Updated: July 22, 2021 04:47 AM GMT
Myanmar is fighting wars on several fronts. A war against an illegal military regime which seized power in a coup, overthrowing the country’s fragile, nascent democracy. A war for autonomy and basic human rights for the ethnic nationalities. A war for survival against economic collapse. And now a war against a deadly virus that is sweeping the country.
Twice this week, Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo has issued heartfelt pleas for help. In a powerful homily on July 18, he issued a direct appeal to the military to “drop all guns” and “bring medical care”, noting that for too many “every breath has become a challenge.”
The following day, he issued a public statement, for Myanmar’s Martyrs’ Day, appealing to people to “come together as one nation against the pandemic” as the best way to “pay homage” to the sacrifice of martyrs. Describing the virus as “an existential threat to us as a nation,” Cardinal Bo called on the country to “raise an army of volunteers, armed with medical kits” to fight Covid-19, which has infected thousands and led to hundreds “buried unwept and unsung, hurriedly buried in crowded cemeteries.”
The impact of Covid on Myanmar is truly shocking. The country is running out of oxygen, cemeteries and hospitals are overflowing, and the sick are dying untreated at home. Myanmar’s health system is poor at the best of times, but today, as the military targets medics for opposing the coup and denies oxygen to private clinics, it is collapsing. The military is seizing whatever remains of oxygen, diverting supplies to military hospitals for army families. Last week, soldiers in Yangon shot into a crowd queuing for oxygen tanks. As the UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews says: “The crisis in Myanmar is particularly lethal because of the pervasive mistrust of the military junta.”
Earlier this week, the spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), Nyan Win, died of Covid in prison. I knew Nyan Win well. I first met him before the decade of political reform, in 2010 when Suu Kyi was previously under house arrest and he was her lawyer. I met him on every subsequent visit to Yangon over the past decade. He was a quiet, unassuming, gentle but wise man, steadfastly loyal to the cause of democracy. His death, especially in such circumstances, is a tragedy.
Reports suggest that many other political prisoners in Myanmar’s notorious Insein Prison have caught the virus. Yangon’s former chief minister Phyo Min Thein is in a critical condition, and my friend Naing Lin, Yangon’s former social affairs minister, is also sick. I am deeply concerned for another friend, Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who worked as an adviser to Suu Kyi, and American journalist Danny Fenster, both of whom are in jail. Burmese human rights lawyer Nay Min and veteran activist Hla Shwe have also died from Covid. In the Chin region, 48 Christian pastors died of Covid last month alone. The ugly, tragic truth is that the virus is doing the military’s work for them. Those the army cannot shoot, Covid kills.
Children in Myanmar are under siege and facing catastrophic loss of life because of the military coup
But while the coronavirus is gripping the country, the other horrors inflicted by the military since the Feb. 1 coup should not be forgotten. General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader who now heads the junta, has turned the clock back in Myanmar by more than a decade. In the past five months, his troops have killed over 900 people, arrested almost 7,000, jailed over 5,300 and issued arrest warrants for almost 2,000. The junta has sentenced at least 65 people to death in unjust secret military tribunals, while hundreds of thousands of civilians in the country’s ethnic states are displaced as a result of a renewed military offensive.
The United Nations says Myanmar’s human rights defenders face a “brute force terror campaign,” while the UN Child Rights Committee (CRC) warns that an entire generation of children will be damaged as a consequence of the regime’s brutality. At least 75 children have been killed since the coup, 1,000 arbitrarily detained and countless more denied essential medical care and education.
Children have reportedly been taken hostage when the army has been unable to arrest their parents. Among them is a five-year-old girl in Mandalay, whose father helped organize demonstrations against the coup. Some children have been killed in their own homes, including a six-year-old girl, shot in the stomach by the police, who died in her father’s arms.
“Children in Myanmar are under siege and facing catastrophic loss of life because of the military coup,” said the CRC’s chair Mikiko Otani. “If this crisis continues, an entire generation of children is at risk of suffering profound physical, psychological, emotional, educational and economic consequences, depriving them of a healthy and productive future.”
Myanmar faces the darkest of perfect storms. Any one of the crises that has hit the country — coup, civil war, economic collapse and Covid — would be challenging enough, but when all four are combined, it puts Myanmar on course for a humanitarian catastrophe.
That means an urgent need for international action. As the UN’s Tom Andrews said this week: “The people of Myanmar appreciate expressions of concern from the international community, but what they desperately need is action. It is critical that nations stand with and for the besieged people of Myanmar who are being held hostage by an illegal military junta. It is time for strong, focused and coordinated action.”
He has called for the formation of an Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar to stop the military’s “reign of terror.”
If Covid is allowed to sweep rampantly through Myanmar unchecked, it won’t stop at the country’s borders — and Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres must lead. So far he has been low-profile and muted. He has issued some hand-wringing statements but done little visibly to show leadership. He might say he has no power, but that is untrue. He has the moral authority of his office to mobilize member states and initiate a high-level diplomatic effort.
It is hard to imagine many of his predecessors being as invisible as he is in response to a crisis as grave as Myanmar’s. He only has to look at the efforts Ban Ki-moon made in response to the Cyclone Nargis crisis in the country in 2008, or Kofi Annan’s role in the East Timor crisis in 1999. Both men had their faults, but they did at least try to deploy the full authority of their office as UN secretary-general. Guterres should too.
Countries in the region need to step up, if only in their own self-interest. If Covid is allowed to sweep rampantly through Myanmar unchecked, it won’t stop at the country’s borders — and Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. If humanitarian assistance is not provided urgently to Myanmar, the rest of the region — already struggling to varying degrees with the latest Covid wave — will be further hit.
Myanmar needs oxygen, personal protective equipment, vaccines, other medicines and basic food supplies, and its neighbors — as well as the international community — must play their part in providing that aid. But donors must also insist that aid reaches those who need it, including in the ethnic conflict areas, and is not stolen or siphoned off by the army.
At the same time, the region must be much more proactive and robust in seeking an end to the wider political and human rights crisis in Myanmar. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, must do better than it has done so far. It is a divided and inherently weak organization, but some member states have shown their concern for Myanmar and have the ability to do more to lead: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore especially. They should work with others in the region, especially India and China, to put pressure on Min Aung Hlaing and the generals to step down, to allow international humanitarian and human rights monitors in, and to begin a transition of power.
In the medium term, that should not mean a return to the previous status quo, but instead a genuine federal democracy which gives the ethnic nationalities equal rights and a political stake in the future, and a peace process to end decades of civil war.
The wider international community must play their part too. Some — including the US, UK and European Union — have implemented some targeted sanctions against the junta, and that is welcome. But there is more to be done. Pressure should be put on banks in the region, especially Singapore, or beyond, where the generals stash their cash.
Failure to act will have dire consequences for us all — a failed state in total collapse, leading to significant outflows of refugees and an uncontrollable further spread of the pandemic
And a concerted effort should be made to stop the flow of arms to the military. A resolution passed by the UN General Assembly last month calls for a global arms embargo, and that is welcome. But that resolution is not legally binding, and so more work is needed to secure a UN Security Council arms embargo or establish an alternative way of ensuring that as many countries as possible stop selling arms — and the few remaining ones that do face maximum international embarrassment.
As Dr. Sasa, the exiled National Unity Government’s minister for international cooperation, told the UK House of Commons foreign affairs committee: “If they stop international companies giving money to the military generals, their revenue and cash flow would be cut off and no money would go to the generals, so no money would go to China to buy weapons.”
In other words, cut the regime’s lifelines and provide a lifeline to the people. Failure to act will have dire consequences for us all — a failed state in total collapse, leading to significant outflows of refugees and an uncontrollable further spread of the pandemic, together with impunity for a criminal dictatorship that will simply embolden other would-be dictators and coup leaders, sowing yet more instability in an already troubled world.
Even for repressive regimes in the region, this is not a cocktail they would desire, and for democrats everywhere it is one we should actively work to prevent. The social media hashtag #SaveMyanmar should not remain just a hashtag any longer. It should become a policy and a plan of action for the international community as a whole.
* Benedict Rogers is a writer, human rights activist and senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’. His story of becoming a Catholic in Myanmar is told in his book ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.