On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup, placing civilian leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in detention, declaring a state of emergency, and attempting to take hold of all levels of power. Opposition and resistance to the coup has been immediate and widespread. People from all sectors of Myanmar society have been on the streets, organizing and demonstrating against this military takeover. Repression by the military has intensified, with the death toll now exceeding 700, and over 3000 currently detained, according to local Myanmar civil society source, ‘Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.’ Yet the Civil Disobedience Movement continues, including many in their teens and twenties.
With the situation on the ground critical, Peace Boat held an urgent event online on April 10; “Myanmar: Voices of the civil movement against the military regime". There were more than 460 participants and over 100 questions from the audience showing the high level of interest in this issue. Peace Boat was honoured to have Ms Khin Ohmar as the keynote speaker. Ohmar is a human rights practitioner and activist who has been a leader in tirelessly communicating the situation in Myanmar to the international community. She works with Peace Boat as part of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), and has joined Peace Boat several times including as a Navigator with the Global University (GU) Programme.
After thanking Peace Boat for providing the platform to amplify the voices of the people of Myanmar in their fight against the illegal regime, Ohmar opened her keynote with a moving and emotional tribute to the people of Myanmar.
“Please allow me to pay tribute to all the heroes and heroines in my Motherland, Myanmar. To those of you who have fallen and to those of you who continue to fight courageously against this murderous military, I salute you. I salute you for your determination, defiance and defending your life, your rights and for defending democracy and human rights”.
Looking back 32 years to 1988, Ohmar spoke about her own experiences of when the military, known as the Tatmadaw, brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Over 3000 protestors were brutally shot and killed, many of whom were young. Ohmar was herself only 20 years old and had to flee her home like so many others to the protection of the ‘ethnic armed organisations’. Many young people were imprisoned, with some spending 20 years or more in prison. Over 2000 democracy activists were imprisoned in Myanmar and Ohmar has spent the last 32 years in exile. Looking at the crisis in Myanmar today, she explained the many similarities between what happened then and what is happening now, but also key differences, as the military now acts with an unprecedented level of brutality as a result of decades of impunity.
Like in 1988, young people and students are playing an active role in the current Civil Disobedience Movement. Since the coup, there have been daily protests in Myanmar. The young people at the front of the movement are, according to Ohmar, not only more organized than her generation in 1988, but also more connected to the rest of the world. Furthermore, people of all walks of life have come together to protest against the coup and subsequent repression. The Civil Disobedience Movement has extended and received widespread support throughout Myanmar including from politicians of the legitimate regime and of the ethnic armies, to the point that the military have been unable to effectively control the country.
Those participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement have been doing so in the face of a horrifying level of violence from the military. Women have been systematically raped and killed by the military in ethnic communities for decades as part of a policy to terrorise the population into submission and it appears now that children are deliberate targets with forty-eight children killed. The Tatmadaw have beaten and killed medical workers and turned hospitals into army buildings. There have been raids on media and civil society organisations with multiple arrests and detentions. The death penalty has been reinstated and on April 9, 23 protestors were sentenced to death. There have been deadly attacks on ethnic communities and the recent forced displacement of approximately 22,000 people, as well as airstrikes against the Karen and Kachin people since the coup.
Ohmar stressed that this extreme situation in Myanmar today is the result of 32 years of violence without holding the military to account. In particular, failure of the international community to intervene to halt the genocide against the Rohingya in 2017 has given the Tatmadaw complete confidence that it can act with blanket impunity. In response to a question from participants, Ohmar said that the legitimate ruling party of Myanmar, the National League for Democracy, had at the time also lost its moral authority in its failure to protect the Rohingya people. Any further failure from the international community to intervene to support and protect the people of Myanmar is sure to lead to further bloodshed in the country, she said.
Fujimatsu Rin of Progressive Voice, a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organization working to amplify voices from the ground in Myanmar, next spoke in detail about the response of the international community. Formerly a staff member of Peace Boat, Rin has been actively involved in human rights issues in Myanmar since 2014. Rin noted that as early as March 11, Thomas H. Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said in a statement that the military was "now likely engaging in crimes against humanity”.
Looking in more detail at countries’ responses, Rin explained that New Zealand severed diplomatic and military ties following the coup, and stated that aid programs will not include projects that will benefit the military. The United Kingdom and the United States have imposed ‘targeted sanctions’ against Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC), the two largest military holding companies in Myanmar. The European Union has sanctioned military leaders and targeted sanctions against MEHL and MEC are pending. The response from ASEAN countries has been mixed with some countries strongly uphoding the principle of ‘non-interference’ of ASEAN.
Japan for its part has avoided direct criticism of the military government. The Japanese government has quite strong ties with the Tatmadaw which it claims are a channel for direct dialogue. Yet, this direct connection has unfortunately not been clearly used to appeal for a return to democracy and an end to violence. A joint statement was released by the Ambassadors to Myanmar from Australia, Canada, EU, Norway, Korea, Switzerland, the UK and the US on April 8 after a massacre by the military took place. That the Ambassador from Japan however has not signed the statement, is just one example, according to Rin, of the problematic stance of the Japanese government.
Looking at the response of the United Nations (UN), Rin explained that the Security Council has the options to impose sanctions, travel bans and global arms embargo, and to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC). So far, however, it has released three statements pertaining to Myanmar, but taken no concrete action. Discussions about the use of extra measures were blocked by Russia, China, India and VietNam, leading to 488 Myanmar civil society organisations releasing a joint statement criticizing the UN Security Council for its inaction and these four countries for their position. Rin explained that civil society organisations are calling on the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions to cut off finance to the Myanmar military, for a global arms embargo on Myanmar and finally to refer Myanmar to the ICC.
Looking further at the response of Japan, Rin noted that since 2017 Japan has abstained from all UN resolutions related to Myanmar. Japan claims to prioritise human rights and democracy within its official foreign policy but this is not demonstrated in its diplomatic actions. Rin explained that Japan’s current stance is similar to that at the time of the Rohingya genocide when Japan continued to protect the Myanmar government and military from criticism at the UN. Furthermore, Japan does not refer to the Rohingya by their self-identified name but rather calls them “Muslims from Rakhine State,” terminology preferred by the Myanmar government. The Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar even referred to Rohingya as "Bengalis," a discriminatory term indicating they are from Bangladesh and not native to Myanmar. The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and the The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) even went as far as to organize an Rakhine Investment Fair with the Rakhine State government and Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) to call for investment where genocide had just taken place.
The Japanese government's ties with the Myanmar military were explained in more detail by Kiguchi Yuka of Mekong Watch, a Japanese NGO which focuses on the environmental and social problems resulting from development projects in the Mekong Region, particularly those involving Japanese funding. Yuka explained that Japan has carried out various projects in Myanmar through Japan's official development assistance (ODA). Yuka said that while many people in Japan may think of the ODA constructing hospitals and other such aid, in fact many projects are related to infrastructure. Projects with connections to the military-owned MEHL and MEC are a large point of concern in Myanmar, as potential sources of funding for the military. Yuka explained several projects in detail including the Bago River Bridge Project, being constructed with a loan of 31 billion Japanese yen and from which the MEC are gaining huge profits. ODA funding comes from public money, meaning that Japanese taxpayers’ money is being used to support the Myanmar military, responsible for such crimes against humanity.
Yuka told participants that NGOs in Japan are making demands of the government to not provide any further aid to Myanmar using public funds unless it is humanitarian, to suspend all projects in Myanmar (except humanitarian) and investigate alleged links to the military. Mekong Watch have made requests to the Japanese government to investigate projects which benefit the military in Japan, but the only response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been that it is “under consideration, as the situation is still fluid”. She concluded by inviting participants to join their protests to the Ministry of Foreign of Affairs either in person or through social media, in a focused campaign between April 13-19 using the hashtags #JapanStopODAtoTheTatmadaw and #NoMoreBusinessWithTheTatmadaw.
Peace Boat is grateful for the speakers in the event for their contributions. We will continue to monitor the situation in Myanmar and to stand in solidarity with the people. More information can be found at Progressive Voice, Mekong Watch and through the hashtags #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #StandWithMyanmar and #SaveMyanmar.