Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.
Today is the start of the Lunar New Year, Year of the Tiger. It is also the first anniversary of the bloody coup in Myanmar (Burma). A year ago today, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, unravelling a decade of fragile democratisation and plunging that beautiful but benighted country back into the nightmare of brutal military dictatorship.
As we mark these two dates, we should reflect on the tragedy in Myanmar, and our response. We should also consider the role of the Chinese Communist Party regime in repressing its people, propping up other dictatorships and increasingly threatening freedom around the world. And we should resolve to develop the characteristics of the Tiger – fearlessness and courage.
It is said that this Year of the Tiger symbolises recovery and growth, both much needed following two years of Covid-19. But let this be a year of recovery and growth not only economically, but also for democracy, human rights and the international rules-based order, all increasingly threatened.
Myanmar is facing a dire humanitarian, human rights and economic crisis. The military, known as the ‘Tatmadaw’, has conducted over 7,000 attacks on civilians. Villages have been subjected to heavy artillery shelling and air strikes. In a country that, even during the past decade of quasi-democracy, still faced civil war – as it has for 70 years – this represents a shocking 664% increase over the previous year. Almost 1,500 people have been killed, including 100 children. Over 330,600 people have been displaced since the coup, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The Tatmadaw’s bombardment of civilians has been accompanied by gruesome atrocity crimes. In one township on 7 December last year, soldiers tied up 11 civilians, tortured them, then burned them alive. Among the victims were five teenagers. On Christmas Eve, in a village in Karenni State, at least 37 people, including women and 10 children, were massacred. Again, their hands were tied and they were burned to death. They included two Save the Children aid workers.
Ten years ago, political prisoners were being released in Myanmar. But since the coup, the junta has arrested at least 11,776 people. Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint remain in jail, likely to be locked up indefinitely. At least 432 members of their party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), are in prison. Twelve have died in custody, some from Covid-19, others from torture.
At least 114 journalists have been arrested, and 43 remain behind bars. Before the coup, there were no journalists imprisoned, but today, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Myanmar ranks second only to China for jailing the most journalists.
The coup and the conflict have led to a humanitarian crisis in a country already suffering from Covid-19. The military has compounded the crisis by blocking or stealing humanitarian aid. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that 46.3% of the population will be living in poverty and 14.4 million people – including five million children – will need humanitarian assistance this year.
In the face of this tragedy, what has the world done? The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada have imposed some targeted sanctions on the military, which is welcome. But apart from that, there have been strong statements and much handwringing, but little else. There is a need to do much more.
The goal should be two-fold: to cut the lifeline to the Generals and provide a lifeline to the people. That means more sanctions, and – crucially – enforcing an arms embargo. Russia and China – already major challenges to the free world – are the key providers of arms to the junta. We should explore every avenue to expose and penalise them for their complicity with Myanmar’s mass murderers.
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – whose response has been low-key and lacklustre – needs to step up. He should mobilise a diplomatic effort and a humanitarian coalition to provide aid along the borders. Britain and others should increase aid, and fund cross-border delivery.
Crucially, pressure should be put on China to stop keeping this junta alive. China is the junta’s primary provider of diplomatic cover and financial support. China is no friend of human rights, obviously, but it does not like instability on its doorstep, so we should try to persuade Beijing to help prevent a humanitarian disaster in Myanmar. Sustaining the Generals in power while Myanmar’s economy collapses, is in no one’s interests.
In three days, Beijing will host the Winter Olympics. A regime accused of genocide, dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms in breach of an international treaty, repression in Tibet, persecution of Christians and Falun Gong, forced organ harvesting and an all-out assault on freedom at home and abroad, is not one that should have been accorded this honour.
It is right that several countries, including the United Kingdom, have imposed a diplomatic boycott. It is now right that we use the Games to spotlight the atrocities in China – and the regime’s complicity with crimes against humanity in Myanmar – and shame the butchers of Beijing.
In this Year of the Tiger, let us rediscover the courage of our convictions. Even as we face the most immediate challenge to freedom in Ukraine, let us not forget Myanmar. Indeed, let us stand up for the peoples of Myanmar – and China – and for freedom everywhere.