. No negotiations have been seen so far, and their ambition is clear as they keep reacting with oppression to the continued uprisings. Feasibly resistance will trigger an even stricter response from the junta, and they will be hard on the opponents. Expectedly as the result of international measurements imposing sanctions on Myanmar, it will tighten its relationship with China and creates segregation with other actors.
Written by Henrietta Czellár
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