In the four months since General Min Aung Hlaing launched his military coup, Myanmar has become ungovernable. Since February 1, over 780 people have been killed by security forces and nearly 5,000 have been detained. Several prominent pro-democracy activists have been tortured to death, and the country’s elected leaders remain in hiding or arrested. The economy has flattened, nervous investors have left Myanmar and strikes have crippled the public sector. The army, or Tatmadaw, has rekindled its conflict with several armed ethnic groups, launching air strikes against civilians in remote provinces. A number of senior diplomats have defected, including Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who delivered the civil disobedience movement’s three-finger salute on the floor of the UN General Assembly. Some countries have imposed targeted sanctions and the World Bank has suspended lending. And despite weeks of deadly repression, new protests break out every day in neighborhoods, towns and villages across the country.
Given the chaos caused by the coup, the high-level summit convened by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta on April 24 provided a unique opportunity for regional leadership. For the junta, the summit was intended to mark General Min Aung Hlaing’s first official engagement as the new ruler of Myanmar. Instead, his hosts just referred to him as the country’s military chief, a subtle outrage he did not appreciate. Nor does he seem to have enjoyed the diplomatic censure he received from the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, who respectfully urged him to stop killing his people. He could possibly have got ASEAN to delete the section of their joint statement calling for prisoners to be released, but the general did not return to Naypyidaw with the acceptance he wanted.
On the other hand, the summit was a pathetic failure for ASEAN too. The region’s leaders tabled a five-point consensus plan to stop the killing and restore civil rule. However, this was rejected out of hand by the junta, who stated that they could only agree to the implementation when “the situation in the country is stable again. “Eight people were shot dead by security forces the day after the summit, underscoring their contempt for ASEAN’s requests.
However, stability cannot be created by decree and Myanmar is no longer the country it was in before February 1st. But neither is it the country it was before the transition to civil-led government began in 2011. The past decade has brought about tremendous economic, social and political changes. This rising generation has experienced more freedom than their parents and is digitally connected to the rest of the world for the first time in history. The ubiquitous three-finger salute from the protesters is just a reflection that young people in Myanmar today not only identify with global culture, but have also been inspired by their peers in Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere.
As Gen Z continues to lead the resistance to military rule, they urge the international community not only to condemn what is happening in their country, but to act. For example, on March 5, when the UN Security Council met in its ceremonial chamber in New York, people held protest vigils across Myanmar. Despite a strict curfew that night, protesters took to the streets of Yangon and Mandalay to write “We Need R2P” and “R2P – Save Myanmar” by candlelight.
During other protests in the following weeks, thousands more demonstrators were photographed with posters with similar R2P or responsibility to protect messages. In the city of Tamu in the far northwest near the border with India, people marched in white T-shirts with the words “R2P” printed on them. In Hpa Kant in the state of Kachin, people protested peacefully with roses and R2P signs. In Kon Chan Kone, young demonstrators sprayed the streets with stencils saying “We need R2P, we want democracy”. Even the waterways have been turned into improvised protest venues. A photo shows a Pro-R2P message floating near quiet rural fields. The fact that these messages were written in English – a language spoken by only about 5 percent of the population of Myanmar – indicates that the protesters are bringing their case to a global audience.
The R2P principle was adopted by the United Nations in 2005 and provides that the international community has a responsibility to protect people from crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This idea was aimed at overcoming the shame that had arisen after the genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. R2P was a collective commitment to end the politics of indifference and inaction once and for all.
In the 15 years of its existence, R2P has appeared in more than 90 UN Security Council resolutions that resulted in peace missions being used to protect civilians in countries such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan. It also led to the controversial military intervention of 2011 to stop the atrocities in Libya and the far less controversial and more successful intervention in Côte d’Ivoire. The Attorney General of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, has also referred to the ICC as “the legal arm of R2P”. Over the past two decades, the ICC has played a vital role in upholding the international community’s responsibility to protect by bringing notorious perpetrators of atrocities to justice.
In contrast to the widespread misperception, R2P is not primarily about military interventions. R2P focuses on a series of measures – some consensual, others compulsive – aimed at preventing or stopping atrocities. And like all human rights norms, R2P depends on the political will to meaningfully implement it.
The current crisis in Myanmar stems from the failure of the international community to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for their crimes in the past. Despite the beginning of a transition from military rule to civilian-led government in 2011, the Tatmadaw continued to wield enormous power. They continued to commit atrocities.
Most notable in this regard was the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state. In 2018, a UN intelligence mission concluded that senior members of the military, including General Min Aung Hlaing, had been charged with genocide and crimes against the Humanity and war crimes should be prosecuted in the states of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan.
China defended Myanmar’s generals on the UN Security Council and privately threatened to veto any resolution approving international action. As a result, the Council’s only formal response to the Rohingya genocide was the adoption of a lukewarm statement by the President in November 2017. In response to the February coup, the Council adopted another statement from the President on March 10, “stressing the need will maintain democratic institutions and processes that refrain from violence, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. “As the situation in Myanmar has continued to deteriorate, the voice of the council has become fragile. Until the end of April, the council could only agree on “press elements” for the media and express its general support for the ASEAN five-point consensus plan, which the junta had already declared ignored.
Almost four months after the military came to power, the UN Security Council has not yet passed a single resolution on the coup, let alone imposed measures that are binding under international law. However, diplomatic statements of concern will not be enough to end the atrocities committed by the military. That requires action.
Some states have already taken punitive measures. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States imposed targeted sanctions on senior military officials in response to the Rohingya genocide. Some have been expanded since the coup. The European Union has imposed sanctions on eleven high-ranking military officers – including Min Aung Hlaing – and suspended development aid. The US, UK and EU have also sanctioned the massive military-controlled conglomerates Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). South Korea has ended defense exchanges. New Zealand cut all political and military ties and Norway stopped development aid.
A number of international companies, including Woodside Energy, Maersk Shipping, H&M and Benneton, have also ceased operations or are divesting Myanmar. Woodside’s decision is particularly important as Myanmar’s energy industry provides $ 900 million annually – revenue that can fund military repression. Other foreign companies and governments should also cut ties with companies associated with MEHL and MEC. The Tatmadaw is not only an instrument of terror, but also a massive business enterprise that enriches and corrupts its senior officials.
Given the junta’s rejection of the ASEAN five-point consensus plan, the regional bloc should now increase pressure on Naypyidaw. General Min Aung Hlaing is using traditional ASEAN doctrine of “non-interference” to normalize relationships after the blood has dried on the streets. However, ASEAN should absolutely refuse to trade or recognize its illegitimate military regime. Otherwise, ASEAN has the prospect of having a failed state as one of its members.
The World Bank predicts that Myanmar’s economy could shrink 10 percent this year as a result of the coup. Some financial analysts believe that ongoing strikes and civil unrest could lead to a 60 percent drop in exports. Both the banking and healthcare sectors are already on the brink of collapse, and the UN development program fears that extreme poverty will rise significantly for the first time in over a decade. Given the ongoing atrocities and deadly conflict with emerging ethnic armed groups, refugees are already fleeing across the border into Thailand, India and other neighboring countries.
But all is not lost. Diplomatic measures by important ASEAN states such as Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia could prevent further deterioration and redesign the political calculations of the generals in Myanmar. At the very least, these influential states should press for the suspension of Myanmar from ASEAN and diplomatically recognize the government of national unity. India, the other regional superpower that shares a border with Myanmar and currently serves on the UN Security Council, could also help lead international efforts to hold the Myanmar military accountable.
Without determined Asian leadership, it is unclear what the UN Security Council will do in the first place. Russia is content to ignore both the coup and the course of action. However, China’s situation is more difficult than it seems. Above all, China wants peace and prosperity on its borders, and the coup does not offer either. It is precisely for this reason that ASEAN neighbors in Myanmar must force Beijing to choose between protecting murderous generals who endanger their interests or playing the role of a global power broker and helping negotiate an end to military rule.
Irrespective of this, the other members of the UN Security Council should immediately submit a draft resolution on the introduction of an arms embargo. On May 5th, my organization joined Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and 200 other NGOs from around the world to declare “Not One Bullet More”. In our open letter to the Council, we argued that:
A comprehensive United Nations arms embargo on Myanmar should prohibit the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer of all arms, ammunition and other military equipment, including dual-use items such as vehicles and communication and surveillance equipment, as well as the provision of training, intelligence and other military aid.
If China or Russia threaten to veto such measures, they should be compelled to do so in front of the world and are not allowed to privately defend Myanmar’s generals without facing the opprobrium themselves.
Almost four months after the coup, the bravery and resilience of the civil disobedience movement coupled with ongoing calls for international action have sent a strong signal to the rest of the world. Jaclyn Streitfeld-Hall from the Global Center wrote on Twitter:
For anyone who has ever thought that R2P is just an abstract term reserved for the UN in NY and has no practical meaning for the people it is supposed to protect, the signs, shirts, etc. that are in this month show Myanmar adorned with R2P, something else. You know that states have a responsibility.
There is no doubt that the people of Myanmar are facing crimes against humanity. Indolence and shyness in response to the Tatmadaw atrocities in the past created a climate of impunity that led to the coup. It is time to listen to those cry out for protection and finally to hold Myanmar generals accountable for their crimes. Or to quote a protester from Myanmar who wrote to me in the first few weeks of the crisis: “Sir, I know you are all doing your best, but please keep pushing. I humbly ask. Our life is at stake ”.
This article draws on lessons learned from Myanmar’s deadly coup and the responsibility to protect it.
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