Updated: March 07, 2023 06:00 AM GMT
In this file photo taken on March 5, 2021, a protester steps on portraits of Myanmar's armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing placed on a street during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. Myanmar's military seized power on Feb 1, 2021, ousting the civilian government and arresting its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. More than 2,800 people have since been killed, according to the United Nations, and thousands more have been arrested as the junta wages a bloody crackdown on dissent. (Photo: AFP)
Ever since independence, Myanmar has endured 76 years of civil war and, with some brief interludes of fragile freedom, decades of military dictatorship. Today we mark the second anniversary of the start of the latest chapter of terror.
Two years ago today, on Feb. 1, 2021, the head of Myanmar’s army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the elected, democratic and civilian-led government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a brutal military coup.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won an overwhelming victory in the elections in November 2020 and was poised to begin a second term of government, when the commander-in-chief’s ego took precedence over the will of the Myanmar people.
Today, Suu Kyi — who should’ve been midway through her second term of government — is in jail facing multiple sentences totaling 33 years. Aged 77, if forced to serve all her sentences in full she faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life behind bars.
Min Aung Hlaing had only his own narrow self-interest in mind when he seized power at gunpoint. He knew that under the constitution he would have to step down as commander-in-chief of the military.
The general wanted to be president and was surprised that the people did not choose him and his party at the ballot box. Anxious about protecting his assets and ensuring his immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity and genocide, he asserted his ambitions in the only way he knew — by reaching for his gun.
"Min Aung Hlaing has been wielding the death penalty with a zeal none of his predecessors ever did"
Two years on, and the tragedy that has been inflicted on Myanmar is utterly heartbreaking.
Over 17,000 people have been arrested and at least 13,689 remain in jail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Almost 3,000 have been killed by the regime — and that is only counting pro-democracy demonstrators shot dead in military crackdowns. Thousands more have been killed in the army’s offensives against the country’s ethnic nationalities.
UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, claimed last year that over 13,000 children have been killed. At least 1.3 million people have been displaced. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed. Dozens of churches have also been destroyed.
Perhaps most shocking of all, Min Aung Hlaing has been wielding the death penalty with a zeal none of his predecessors ever did. Previous military dictators in Myanmar killed thousands of people, but it has been many years since anyone was executed judicially as the decision of a court. But since the coup, at least 143 people have been sentenced to death. Prominent pro-democracy parliamentarian Phyo Zeya Thaw and dissident Ko Jimmy — both of whom I knew personally — were executed last year.
And while the junta has no compunction in jailing and torturing Buddhist monks or shooting Burman Buddhist pro-democracy protesters, it has a deep-seated hatred of non-Buddhist religious minorities and non-Burman ethnic groups — hence the ongoing genocide of the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas, persecution of the wider Muslim community and its assault in the past two years on Christians.
The attacks on churches have drawn condemnation from Pope Francis and Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo and his fellow bishops. Last month the metropolitan archbishops of Myanmar — Mandalay’s Archbishop Marco Tin Wan, Taunggyi’s Archbishop Basilio Athai, together with Cardinal Bo as archbishop of Yangon — issued a passionate plea for peace.
"The imprisonment of a senior Christian leader is a profoundly troubling sign"
“In a great country blessed with so many resources, the destruction of lives is a heart-wrenching tragedy,” they wrote, noting that “places of worship and monasteries, where communities sought peace and reconciliation are themselves increasingly under attack.”
And they appealed to international law. “International instruments like the Hague Convention call for the protection of places of worship, places of learning, and places of healing,” they note, asking, “with pain and anguish … why these sacred places are attacked and destroyed?”
Amongst the many tragedies in Myanmar is the imprisonment of one of the country’s most prominent Christian pastors, Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson, the former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). Reverend Samson, who is a friend of mine, has led the KBC — first as general secretary for two terms and then as president — since 2010 and has been a courageous voice for human rights and religious freedom.
On Dec. 4 last year, he was arrested at Mandalay airport as he prepared to travel to Bangkok, reportedly for medical treatment. He now faces charges of unlawful association and the possibility of several years in jail. Currently imprisoned in Myitkyina prison, according to media reports, he is not in good health.
The imprisonment of a senior Christian leader is a profoundly troubling sign. Reverend Samson met the President of the United States in the White House in 2019 while he was attending the International Religious Freedom Summit, and met UK government ministers, officials and parliamentarians in London in 2018, but it does not seem his global profile has so far proffered him any protection.
The international community must cry out loudly for his release. At the very least, the Baptist World Alliance, the World Council of Churches — and, in solidarity with them, Pope Francis and the archbishop of Canterbury — should all be shouting from the rooftops and lobbying the pearly gates with prayers for Reverend Samson. Speakers at this week’s International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, DC should be prioritizing his case and the crisis in Myanmar.
"We must pull out all the stops to cut the flow of money, arms, fuel and everything that keeps this wicked regime afloat"
As we mark — and mourn — the second anniversary of the coup in Myanmar, there are five things we should do.
First, we need to speak about it. Tell others. Ensure that Myanmar is not forgotten.
Myanmar is Asia’s Ukraine. The only difference is that the culprit is not an invader from another country, but an unwanted, illegal and criminal intruder who subverted a legitimate democratic system and overthrew an elected government. That perpetrator is committing atrocities — bombing civilians, destroying homes, displacing, raping and killing people in ways every bit as egregious and pernicious as Vladimir Putin’s crimes in Ukraine, but it is not in the headlines. We have to get it into the headlines and ensure the world knows.
Second, we must cut the lifeline to the regime. We should not do anything that adds to the suffering of the people of Myanmar, so we must be wise and targeted. But we must pull out all the stops to cut the flow of money, arms, fuel and everything that keeps this wicked regime afloat. That includes looking carefully at Amnesty International’s research on aviation fuel and cutting supplies that keep the military’s bombers in the air without penalizing legitimate civilian aviation use.
Third, we must provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar. Western countries, governments from the region, neighboring countries, international aid agencies and the Church must find ways to get humanitarian aid to those who need it — especially the internally displaced and refugees on the country’s borders — without legitimizing the regime, handing it supplies which it might siphon off or inadvertently funnel funds through it.
Fourth, we must hold the perpetrators of atrocities to account. The case filed in Germany last week by Fortify Rights and 16 individual complainants from Myanmar is powerful. A criminal complaint has been lodged with Germany’s Federal Public Prosecutor-General under the principle of universal jurisdiction against senior Myanmar generals, which is very welcome. Similar cases underway in Argentina and at the International Court of Justice in The Hague deserve attention and support.
And finally, we must pray. On March 12, the annual Global Day of Prayer will be held, but we do not need to wait until then. Pray for Myanmar every day.
Min Aung Hlaing has promised fresh elections this year. But from the very moment he seized power in the coup two years ago, everyone knew that any suggestion of a new election was a fraud, a sham and a smokescreen. A new election law unveiled last week proves that. No election under this ridiculous, brutal, cruel, criminal, illegal and murderous regime could ever be credible. Under Min Aung Hlaing, a general election would simply be a fraudulent election of generals.
But on this second anniversary, let us resolve not simply to wring our hands or mourn. Let us resolve to shine a spotlight on Myanmar, to pray and to act — to bring pressure, aid, justice and accountability, and to work for a better Myanmar.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.