In what has become another day of violence in Myanmar, Thursday, March 11th saw at least another 12 civilians killed by the ruling military junta, now prompting a top U.N. official to say the crackdown on peaceful protests is “likely meeting the legal threshold for crimes against humanity.”
In the small, central town of Myaing, police opened fire into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing another eight, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Images shared across social media show the town’s streets streaked with blood and lifeless bodies. In one unverified graphic image, one body can be seen with the head blown apart and brain matter spilled over onto the street.
The shootings in the small town of Myaing are only another piece of evidence of the military junta’s willingness in its attempt to crush the peaceful opposition protests to its enforced rule across all of Myanmar. Early restraint has now opted for bullets on the country’s own citizens and is no longer limited to just the larger cities and towns. Several victims have also been killed by shots to the head, indicating deliberate targeting by troops. Over 80 people are estimated to have been killed along with more than 2,000 others detained since the junta’s seizing of power in its coup on February 1st. The conditions and whereabouts of the people detained are currently unknown.
Myanmar’s state-run media has reported on the events reinforcing the military’s narrative of its use of minimum force in the protests and that the protestors themselves are criminals.
On Thursday, March 11th, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that the state-run media’s “growing body of reporting” strongly suggests the junta’s forces are committing regular “acts of murder, imprisonment, persecution, and other crimes as part of a coordinated campaign, directed against a civilian population, in a widespread and systematic manner, with knowledge of the junta’s leadership.”
He says that [the military junta’s actions] are “thereby likely meeting the legal threshold for crimes against humanity.”
How did we get here? Why has the military overthrown the democratically elected government, and detained the nation’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, resulting in nationwide protests? To better understand the complexity of what is happening in Myanmar and why we must know the country’s complicated history with democracy and the fact that it is not the first time, the military has seized power.
Following the end of the Second World War, the country finally gained its independence. Unfortunately, it would be short-lived as the military would seize power by staging a coup in 1962, scrapping its constitution, and creating a military junta. The one-party state would be left unchallenged until 1988 with the student-led 8888 nationwide uprisings and protest movement. During the movement, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leading voice and was the daughter of Aung San, known as the father of the nation and key figure in independence from Britain. However, the protests would be crushed with thousands killed, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest for the next 15 years. Despite this, she would continue to be a voice for change and democracy, eventually earning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
In 2008, under international pressure for changes, the military announced its moving to democracy. Due to severe cases of election fraud and intervening by the military, it would not be until 2015 that Myanmar would actually hold its first free and open elections. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) won in a landslide. However, even with a landslide vote, the NLD still had to face the military’s massive hold of political power. The military had in fact only agreed to share power because under the new constitution it was guaranteed control over most key areas, as well as 25% of seats in parliament.
This history in mind now brings into question the plausible reasons why the junta may have staged this coup on 1 February. Aung San Suu Kyi has for years discussed the removal of the military from parliament and taking away their political power. With her massive victory in the November 2020 election, she and the NLD were put closer to that goal more than ever before to the military’s dismay. The coup-leader General Min Aung Hlaing then seized full control of the country, justifying the army’s actions by alleging mass voter fraud despite having no proof of such. It has been speculated that maintaining power is about protecting himself for his actions in his role as a military leader. Min Aung Hlaing has been titled as one of the “Most wanted men on the planet” for his merciless crackdown of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group living in the country’s Rakhine region. Over the last 10 years, he ordered the military’s reported targeted massacres of thousands of Rohingya people and burnings of over 200 of their villages. Without the military’s hold on political power or the country’s leader protecting him, he would be left open to face critical consequences for his actions.
It is important to note that the biggest crackdowns occurred in 2017 while Aung San Suu Kyi was in power, facing heavy international criticism for not standing up against the junta’s actions towards the Rohingya. However, she still maintains great popularity among the populace.
Since the junta’s coup and violence against unarmed civilians, the military has been met with international condemnation, bringing new sanctions by the U.S., U.K., Canada, and threats of such from the European Union. Although, sanctions may be limited in effectiveness as suggested with U.N. special envoy, Christine Schraner’s discussions with the military. The military answered to her warnings of U.N. measures, “We are used to sanctions, and we survived those sanctions in the past.” They added, “We have to learn to walk with only a few friends.”
The current ineffectiveness of the U.N. in the ongoing matter has only furthered in its Security Council being unable to reach a consensus in its statement toward the situation. Firstly, it should be acknowledged that message unanimously backed by the Security Council’s 15 countries is indeed the strongest statement yet towards the military junta.
“The Security Council strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protestors… The Council calls for the military to exercise utmost restraint and emphasizes that it is following the situation closely.”
But even with this statement, it must be noted that there was a tradeoff to pass the condemnation, as U.N. diplomats explained in an interview with CNN. China, Russia, and Vietnam objected to stronger language calling the events “a coup” and in one draft had even forced the removal of threatening potential sanctions. With China and Russia usually vetoing U.N. involvement in what they argue is a state’s “internal affairs,” some diplomats were willing to accept the tradeoff, at least for now.
The diplomatic strategy may sometimes appear as a dark contrast to people’s lives being lost on the ground, but is not ineffectual, according to Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. liaison. “Of course (the Security Council statement) is weaker than most Western members would like. And it is stronger than China and Russia would prefer,” he stated. “So it is mildly unsatisfactory for everyone, but it sends the generals in Myanmar a message that the U.N. is still watching them, and Beijing won’t give them total cover for human rights abuses.”
Given the currently limited successes of the United Nations, is there anything that could pressure the generals of the junta to back down? Now there is an expectation that Myanmar is intervened by its neighbors. Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-nation political bloc likely has the most influence over the junta generals. The view is shared by both Washington and Beijing, but the potential solution will depend on how willing the organization is in shifting away from its long tradition of staying out of each other’s internal affairs. Though, as the brutality of the coup continues, that tradition may indeed be slowly shifting.
During an ASEAN meeting just this month, Indonesia has taken the lead most notably with blunt criticism against the junta for their actions, as well as holding face-to-face talks with the junta’s top diplomat in Bangkok. However, beyond calling for restraint other ASEAN members have shown little willingness for sanctions and other actions. The obstacle to the potential key solution of ASEAN is that the 10-member group is now fairly divided among those believing in non-interference and those believing it is their obligation to the people of both their nation and Myanmar.
The reasoning for this obstacle is that not all of ASEAN’s members are as firmly committed to democracy such as Thailand’s military government and Vietnam and Laos being communist regimes. As for the more democratic governments such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, there is a sense of responsibility even moral obligation. Given the division, those countries feeling the need to be engaged may be pressed to continue to do so as a smaller bloc or as individual countries for it is vital to the people of Myanmar. Engagement and dialogue between members must be maintained.
Nonetheless, even if coming to a conflict resolution currently appears grim, the latest coup is noticeably different from the one before it. It is speculated that the coup may have taken inspiration from the success of the Thai military’s coup in 2014, but the junta appears to have deeply underestimated the sheer level of resistance, paralyzing the public and private sectors. Perhaps most notably, the overall population of those resisting are much younger and have lived their lives in political freedom and social media. The savviness and creativity of Myanmar’s youth continued to share solidarity with the fellow youth-led movements in Hong Kong and Thailand. Their efforts have undoubtedly maintained the issue high on global media feeds and have made it immensely difficult for governments to ignore. Consequently, due to the will of the people, the fate of Myanmar may come down to who can stay dug in longer.