Following eight months of unrest and instability in Myanmar, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement imploring international bodies to take “urgent” action to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis. He warned that the opportunity to reverse the catastrophic effects of the military coup is narrowing rapidly.
Global audiences looked on in horror last February as the Tatmadaw (official name of Myanmar’s armed forces) ousted democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). They claimed her party had stolen the country’s November 2020 election through voter fraud. The consequent crackdown was, and continues to be, nothing short of brutal. Suu Kyi and other members of her party have been detained for an indefinite period, civilians have been tortured and killed, and the military grows increasingly more violent in their efforts to quash dissent. With each passing moment, Guterres warns, the country spirals further towards the brink of a total political, humanitarian, and economic catastrophe.
Fighting between junta forces and local defense forces has accelerated since the declaration of a “defensive war” was issued by the country’s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG). It is comprised of members from the NLD’s ousted elected lawmakers and members of parliament. NUG officials called for open rebellion against junta rule, “prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets.” This appears to be largely to the detriment of rural local forces who mainly depend on makeshift weapons and hunting rifles, and are essentially defenseless in the face of junta airstrikes and artillery attacks.
Nationwide, the military has met dissenters with brutal shows of force, regularly utilizing “flash grenades, batons, rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters, which has resulted in many injuries.” In a report, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Thomas. H. Andrews, detailed horrific examples of the junta committing crimes against humanity, including killing protestors in the streets. They were murdering “civilians in their homes, beating individuals to death, and torturing people to death while in detention.”
Separate reports detail significant upticks in gender-based and sexual violence, as well as cruelty towards journalists and intentional internet blackouts in certain regions of the country. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the main human rights group tallying deaths and injuries following the coup, estimated at least 1,146 people had been killed by the junta as of September 29th. 8,573 have been arrested, 6,914 are still in detention and warrants were issued for 1,989 others. The number of civilians displaced by the violence has risen into the hundreds of thousands.
Aside from the risks of junta violence, civilians’ wellbeing is further threatened by economic instability and an increasingly burdened healthcare system. In response to the perpetual state of violence, investors have fled the country in droves, causing the national currency, the Kyat, to lose 60% of its value since early September. Already high unemployment rates have soared, and fuel and grocery prices have skyrocketed. Simultaneously, the country faces a worsening COVID-19 crisis. Response initiatives have been hampered by arrests of medical professionals engaged in anti-coup civil disobedience. At least 17,682 people have died from COVID-19, and than 462,000 have been infected since the start of the pandemic.
As human rights circumstances on the ground deteriorate, the country’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of payoff bribery in a corruption trial last Friday. Independent analysts and Suu Kyi supporters are in consensus that the charges have been fabricated and are intended to discredit her. It is unclear when, or if, she and other political prisoners will be released.
As the crisis on the ground deepens, Secretary-General Guterres makes himself clear, “the continuing military crackdown…is unacceptable and demands a firm, unified and resolute international response.” International experts have acknowledged the motivations behind NUG’s defensive call to arms, and urged both sides to lay down their weapons and pursue non-violent means of resolution. “[V]iolence is the cause of the suffering of the people of Myanmar, it is not the solution,” said Chris Sidoti, a former Australian human rights commissioner who is on a panel of international experts monitoring the situation.
Thus far, the UN has supported a five-point plan adopted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that calls for “stopping violence, constructive dialogue, appointment of an ASEAN special envoy as mediator, and humanitarian aid.” ASEAN’s response to the conflict has been slow-moving. It is imperative to accelerate de-escalation efforts, with ASEAN spearheading the initiatives to engage the junta in peace talks. UN member states should simultaneously agree to enforce a binding international arms embargo. They should also be vocal in their condemnation of the military violence, support of civilians, as well as demand for the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
An independent panel of experts called the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar implored the international community to “designate the military junta a terrorist organization.” This, in conjunction with recognizing the NUG as a legitimate interim government, could be important steps in terms of expressing solidarity with civilians. It can also streamline the process through which international aid is distributed- directly to the people of Myanmar, rather than the military. This would also provide the international community with more leeway to impose targeted sanctions on the junta with less likelihood of causing inadvertent harm to civilian populations by impeding their ability to access aid.
Ultimately, a reversion back to pre-junta norms should not be the end goal. Reinstating the same frameworks in place pre-coup will leave the country vulnerable to the same conditions which made the military takeover possible in the first place. Additionally, restoring previous frameworks would be a conscious decision to ignore persistent demands for reform predating the current crises brought about by the coup. A total political and legal reformation is necessary to bring long-term security and stability to Myanmar, including a diverse government with sufficient representation from women and the country’s various ethnic groups.
It’s also imperative to revise the country’s 2008 military-drafted Constitution, which grants the military a high degree of control over governmental proceedings. This includes the ability to intervene freely into political affairs, amnesty in situations of brutality and abuse of power, influence over parliament, weakening the judiciary system, etc. Whilst certainly desirable in contrast to the current situation on the ground, the situation in Myanmar was never a true “democracy.” For this reason, it’s imperative to make constitutional revisions that distance the military from the country’s system of governance, allowing democratic institutions to be established and function undeterred. These conditions would create a more sustainable and peaceful Myanmar over the long term.
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