Myanmar’s forgotten crisis
The recent extension of the state of emergency and postponement of elections – not that these would have been democratic – are the latest signs that Myanmar’s ruling junta isn’t feeling the heat of international scrutiny. Its campaign of atrocities continues, with thousands killed and even more jailed. The global focus on the horror of Russia’s war on Ukraine is enabling Myanmar’s military to get an easy ride. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations isn’t taking a strong enough line and an uneven pattern of economic sanctions is helping to fund the junta’s violence. After two years of military rule, it’s time to step up the pressure.
To no one’s great surprise, Myanmar’s military junta celebrated the second anniversary of its coup in February by extending the state of emergency and delaying the elections it had promised to hold by the August this year. The postponement of elections is hardly a setback for democracy: there was no chance of the military allowing a free and fair vote.
Defiance was signalled by a silent strike on the anniversary of the coup that saw businesses shuttered and streets deserted. It’s pretty much the only form of protest people feel safe to join now, giving the violent repression the state has unleashed. Only the diaspora living in surrounding countries, among them many exiles who’ve fled persecution, could safely mobilise on the coup’s anniversary to demand the restoration of democracy.
The context is one of continuing conflict between the junta’s forces and the People’s Defence Force – the pro-democracy armed rebellion – that has put aside differences to ally with ethnic militias against the military. The military doesn’t control anything close to all of Myanmar’s territory. But where it does, its rule is brutal.
A catalogue of violence
Numerous civilians have been killed in airstrikes and ground combat between the army and rebel forces. As well as indiscriminate airstrikes, the military is accused of deliberately targeting civilians. Some 165 children were reportedly killed by the junta in 2022. An estimated 1.3 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict, many of whom have seen their homes deliberately destroyed by the military and pro-junta militias, who have burned whole villages to the ground.
The junta has reinstated executions, ending a three-decade-long mortarium on the death penalty. Last July the junta executed four men, among them a democracy activist and a politician from the ousted ruling party. At least 139 other people have received death sentences, including students and youth activists.
Many civil society personnel, along with journalists, politicians, protesters, students and others have been jailed, often following unfair trials in military tribunals. Lawyers have been jailed for defending those arrested, as have medical workers who helped injured protesters. While the junta occasionally releases groups of prisoners to placate international pressure, in some cases freed prisoners have been re-arrested. It’s estimated there are currently almost 16,000 people detained. People are subjected to torture and ill-treatment in detention, including sexual abuse. At least 145 people have died during interrogation.
Former leader Aung San Suu Kyi is among the ranks of the jailed, having been handed multiple sentences adding up to 33 years through a series of closed trials.
Many civil society organisations (CSOs) have been banned, forced to suspend operations or close their offices. A law introduced by the junta in October 2022 imposes compulsory registration requirements on CSOs, with stiff punishments for non-compliance. It’s a similar story for labour unions, largely no longer able to organise. Conventional and social media are now heavily restricted. People have been threatened with long jail terms just for liking or sharing pro-democracy content.
Lack of international action
The junta still struggles for international legitimacy. Its seat at the United Nations (UN) is still held by the National Unity Government, the continuation of the ousted democratic government, and the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar has made clear the junta’s claim to government is illegitimate.
But there’s a significant lack of pressure from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s intergovernmental organisation. In April 2021, ASEAN leaders agreed a five-point plan that was supposed to end the violence and lead to dialogue, but no progress has resulted and the junta’s atrocities have continued unabated. ASEAN has stopped junta members attending summits – and civil society continues to urge that the junta be excluded – but beyond that it has failed to keep up the pressure. Some undemocratic ASEAN member states, notably Cambodia, evidently have little interest in urging change.
The military will surely only be brought to the table if the resources it uses to wage war on its people dry up.
Meanwhile the existence of the ASEAN plan, even though it remains a paper exercise, has given states outside the region, including the USA and European Union (EU) members, an excuse to stand back.
The UN human rights machinery continues to collect evidence of atrocities. In December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding an end to the violence and the release of all arbitrarily detained prisoners. But the resolution still put its faith in ASEAN’s plan.
Time to step up the pressure
It’s naïve to assume the junta will take part in good faith in a dialogue such as that envisaged by ASEAN. The reality is that there’s likely no end to the impasse unless the junta’s grip on economic power is confronted. The military controls much of the economy, including through direct and indirect ownership of corporations. The military will surely only be brought to the table if the resources it uses to wage war on its people dry up.
There have been some sanctions, including from the Canadian, UK and US governments, while the EU has both sanctioned junta officials and frozen government aid. But crucially sanctions largely haven’t been applied to the economically powerful state-owned oil and gas company, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the junta’s biggest foreign currency earner. While the EU bans its companies from working in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector, the UK and US governments are among many that make no such prohibitions.
Many countries and companies continue to do business with the regime. Amid soaring prices, fossil fuel giants have reaped vast profits from their extractive operations in Myanmar, paying royalties and taxes to MOGE and thereby bankrolling the junta and its repression. And while the imposition of sanctions on aviation fuel by the governments of Canada and the UK on the second anniversary of the coup was a welcome move – since aviation fuel enables military airstrikes – firms in many countries are still selling the supplies needed for the junta to manufacture weapons. These aren’t just Chinese and Russian companies as might be expected, but also firms from France, Germany and the USA, among others.
International civil society pressure has increasingly targeted companies that collaborate with junta-controlled corporations. Some have pulled out, among them a few oil firms. But divestment also throws up risks. Last year a mobile phone network that was a subsidiary of a firm majority owned by the Norwegian government withdrew. But the company was sold to a military supporter, which could enable the junta to access the data of 18 million users. Divestment is needed but must be carried out responsibly.
Myanmar is one of many conflicts that have largely fallen out of the international spotlight as the world’s attention has focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But rightful concern with the rights of Ukrainians under attack and the injustice of Russia’s invasion shouldn’t give other vile regimes like Myanmar’s junta a free pass. The junta feels so enabled that it has decided to defer the legitimising fig leaf of a sham election. After two years of military rule, it’s time to step up the pressure.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community must work to create a coalition of states to enforce strong, coordinated sanctions against Myanmar’s military junta and the companies it controls.
The international community should support the National Unity Government, which has a stronger claim to legitimacy than the junta, increase engagement with it and provide appropriate support to help ensure its sustainability.
The international community must deny any diplomatic, technical, or financial support to any elections organised by the junta and instead denounce them as sham elections.
Cover photo by Eloisa Lopez/Reuters via Gallo Images