The impressive flypast of the Red Arrows of the Royal Air Force over the Carbis Bay in Cornwall, United Kingdom, may have stunned the leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations, but the noise of the protestors on streets, highlighting a variety of burning global issues, could not have gone unnoticed.
The agitators not just included folks dedicated to a better environment, but also those concerned about the conflict in Tigray in Ethiopia and the continuing brutality of the military junta in Myanmar. Hundreds of Myanmarese in the United Kingdom came out in force to drum up support for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar which was snuffed out by a coup on February 1.
Ethiopia and Myanmar may not have been the dominating themes of the Group of Seven meeting that concluded recently in Carbis Bay in Cornwall, but the leaders were simply not in a position to ignore the goings-on in parts of the world that are normally tucked away under one pretext or another.
In the case of Myanmar, the United Nations has maintained for the last four months that the country will head towards an all-round disaster—political, economic and civil—if the international community does not quickly get its act together. And only some of this has to do with putting in place meaningful punitive measures that hurt the principal actors, not some vague travel restrictions on brass hats who are not really keen on vacationing in the beaches of Europe or the Americas.
Pointedly accusing the military dispensation in Myanmar of being “singularly responsible” for a “human rights catastrophe”, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, spoke of the armed conflict that was taking place in several areas, especially as it involved ethnic and religious minority groups. “There appear to be no efforts towards de-escalation but rather a build-up of troops in key areas, contrary to the commitments the military made to ASEAN to cease the violence. In just over four months, Myanmar has gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe. The military leadership is singularly responsible for this crisis, and must be held to account,” the top United Nations official said.
The “catastrophe” that the United Nations is talking about has to do with an estimation that more than 108,000 people have fled their homes in Kayah state of Myanmar over the last three weeks, forcing them to take refuge in forests with little or no food, water, sanitation and medical assistance. The UN has cited several “credible reports” to suggest that the military has shelled civilian homes and churches besides blocking humanitarian aid. “The international community needs to unify in its demand that the Tatmadaw (armed forces) cease the outrageous use of heavy artillery against civilians and civilian objects,” Bachelet said.
In the view of the top UN body on human rights, 860 people have been killed by security forces since the coup of February 1 with at least 4,800 still in arbitrary detention and subject to alleged harsh detention and torture.
Even as early as April, the United Nations has been making the concerted pitch that the repression unleashed on protestors in Myanmar could result in a “full-blown conflict” on the lines of Syria and that nations with influence should take meaningful steps to halt the “slaughter” of civilians.
“Statements of condemnation, and limited targeted sanctions, are clearly not enough. States with influence need to urgently apply concerted pressure on the military in Myanmar to halt the commission of grave human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity…The military seems intent on intensifying its pitiless policy of violence against the people of Myanmar, using military-grade and indiscriminate weaponry,” Bachelet had said, making the point that there were clear echoes of Syria in Myanmar.
“There (Syria) too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force. The State’s brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence all across the country…I fear the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full-blown conflict. States must not allow the deadly mistakes of the past in Syria and elsewhere to be repeated,” she said. But the fact remains that the military junta is in full denial of the goings-on, making it all look like the brutal crackdown is more of a law and order situation.
The real troublesome part of the unrest has to do with not merely the demonstrations in the capital and other major cities, but an expansion of armed conflict in ethnically sensitive states of Kayah, Chin and Kachin, not to speak of the ongoing violence against the Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine, pushing close to a million refugees into Bangladesh. The fearsome part of the unfolding scenario is unconfirmed reports of dissension within the armed forces, fuelling talk of open rebellion that could get out of hand and involve the intervention of foreign powers.
Even without the coup, the junta had its hands full with an economy that was impacted by the COVID pandemic. The International Monetary Fund spoke of a sharp decline in exports, tourist arrivals and overseas remittances. The impact on the public health system may have been minimal but foreign trade disruptions appear to have made a dent in the formal and informal sectors, the latter being severely hit in the absence of safety nets. It is said that the percentage of people living in poverty has risen from 16 to 63.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, historian Thant Myint-U argues that the coup has unleashed a “revolutionary energy” that will not be possible to contain. “As the stalemate continues, the economy will crumble, extreme poverty will skyrocket, the healthcare system will collapse, and armed violence will intensify, sending waves of refugees into neighbouring China, India and Thailand. Myanmar will become a failed state, and new forces will appear to take advantage of that failure: to grow the country’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year methamphetamine business, to cut down the forests that are home to some of the world’s most precious zones of biodiversity, and to expand wildlife-trafficking networks, including the ones possibly responsible for the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in neighbouring China,” Myint-U said.
If the post-independence history of Myanmar (or Burma as it was once called) is anything to go by, it is in a realization that the military rulers who have been in the corridors of power for most of the time cannot be subjugated by another brutal show of force. The brass hats have shown the region and the world of their uncanny ability to lock the country and throw the keys away. Diplomats and policy wonks are generally of the view that to force a change in Myanmar, everyone—that includes the West, China and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN)—has to act in unison, setting aside selfish interests in the pursuit of a framework that is beneficial to the people of that country. Acts of one-upmanship will only prolong the agony.
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.