The free world must match the courage of Myanmar's people
A car carrying the body of protester Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, 20, leads a convoy during her funeral service in Naypyidaw on Feb. 21 after she died following being shot during a rally against the military coup. (Photo: AFP)
The courage, creativity and commitment of the people of Myanmar are incredibly inspiring. From the mass protests to the ingenuity of the protest signs, protesters have turned the anti-coup demonstrations over the past three weeks into an artistic performance reflective of the human spirit.
Whether their cars are allegedly broken down on bridges or their bicycle tires need inflating at traffic jams, whether they feel an urgent need to do workouts at junctions or tie up their shoelaces, whether they launch a “floating strike” on Inle Lake or drop shallots at a crossroads, the peaceful civil disobedience movement in Myanmar deserves the applause of the world.
Most of all, the extraordinary ability of people to daub entire roads, lakes and rivers with “We Want Democracy” and “Free Our Leaders” leaves me in awe — and it conveys a totally united, unambiguous and clear message to the world about the will of the people of Myanmar.
Yet the world so far, though it may be hearing, seems to be responding limply. Some sanctions have been imposed, but they have been token. And the generals who staged this coup, though they may be stunned by the way the people have responded, show no signs of backing down.
Until this past weekend, the military regime focused on rounding up and arresting key pro-democracy leaders, either from the legitimate government or civil society. But perhaps it had not banked on the fact that the entire country and its population hates the idea of a return to the dark days of military dictatorship and international ostracism. That — along with perhaps some consciousness of international appearances — may explain why we have not yet seen the massacres which are in the military’s DNA, along the lines of 1988 or 2007.
In Mandalay on Feb. 20, live ammunition was used, resulting in the death of at least two people, one a 14-year-old — and the death toll may be more than was reported. In Yangon, a nightwatchman providing security for his neighborhood was shot for no apparent reason. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was absolutely right when he tweeted: “The shooting of peaceful protesters in Myanmar is beyond the pale. We will consider further action, with our international partners, against those crushing democracy and choking dissent”.
We have seen the grieving faces of families mourning their loved ones; we have seen the stark images of Burmese soldiers smiling after shooting; and we know, according to Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, that it was the 33rd Light Infantry Division that was deployed in Mandalay, a division that was at least in part responsible for the Rohingya genocide. The military junta appears to be unleashing a war against the people of Myanmar, and the world needs to wake up to that fact.
And yet the people won’t back down.
The day after the shooting and killing in Mandalay, people turned out in even larger numbers in ever more peaceful protest. The contrast could not be clearer: unarmed protesters equipped with flowers and jokes, lined up in their hundreds of thousands against trained killers with guns. Yet it’s the people armed with nothing more than flowers and humor that are courageous, and it’s the men in uniform who are cowards. Those who seize power by the bullet and not the ballot are always guilty of cowardice.The Church in Myanmar has always inspired me. It inspires me by its courage, wisdom and ingenuity. As a tiny minority of the population, it wields a moral influence that far exceeds its numerical strength. It makes its position clear — it is for democracy, justice, human rights and that is unambiguous — but its hierarchy wisely stands in the shadows, knowing that in a Buddhist-majority country it cannot play the same role the Church played at the forefront of the movements against dictatorship in, say, Poland, the Philippines, East Timor or South Korea, and yet it can play some role.
Its leaders signal a dual message — for truth, justice, human rights and democracy, and yet also ready for mediation, reconciliation and peace. It’s walking a tightrope but doing so well.
Within a few days of the coup, Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo issued a strong statement condemning the military’s action, appealing for dialogue and non-violence, and calling for a return to democracy.
Catholic nuns and priests have taken to the streets to join protests, while the inspiring archbishop of Mandalay, Marco Tin Win, whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting several times, stood with some of his clergy holding a placard with the words “People’s desire — free detained leaders and oppose military rule”.
These are brave, plucky moves by a minority religion — and they are why I was inspired eight years ago to become a Catholic in Myanmar.
So, what should happen now? The world should step up.
Pope Francis, though he has, rightly, made some remarks, must come right out front and call for prayer for Myanmar. Having visited Myanmar in 2017 — the first pontiff to do so — he must call out coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, call for the release of all those detained, appeal against any further violence and broker dialogue.
The United Nations must prove its critics wrong and show that, contrary to popular perception, it is not impotent. The secretary-general must dispatch — this week, without delay — a delegation from the Security Council to de-escalate the situation, secure the release of detained elected leaders and broker talks.
And the free world must come together to say that even with all the other challenges we face not least the Covid-19 pandemic, the abortion of the democratization of Myanmar, however fragile and disappointing that experiment was, cannot be allowed.
The democratic world must say with one voice that the rejection of the will of the people of Myanmar isn’t just an assault on Myanmar’s fledgling, fragile, tentative quasi-democracy. It is an assault on all freedom-loving people everywhere and thus cannot stand.
If there’s any silver lining, it is this: that the people of Myanmar, of all ethnicities and religions, oppose this coup and have come out onto the streets to say so. And that their focus is on values, not personalities — that while civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still important, and her release is rightly demanded, not everything depends on her any more.
Other leaders to chart Myanmar’s democratic course may perhaps emerge. Let’s hope so. And that this is a cause that binds everyone together — Burman, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Rohingya and others.
The people of Myanmar have shown extraordinary courage and creativity. It’s time for the international community, including the worldwide Church, to show the same in support.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer specializing in Asia. He is senior analyst for the human rights organization CSW and author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’. He is also co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.