World mustn’t forget Myanmar

World mustn’t forget Myanmar

With all eyes focusing on the Russia-Ukraine war, Southeast Asia and the world should not forget about what has been going on in Myanmar. The military shows no signs of stopping its brutal campaign of violence against the people, who continue to fight for the democracy that was stolen from them 14 months ago.

More than 1,700 civilians have been killed since Feb 1 last year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The number of political prisoners has passed 10,000.

Thousands more have been forced from their homes as a result of aerial bombardment. And civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest pending trial on yet more charges that could put her in jail for the rest of her life.

Myanmar’s military ruler Gen Min Aung Hlaing on March 27 vowed to intensify action against homegrown militia groups. His government has declared that membership or even contact with such “terrorist” groups carries harsh punishment under the law.

Addressing thousands of military personnel in Nay Pyi Taw on Armed Forces Day, he declared he would not negotiate with “terrorist groups and their supporters for killing innocent people”. The military, he said, “will annihilate them to (the) end”, according to an official translation.

Forced to abandon peaceful protests, many of those opposed to military rule have taken up arms, forming hundreds of People’s Defence Force (PDF) units. The military, despite a huge advantage in equipment and numbers, has struggled to crush the movement.

Security forces are currently conducting operations in Sagaing, in central Myanmar, and Kayah State, in the east, using airstrikes, artillery barrages and burning of villages. Chin state in the west as well as Kayin in the southeast are also being targeted.

The United Nations human rights office last month warned that serious rights abuses uncovered in Myanmar may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Besides killings and mass detentions, it said at least 440,000 people have been displaced while 14 million need urgent humanitarian assistance, delivery of which has largely been blocked by the military.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed to the international community to take “concerted, immediate measures to stem the spiral of violence”.

On March 26, the United States joined hands with the UK and Canada to impose new coordinated sanctions on Myanmar. The US sanctions target three alleged arms dealers as well as companies linked to them, and two businesses controlled by sanctioned arms dealer Tay Zaw. The UK took action against arms dealers and companies with a focus on those supplying the air force, which has been bombing civilian villages. Canada added four individuals and two companies to its blacklist.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meanwhile, has made almost no headway in efforts to persuade the generals to seek peace and cease violence against their own people. Special envoy Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s foreign minister, visited Myanmar last month but was not permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi or representatives of minority groups.

For the most part, the military continues to ignore the five-point consensus that Min Aung Hlaing agreed to in talks with Asean leaders in April last year.

Prak Sokhonn said the path to a cease-fire between the military and ethnic armed groups was difficult as “neither side seems to have been prepared to accept” the extended cease-fire announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen during his January visit.

While some Asean members, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have pushed hard for the envoy to conduct dialogue with “all parties concerned”, Prak Sokhonn has stressed dialogue with the military. He did speak with ambassadors from other Asean countries and representatives of international organisations during the visit.

Responding to critics who said his visit would only legitimise military rule in Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn said the talks would be a “first step” toward a breakthrough.

Of course, the situation in Myanmar will not be solved with one visit. What is crucial is that the Asean side does not fold to pressure and start making before the junta does. Continued pressure on the military to comply with the five-point consensus is essential.

Indeed, the UN and the West in general possess limited options to act against the junta as more threats emerge globally. But rights violations and people suffering in Myanmar deserve more attention from world leaders. Patiently supporting Asean’s efforts is likely the best way forward.