Opinion

The International Community Must Act to Protect Myanmar’s Democracy

In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, a group of young women march through the streets. They are made up to the nines and wearing ball gowns. One of them displays a sign reading: ‘Getting democracy is bigger concern for us than getting husband!!!’ That’s one hell of a placard; smashing dictatorship and gender stereotypes.

As you read this, Myanma civilians are protesting against and being slain by their own security forces in the wake of a coup d’état which deposed the elected government. Upon writing, at least 54 were dead. By the time this is published the toll will likely be higher.

The takeover which began on the 1st of February is the work of the ‘Tatmadaw’ (that’s Burmese for ‘Armed Forces’). The military of Myanmar has long been the most influential body in the state’s politics. Even when in power the now imprisoned president Aung San Suu Kyi reported to the ‘National Defence and Security Council’, whose membership is dominated by Tatmadaw officers. Under the terms of the 2008 constitution, one quarter of the seats in the upper and lower legislative houses of government have been reserved for military cronies, no matter whether they have the support of the people.

The election held in November of last year would suggest that they do not. The National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi received a strong majority in the poll and was set to increase its parliamentary representation. The military backed Union for Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) saw its support shrink. While far from free of corruption, the vote has been judged ‘reflective of the will of [the] majority of voters’ by the Asian Network for Free Elections.

But the representatives who received their mandates in the election never got the chance to assume their seats. Determined to avoid being politically marginalised, the army turned its guns on the people it is sworn to protect. Tragically, this is what the thugs of the Tatmadaw do best.

As coups go, this one was almost laughably clichéd (not that it will bring any comfort to the Myanma people). As February dawned, the National Assembly was seized, preventing the swearing in of freshly elected law-makers. Senior NLD officials including Suu Kyi were then arrested. The result of the election was declared void (with a new poll to take place at an unspecified date). A year-long state of emergency was introduced. Curfew of 20:00 to 06:00 came into force, and the ‘cyber-security’ laws of the junta went into effect, promptly banning Facebook.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies are now being subjected to sham trials, accused of vague misdemeanours like ‘incitement’ and causing ‘fear and alarm’ (surely a contender for Most Shameless Accusation of the Year coming from a military junta willing to slaughter its own citizens). Most concerning though, are the charges brought against Aung San Suu Kyi which allege that she has violated coronavirus restrictions. Is this the first time that coronavirus laws have been used as part of an insurrection against an elected leader? If so, it is a worrying milestone. What does it tell us about the danger of allowing governments to indefinitely retain the powers they have gained during the pandemic? The answer according to the Burmese military is that these laws, far from preventing the spread of COVID, are just another useful tool with which to bludgeon an infant democracy.

The chief of Myanmar’s military, one Min Aung Hlaing, now sits atop a stratocracy which has arrested over 1,000 citizens and killed and wounded dozens. This is the first time that the Tatmadaw has held undisputed power in the country since the 2015 elections which brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power. The coup provides proof, if any were needed, that they never went away.

In response to the takeover, an incensed civilian population has flooded the streets. The cloaked warnings from Hlaing that ‘instigators’ will be punished have been bravely ignored. The three finger salute popularised by The Hunger Games franchise has been adopted by the protestors as their gesture of solidarity.

Imagine if your country’s armed forces did not work for the state, or even the elected government, but instead acted on the whim of a cabal of power-crazed senior generals. It is a terrifying thought. That it is the position the people of Myanmar find themselves in. With the Tatmadaw in power, the only law-code that matters is that which the generals decree. There is no recourse to the courts and no hope of justice.

The Myanma people are fully aware that their hard fought democracy is being strangled in front of them, and they are not willing to let it die with a whimper. Faced with such overwhelming outrage, one wonders what the junta’s long term plan is. At the moment, they seem happy to murder their fellow citizens in order to assert control, but this can’t go on forever. Either they will be forced from power, or Myanmar will slip once again into authoritarianism. The latter cannot be allowed to happen, not after decades of incremental liberalisation. The UK has requested that the UN Security Council convene on the 5th of March to discuss the situation. Every course of action, including military intervention, should be discussed. 

Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, an appointee of the ousted NLD government, has called on the international community to act. In an emotional speech on Monday, while raising his own hand in the three fingered salute of the protestors, he asked for “the strongest possible action from the international community” in order to “restore the state power to the people”. Myanmar’s new military rulers immediately sacked him from his ambassadorship.

So far, international action has been limited to some arms embargoes and measly sanctions against the coup leaders by the US, Canada and the UK. Removing the Tatmadaw from power with military action should be considered a viable option. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, Myanmar already has a developing democracy, and a population that supports it. All of the administrative structures, expertise and popular will necessary to ensure a smooth transition from military rule back to democracy is already in place. To let a generation’s worth of governmental progress go to waste would be criminal. The people of Myanmar, like Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, would be justified in their anguish towards an international community which did nothing while a new generation was subjected to brutal authoritarianism.

One member of that new generation was 19 year old Kyal Sin, known to her friends as ‘Angel’. On Wednesday, while protesting the coup in her home city of Mandalay, she was shot dead by the security forces. 37 other protestors were also killed on Wednesday.

The failure of interventions in the Middle-East has made the UK and its allies petrified of entering any conflict, even when action is more than justifiable. In 2013, for example, after President Assad killed hundreds of his own citizens with sarin, our parliament was given the chance to sanction airstrikes against Syrian military targets, but chose to vote against them. With its ally faltering, the US felt unable to launch strikes of its own. As a result, Assad’s crimes against humanity went unpunished. Today, our leaders must not repeat this cowardice in the face of evil. 

The lesson we should have learnt from the Middle-Eastern wars is that interventions must be prudent and limited, and pursued only with detailed knowledge of the invariably complex situation on the ground. This does not mean intervention is always the wrong thing to do. Yet, many politicians have arrived at the conclusion that the use of military force is inherently irresponsible. This proscribes any kind of intervention and emboldens the world’s despots, who act safe in the knowledge that the West is vacillating and unprincipled. In the case of Myanmar, international pressure should be steadily increased upon the regime and the consequences of continued crackdowns on civilians made clear. If, after the warnings, the Tatmadaw continue to shed blood, then the UN should be prepared to do whatever is necessary to restore democracy. 

There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was deeply flawed, particularly in its persecution of the Rohingya. But surely a flawed democracy is better than no democracy at all? The Tatmadaw are just as likely to continue the oppression of ethnic minorities. At least, with Aung San Suu Kyi in charge, the UN can open a dialogue, something that would become impossible if the military retains control. In the meantime, they are gunning down the citizens brave enough to defy them. If there was ever a situation ripe for intervention, it is this. Doing nothing only guarantees more suffering.

When the 19 year old Kyal Sin was shot dead, she was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan: ‘Everything will be OK’. The free world should be prepared to play its part in ensuring this is the case in Myanmar.