Deep in southeast Asia sits a country where 54 million people are living a total nightmare. A nation that, benighted for decades, now faces a humanitarian catastrophe.
Myanmar — otherwise known as Burma — has been hit by a quadruple whammy: a military coup, a half-century long civil war reignited with a vengeance, economic collapse and coronavirus. It faces a dire humanitarian emergency fueled by coup, collapse, civil war and COVID.
Since the coup on February 1, over 900 people have been killed by the army and over 5,000 jailed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced after the military unleashed an aerial bombardment on ethnic minorities on a scale not seen for years.
Activists are facing what the United Nations calls a ‘brute force terror campaign’, while children endure an onslaught that the UN Child Rights Committee (CRC) says risks leaving an entire generation damaged.
At least 75 children have been killed, 1,000 detained and countless more denied medical care. Children are held in police stations, prisons and army camps. Among them is a five year-old girl whose father demonstrated against the coup. Other children have been taken hostage. Some children have been killed at home, including a six year-old girl shot dead in her father’s arms.
‘Children in Myanmar are under siege and facing catastrophic loss of life because of the military coup,’ said CRC Chair Mikiko Otani. ‘If this crisis continues, an entire generation of children is at risk.’
On top of this comes COVID.
Myanmar weathered the early waves relatively well. Not now. Today people defy curfews to seek oxygen, cemeteries and hospitals are overflowing, and the sick die at home.
Myanmar’s health system was rudimentary at the best of times. Today, with doctors targeted by the military for opposing the coup, it’s collapsing. As the UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews says: ‘The crisis in Myanmar is particularly lethal because of the pervasive mistrust of the military junta.’
The military’s inhumanity knows no bounds. It is seizing what remains of the country’s oxygen supply. Last week, soldiers in Yangon shot into a crowd lining up for oxygen tanks. In contrast, in a powerful sermon last Sunday the country’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo issued a direct appeal to the military to ‘drop all guns’ and ‘bring medical care’, noting that for too many, ‘every breath has become a challenge.’
On Wednesday the spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Nyan Win, whom I knew well, died of COVID.
Many other political prisoners in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison have contracted the virus, including foreigners. I am deeply concerned for my friend Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who advised Suu Kyi, and the American journalist Danny Fenster, both of whom are in jail. Another friend, Yangon’s jaild former social affairs minister Naing Lin, also has COVID. For the military, the democrats it cannot shoot, it will kill off with the virus.
There is a temptation for the rest of the world to shrug. Myanmar has a history of coups, it has been ruled by the army for almost all its post-independence life and its flirtation with democracy was disappointing. Indeed, in the past 10 years of opening we witnessed genocide and the rise of religious nationalism.
Aung San Suu Kyi disappointed everyone. In office, she failed to stand up for the values we thought she held dear.
Whatever the answers, there is no doubt that she and her colleagues should not now be in jail. Her NLD won an overwhelming majority and has every right to form a government.
The National Unity Government (NUG) has been formed to oppose the military. It is made up of parties elected last November, and includes a number of different ethnic groups. One of its leading lights is my friend Dr Sasa, their minister for international cooperation. He told a recent inquiry by the UK House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee that Myanmar faces ‘a pivotal moment’ and its ‘darkest hour’, with genocide ever more likely.
Morally, the West should recognize the National Unity Government. The military seized power with no legitimacy. Their actions are criminal. The NUG is the legitimate representative of the people.
Democratic nations may hesitate to give the Unity Government full diplomatic recognition, because they don’t want to lose their embassies in Yangon which, even in constrained circumstances, might be helpful.
Nonetheless, the free world should get as close as possible to recognizing the NUG. As the UK foreign affairs committee argued, ‘rather than an exile government, the NUG should be treated as a government-in-waiting.’
Action is needed now. The UN’s Tom Andrews has called for an ‘emergency coalition’ to stop the military’s ‘reign of terror’.
The West should aim to cut the financial lifeline to the military generals via tough, targeted sanctions. Some have been imposed, but there is more to do. And we should prevent the flow of arms through a global arms embargo.
We should provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar via humanitarian aid, through every means possible, while avoiding putting money into the army’s pockets.
It is in no one’s interests for Myanmar to end up a failed state, starving, unable to breathe, and torn apart by civil war. Such a scenario will lead to a refugee crisis, further spread of the pandemic, a failure for democracy and an advance for authoritarianism.
We have every reason to intervene now.
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