HORRIFIC events have played out in Myanmar in the past few months as its military deposed a democratically elected government and imposed martial law. It has killed over 800 civilians so far in demonstrations against the coup, and arrested journalists covering the violence. An information and communication blackout has been imposed, including intermittent internet shutdowns, blocking of social media, limiting public WiFi, and disabling wireless broadband internet, acts that the Global Network Initiative has strongly condemned.
This is a gross violation of fundamental rights of the people of Myanmar and a violation of international human rights laws. A military coup in the region emboldens anti-democratic forces, worsens the refugee crisis, cuts off people, and stifles voices.
South Asian governments, all elected by the people, must stand against the coup and not legitimise the military government. It was a morally reprehensible decision by South Asian governments including Pakistan’s to attend the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw, the day the Myanmar military killed over 100 protesters. The other governments attending the parade included Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China and Russia.
Our Constitution outlaws military coups; any abrogation of the document is an act of high treason as per Article 6. By extending this principle, Pakistan should refuse to legitimise a regime that acts against the spirit of its own Constitution, and suspend provision of military equipment that is used to trample the people’s voice.
South Asia must stand against the Myanmar coup.
Myanmar’s military is an amalgamation of the Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army that fought British colonial rule in the late 1940s and its offshoot that changed sides during the war to fight the Japanese presence. Upon independence in 1948, the two armies merged to form the Myanmar Army, but as minority communities struggled for independence from the state, civil war broke out and many army members joined the insurgency.
The short-lived democratic government system was overthrown in the 1962 coup, imposing the Buddhist majority’s views on the country. Citizens had had enough by 1988, but demonstrations were quelled by shootings that killed thousands. Pro-democracy protesters were dismissed as communists from the mountains, a dehumanisation tactic used by militaries to ‘otherise’ indigenous voices. However, the demonstrations led to Myanmar opening up the economy. Thereon, the army came to be known as a ‘state within a state’, isolated in lavish garrisons with its officials enriching itself through lucrative trade licences and contracts that made joining the military lucrative.
In 2011, the generals decided to allow some representation to civilians, with a constitution that allowed them to retain a quarter of the seats in parliament and certain ministries — a hybrid democracy arrangement. In 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide election. Her government tread carefully with the military, in fact defending it against accusations of genocide of the Rohingya community at the ICJ.
However, in late 2020 when the NLD won another election, the military illegally suspended the results by alleging fraud, declared a state of emergency, and announced control of the country for one year. For people of Myanmar who have seen military rule for most of their history, this is not a reliable promise.
The situation in the region is getting precarious. As more citizens of Myanmar try to escape the oppressive military rule, seeking asylum is all the more complicated given border restrictions due to Covid-19. For the Rohingya Muslims, the genocide can get worse.
Bangladesh has been hosting over a million Rohingya refugees since 2017, but India has been threatening to deport Rohingya refugees, having detained several from India-held Kashmir recently, which is highly condemnable.
The participation of Gen Min Aung Hlaing at the Asean summit also raises questions, as the multilateral body should be engaging with democratically elected civilian leaders.
The British, American, and Canadian governments have imposed some sanctions on Myanmar’s military government, in contrast to their support for Gen Sisi’s military-led government in Egypt. China had also cultivated a strong relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and is viewed sceptically by the military. However, China’s opposition to a UNSC resolution condemning the coup, apparently in line with its principle of non-interference, raises questions.
All governments must make efforts to isolate Myanmar’s illegitimate military government, engage with the parallel civilian National Unity Government representing the people, provide asylum to refugees, and work to amplify the voice of the people. As the late Asma Jahangir would say, the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2021