At least 18 demonstrators, most of them students, were killed on the streets of Myanmar over the weekend, dozens more were injured, and hundreds are believed to be imprisoned — all the latest victims of a military coup now a month underway in a nation where the promise of democracy had just barely taken root.
The Biden administration moved swiftly earlier this month to impose a variety of sanctions on the country — before blood was shed in the streets. Clearly US sanctions aren’t enough to deter the Burmese military. It’s time for the international community to raise its collective voice and do more to stop the bloodshed and the arrests, and to restore a democratically elected government.
Since the coup was initiated, on Feb. 1, a military junta has detained the nation’s civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 years under house arrest earlier in her career, until she and her party first won a democratic election in 2015 and then triumphed again in 2020. In words hauntingly familiar to Americans, the military leaders disputed the election results as a pretext to seize power — even though the country’s voters had overwhelmingly favored Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party.
Once a beacon of human rights, Suu Kyi’s international stature has been greatly diminished because of her failure to stop violence against the country’s Muslim minority. But that doesn’t make her detention now less scandalous.
Suu Kyi currently faces three charges — the most recent, added Monday, of publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm.”
As the street demonstrations continued to grow in the main city of Yangon and beyond, the military responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, stun guns, and, ultimately, live ammunition. The UN Human Rights Office reported that among the hundreds arrested Sunday (one activist group put the number at around 1,000), at least 85 were medical professionals and students and seven were journalists.
Civilian barricades to stall the police from entering neighborhoods now dot Yangon’s landscape. One, The Washington Post reported, was manned by software engineers, who were frustrated by the junta’s efforts to control Internet traffic, and with it, the use of social media.
In a moving speech on the floor of the UN General Assembly, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, saying he was representing Suu Kyi’s government, pleaded, “We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people, and to restore the democracy.”
Myanmar state television reported his removal the next day by the junta — an action UN officials do not recognize.
The UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar wrote in a Twitter post, “As the junta ratchets up its brutal attacks against peaceful protesters in Myanmar, the world must ratchet up its response.”
The Biden administration was quick to condemn the coup and follow with sanctions against its leaders — 10 individuals and three businesses that it identified as either owned or controlled by the nation’s military. It also limited US exports of “sensitive goods” and technologies and moved to “prevent the generals from improperly accessing more than $1 billion” in government funds held in the United States.
But that was Feb. 11, and clearly it didn’t keep the generals from slaughtering their own young people in the streets. Four years of US retreat on the world stage continue to take their toll on US influence.
The heavy lift will probably fall to Myanmar’s neighbors, including those in the 10-member (Myanmar being one of them) Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has scheduled a special virtual meeting of its foreign ministers Tuesday.
Some within the group, such as Singapore, have called for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and members of her party. Others have suggested an election “do-over” within the year to appease the generals. And the fear of a mass influx of unhappy Burmese into neighboring nations could spur action. The United States would be wise to lean on its allies in Southeast Asia to take sharp action, given that ASEAN previously has only made tepid calls for “reconciliation.”
Ending the violence — and the unjust arrests — will take a united effort by the United States, the European Union, and nations in the region speaking as if with one voice. Restoring democracy will be a much steeper climb, but not an impossible one for a nation that has, after all, done this before.
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