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Benedict Rogers

World leaders absent without leave as Myanmar burns

The collective failure to tackle an issue that could unravel into a regional crisis with global implications is staggering
Published: August 09, 2021 04:09 AM GMT

Updated: August 09, 2021 04:44 AM GMT

World leaders absent without leave as Myanmar burns

Thirty-three years ago yesterday, thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets demanding an end to decades of military dictatorship in Myanmar.

In what has been commemorated every single year for the past 33 years as the 8888 Uprising, that single day marked the peak in many months of demonstrations for freedom in the country, resulting both in the massacre of thousands, a change of military leadership and elections two years later which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the military rejected the results, jailed the victors and intensified its grip on power.

This year there’s a profound sense of deja vu. On Feb. 1, the army’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing dialed the clock back decades and repeated history with a coup, a denial of democracy and a brutal assault on mass protests. The only difference is that in 1988 the military regime rebranded itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, whereas in 2021 it’s the State Administration Council. Different people in the same uniforms, using slightly different titles, but with the same playbook: utter inhumanity, brutality, barbarity, criminality and disregard for human lives, human rights or the truth.

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Yet in the past six months the international community has done little more than issue a few hand-wringing statements and, in the case of the US, EU and UK, a few welcome but somewhat token sanctions. The collective failure to be seized of the issue in Myanmar, when it has the potential to unravel into a regional crisis with global implications, is staggering. And the sheer callous indifference to such blatant, outrageous injustice is shocking.

The statistics for the six months since the coup are haunting. More than 960 are dead, 7,070 arrested, 5,512 in jail and an appropriately Orwellian figure of 1,984 currently evading arrest, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners. Plus, according to the UN, at least 75 children have been killed, 1,000 arrested and millions have had their futures blighted by trauma, bereavement, poverty, denial of education or health care and repression. On top of that, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Myanmar’s ethnic states are displaced by the military’s attacks on their villages and need food, medicines and shelter.

If these facts don’t shock the conscience of the world, perhaps the plan to assassinate Myanmar’s brave ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, might?

The idea that an accredited ambassador to the UN might be murdered in New York ought to send shivers down every democrat’s spine

Last week two Myanmar citizens were arrested in New York for plotting with an arms dealer in Thailand to kill or injure Kyaw Moe Tun. He is the courageous diplomat who spoke out against the coup in the full glare of the world spotlight at the UN General Assembly and has continued to work to mobilize international action against the illegal military regime. He recently alerted the world to a massacre in Kani township in Sagaing division, just before receiving death threats from the regime. He remains Myanmar’s accredited UN ambassador even though he courageously opposes the junta.

The idea that an accredited ambassador to the UN might be murdered in New York ought to send shivers down every democrat’s spine. It’s a less sophisticated, more cack-handed version of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s repeated murders of dissidents on foreign soil and, given the ever-growing links between Naypyidaw and Moscow, it doesn’t take much to guess where Min Aung Hlaing got the idea.

But if massacres in Myanmar and murder plots on foreign soil aren’t enough to awaken those with a conscience, surely the Covid-19 horror in Myanmar will?

Yesterday veteran foreign correspondent Dominic Faulder posted a comment on Facebook which described the scale of the Covid crisis in Myanmar. Titled “Myanmar's Covid apocalypse,” he wrote:

“It is difficult to overstate the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis in Myanmar where the global pandemic is being visited upon an a completely defenseless population. In most countries, lockdowns and other measures have been employed to flatten the curve and to protect to whatever degree possible healthcare systems.

“Instead, Myanmar's hospitals have all been shut since a coup in February, leaving the virus to run completely unchecked. Covid is now killing thousands of Burmese in a devastating third wave, and simple medical neglect is killing thousands more.

“When ASEAN's recently appointed special emissary, Erywan Yusof, the second foreign minister of Brunei, visits Senior General Min Aung Hlaing again, the first item on their discussion agenda should be the opening of Yangon International Airport so that vaccines and oxygen can be delivered directly to the population without any military interference. Maybe then a start can be made on reversing this insanity.

“The second item should be the cessation of all punitive measures against doctors and other medical personnel involved in the civil disobedience movement that brought the hospitals to a standstill.

“The third should be reopening those hospitals and equipping them with generators. The national grid is failing because nobody has paid their electricity bill for six months in protest against the junta.”

Imagine any of his predecessors being as absent without leave as Guterres in the face of such a crisis

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned of famine in Myanmar and is appealing for US$86 million to feed the population for the next six months, claiming that more than 6.2 million people face hunger.

The collapse of the banking system means people cannot withdraw money, while foreign donors have great difficulty sending support. People are in dire need of rescue — from Covid, economic collapse, displacement, imprisonment, hunger and repression.

In the face of all this, where are world leaders?

When I told someone recently that I thought the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “very low-profile, invisible, failing to show leadership and doing nothing more than issuing a few hand-wringing statements,” I was told — correctly — that I was being far too polite.

Imagine any of his predecessors being as absent without leave as Guterres in the face of such a crisis. Ban Ki-moon or Kofi Annan, for all their faults, would have summoned up the moral authority of their office to mobilize action.

Is Guterres just inherently moribund and lackluster or does he have some contract with Beijing in his back pocket? If he wanted to, he could lead a high-level diplomatic initiative to mobilize regional leaders to provide humanitarian aid and put political pressure on Myanmar, but so far there’s no sign of it. It’s as if he has taken his phone off the hook and gone for a siesta while Myanmar burns.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is no better, though there are signs that some member states — notably Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia — may be exasperated with Naypyidaw and ready to begin to bang heads together.

The appointment of Brunei diplomat Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s envoy does not instill great confidence in most people — and hundreds of Myanmar civil society groups have already rejected him, arguing they should have been consulted, along with the exiled National Unity Government. Nevertheless, tasked with overseeing humanitarian aid, ending violence and opening a dialogue between the military and its opponents, Erywan has said he will demand full access to all when he visits.

And the generals — the perpetrators of this crime scene — must be held to account and brought to justice

In the face of such a crisis, every tool must be used, though with care. Sanctions should be used to hit the military and its interests, not the people. Aid should be provided to the people without going into the pockets of the military. Diplomacy should be deployed without legitimizing the junta. China must be engaged without capitulating to its geopolitical agenda and increasing international aggression. The UN and ASEAN should be activated without any illusions about the limitations of both.

And the generals — the perpetrators of this crime scene — must be held to account and brought to justice. Their disparate opposition of democrats and ethnic groups, drawn from a diverse range of political, racial and religious groups in Myanmar, currently united, must be strengthened and developed into a movement that can build a new Myanmar that celebrates, rather than persecutes, ethnic and religious diversity.

And the truth about the disaster unfolding in Myanmar should be made known to the world, repeatedly and urgently, so that there is no excuse to look away. As Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo put it in a tweet on Aug. 7: “Today there is a huge conflict going on in our country: between the good and the evil, between what is essential and what is passing. Between truth and lies. Those who are in the side of the evil are like the ‘ancestors’ bread in the desert’: they will surely perish.”

In another tweet he continued: “Stay [the] course. The ultimate victory is ours because Jesus, the way, the truth and the light, walks with us.  All death and disease will be gone. It is Christ who won over those dark valleys as St. Paul extols: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

That spirit is inspiring and true. But the sting of death is there in Myanmar, killing thousands, and there are only two ways to stop its rampage: prayer and action. The need to do both could not be more urgent than now. Otherwise we won’t only be commemorating 8888 but also 2021 for Myanmar for decades to come.

* Benedict Rogers is CSW’s senior analyst for East Asia and author of three books on Myanmar/Burma, 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.

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