Protesters hold signs supporting the newly formed opposition National Unity Government as they demonstrate against the military coup in Shwebo in Myanmar's Sagaing region on April 18. (Photo: Facebook/AFP)
Since the Feb. 1 coup, the Tatmadaw — the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces — has escalated its crackdown on citizens protesting against the military takeover that ousted a democratically elected government.
Unfortunately, this brutal reaction is only the latest in a series of repressive moves across Southeast Asia in recent years as political groups, backed by powerful militaries, intervene in government. Such dictatorships have arrested the growth of participatory democracies in countries close to Myanmar, including Thailand and Cambodia. The enduring authoritarian governments in Laos and Vietnam do nothing to enhance democracy or the respect for human rights, while nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are fragile democracies.
The semi-democracy that had prevailed in Myanmar since the military began to share power in 2015 came to an abrupt end with the coup. The military’s willingness in 2015 to ease its tight controls on the people of Myanmar was in sharp contrast to its performance since it seized power in a 1962 coup. Under the leadership of General Ne Win, Myanmar (then called Burma) endured 26 years of military rule. In 1988, nationwide protests broke out but were ruthlessly suppressed as hundreds were killed and jailed.
The actions of the Tatmadaw have provoked widespread condemnation from the international community. Economic sanctions have followed from countries in Europe and Asia, but unfortunately, those restrictions on trade and income do not necessarily mean trouble for the coup masters who have their own industries, wealth and resources. In fact, the sanctions imposed on the country — trade embargos, freezing assets, blocks on tourism and student travel, for example — will greatly impact the blameless poor and middle class.
As security forces in Myanmar have increased their crackdown on civilians, with disappearances, detentions and the killing of peaceful protestors, Pope Francis appealed for an end to violence and the start of dialogue. “Once again, and with much sorrow, I feel compelled to mention the tragic situation in Myanmar, where so many people, especially young people, are losing their lives for offering hope to their country,” the pope said at the end of his weekly general audience on March 17.
In 2021, life in Myanmar has got worse for many more than the Rohingya
The specter of authoritarian rule shadowed the pope’s visit to Myanmar in November 2017. Every effort was made by the papal mission to work in unison with the local Church. Catholics make up a very small minority in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, and making a move deemed to be “wrong” by the Tatmadaw would have meant considerable trouble for majority, ethnic Bamar Catholics, though most belong to ethnic minorities.
Pope Francis was extremely aware of the trouble the Rohingya minority were in at the time of his visit. But he reserved any expression of that concern to his time in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees had fled after brutal treatment by the Tatmadaw.
In 2021, life in Myanmar has got worse for many more than the Rohingya. Without mentioning her name, the pope recalled the iconic gestures of Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng in a street in the city of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. This nun made world headlines when photographs were published of her kneeling before police and extending her arms while begging police not to shoot or hurt protesters.
“I, too, kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say, ‘Stop the violence,’” Pope Francis said. “I, too, spread wide my arms and say, ‘Make way for dialogue.’” It was the fourth time the pope had spoken about the crisis unfolding in Myanmar. “Bloodshed resolves nothing,” he said, repeating his call for dialogue to begin.
Nuns have played a significant role in the nationwide anti-coup protests by marching in the streets, praying at convents and standing before churches to express their solidarity with the people of Myanmar.
In early February, the sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition reached out to protesters and offered them drinks and snacks. They also visited the families of two Buddhists killed by security forces in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city where, to console them and pray for the departed souls. Nuns from various congregations have joined laypeople and seminarians to march in the streets for a peaceful solution to the crisis by reciting the rosary and singing gospel songs in Yangon, Mandalay and Loikaw. On March 6, nuns from the Sisters of Charity congregation reached out to six families in Monywa in central Myanmar to pray for the deceased and provide rice and cooking oil.
Catholic responses in Myanmar have been led by Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. In a March 14 open letter to all the people of the nation, including jailed civilian leaders and the military, he wrote: “As the leaders of the Myanmar Catholic Church, [we bishops] urge all parties in Myanmar to seek peace. This crisis will not be resolved by bloodshed. The killings must stop at once. So many have perished. The blood spilled is not the blood of an enemy. It is the blood of our own sisters and brothers, our own citizens.” His letter wanted to put a stop to the rising number of dead among the protesters.
Suu Kyi is facing several charges that her supporters say have been fabricated
The protesters are demanding the military release their elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which scored its second landslide victory in the November 2020 elections. She and many elected leaders are being detained in unknown locations.
Suu Kyi is facing several charges that her supporters say have been fabricated. On March 11, Suu Kyi was accused of accepting illegal payments worth US$600,000 as well as gold while she was in government. She had already been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting Covid-19 restrictions.
The United Nations, human rights groups, bishops and Catholic organizations have condemned the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar.
In an address to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11, rights envoy Tom Andrews said that “Myanmar was currently being controlled by a murderous, illegal regime.” He said the junta’s security forces were committing acts of murder, imprisonment, persecution, torture and reclusion as part of a coordinated campaign in a widespread and systematic manner with the knowledge of the junta’s leadership that is “likely committing crimes against humanity.”
Andrews called for a united global response as “the people of Myanmar need not only words of support but supportive action. They need the help of the international community now.” He said the UN Security Council’s statement on March 10 that expressed deep concern about developments in Myanmar was welcome but “wholly insufficient.”
He urged member states to commit to taking strong, decisive and coordinated action as a coalition of nations — an emergency coalition for the people of Myanmar.
Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy on Myanmar, condemned the continued bloodshed as the military defied international calls, including from the UN Security Council, for restraint, dialogue and full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“The ongoing brutality, including against medical personnel and destruction of public infrastructure, severely undermines any prospects for peace and stability,” she said in a statement on March 14. “The international community, including regional actors, must come together in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations.”
She said she had heard from contacts in Myanmar heartbreaking accounts of killings, mistreatment of demonstrators and torture of prisoners.
We deplore the extreme authoritarianism that saw fit to trample on the nation’s constitution
A team of UN investigators appealed for people to collect documentary evidence of crimes ordered by the military to build cases against its leaders.
Showing more unity in their opposition to the coup than ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations, the Catholic Church has rallied strongly to the support of people of Myanmar. SIGNIS, Pax Christi International and the Focolare movement released a joint statement on March 15 that voiced solidarity with Myanmar’s citizens. They said they had heard the message of the people of Myanmar stating that “this coup is essentially about overthrowing them, their will.”
They added: “We deplore the extreme authoritarianism that saw fit to trample on the nation’s constitution, which in fact permitted limited democracy while maintaining much of the armed forces’ power. It is ultimately not about removing political opponents or supposed public order. It undoes years of patient work for the fundamental rights of citizens and crushes tenuous dreams of a free, democratic country.”
The three groups joined the United Nations and other human rights organizations in calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other detained Myanmar officials and leaders. They asked the military to stop using violence and arbitrarily detaining peaceful protesters and journalists. They called for justice and accountability for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities as well as prevention of such crimes and abuses in the future.
South Korean bishops have raised deep concerns about Myanmar’s brutal response to peaceful protesters as they called for freedom, democracy and peace. “We learned from history that the normal and innocent people’s appeals and solidarity could open a door to a new world,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea said in a March 11 statement. It said in the past South Korea also went through the pain and suffering that Myanmar is now experiencing.
Cardinal Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul wrote to Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo and expressed concern about the ruthless military actions. “I strongly support the people of Myanmar and their desire for democracy, and I truly hope that they will get it back very soon,” he wrote. “Please know that all the clergy, religious and faithful of the Archdiocese of Seoul are sincerely praying for true democracy to be restored in the country.”
In a rare gesture, Myanmar’s most powerful Buddhist monks’ association called on the junta to end violence against protesters and pursue dialogue. Buddhist monks have played a leading role against military dictatorship as they led the 2007 uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, which was suppressed by a violent crackdown.
Myanmar’s acting vice-president Mahn Win Khaing Than has called for a revolution against military dictatorship as this was “the darkest moment of the nation.” The ethnic Karen civilian leader, who is in hiding, was charged with high treason by the junta on March 17.
As broad and popular dissatisfaction with the rule of the Tatmadaw increases, the opportunities for conflict and division will only grow
Having lost its leader, Nobel Prize winner Suu Kyi, Myanmar faces dark days. Half-developed democratic processes and economic reforms mean the country is poorly placed to weather this storm. There will be little investment in the country apart from considerable Chinese interest in its resources and other opportunities. But what is worse is that Myanmar will return to the status of an untrustworthy and poor state that it thought it had escaped with the process leading to participatory democracy.
But as that happens, the legacy of British times will reassert itself. Myanmar is a country of 135 ethnic groups and borders and divisions, as they are in India, are artificial. And the wars between the military and financially and militarily well-resourced ethnic armies will shape domestic politics and deprive the country of opportunities for development.
As broad and popular dissatisfaction with the rule of the Tatmadaw increases, the opportunities for conflict and division will only grow. The range of predictable problems of long gestation suggests that unless a leader of broad popular appeal like Suu Kyi emerges, Myanmar is in for a long wait until things get better. However, it would be a mistake to think that the forces guiding the Tatmadaw to execute the coup are the only guiding spirits in that dark organization. For at least five years, some better interpreters of Myanmar’s spirit have guided the country and they are still there in the army.
Moreover, and at a much more pragmatic level, many in the army have assets and investments that need a stable economy to thrive and for these wealthy generals to get returns on their investments. There will be many in Myanmar’s military and business elites (and the two overlap) that will not endorse a return to the no-win situation for the country that prevailed from 1962. That was the military dictatorship of General Ne Win. A return to that context will not be appealing to the military who saw things getting better for them.
In a recent interview, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for the Holy See’s relations with states, declared: “I don’t think the coup will be reversed. Unfortunately, the policy of the generals will prevail in suppressing opposition to what they have done. Sadly, that’s how I see it.”
He also drew attention to “the context in which it is all taking place” and added that this is “a region of other authoritarian governments as well, so it is not as if they are getting denounced by their neighbors. I think that unfortunately the generals will not go back, and maybe international sanctions will have some impact, but the generals have chosen their course, and I don’t think that will be changed.”