Op-ed: Understanding Myanmar’s coup: Could a military insurrection halt a genocide?

On Feb. 22, huge crowds gathered in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar, to mourn the death of Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, a young woman who was shot in the head during protests against the military coup. At least 138 people have died in these protests, and the murders will only continue to mount. These young protestors face a violent military that is responsible for the murder of many civilians since the late 20th century. Older Burmese citizens support these young and outspoken civil rebels, but because of the brutal history of the military and the haunting memory of such atrocities, it is the young people who lead the way, and, thus, are the ones being killed. Myanmar, which was formerly Burma until 1989, when the State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the country’s official name, has, for almost two months, been the site of political upheaval, a military coup d’etat and violent protests. Concurrently, the government and military have been committing genocide against the Rohingya people of Rakhine State. 

On Feb. 1, the military — the Tatmadaw — seized power and declared a state of emergency for one year, following a general election in which the country’s former ruling party, the National League for Democracy, won in a landslide. The country’s de facto ruler, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime pro-democracy activist and Nobel Prize winner, was charged for violating the nation’s Natural Disaster Law. Along with many other NLD officials, she has been detained. 

Currently, the military’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, leads the coup; he has received international condemnation, but, other than hurting his international reputation, no actions have been taken to stop him and the coup. President Joe Biden, along with the United Kingdom, ordered sanctions against the military. Biden stated, “The military must relinquish the power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma.” On social media, the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, articulated his disappointment in the military takeover, stating that it was a “serious blow to democratic reforms.” However, this international reaction to the coup fails to bring to light serious faults in human rights advocacy, in the infrastructure of the U.N., in the concept of Westphalian sovereignty and in the factor of national interest in response to mass atrocity. 

On Jan. 23, 2020, the International Court of Justice in The Hague unanimously ruled on the case brought by The Gambia alleging that Myanmar has been committing genocide against the Rohingya, and thus has breached the 1948 Genocide Convention. Within this momentous decision, the ICJ ruled that there was prima facie evidence that Myanmar breached the Convention, rejecting Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of her country’s actions; this means that it “appears” that genocide has occurred, but it is The Gambia’s responsibility to prove this in trial. Further, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to implement emergency measures to protect the Rohingya against violence and to preserve evidence of possible genocide. Nevertheless, this genocide has not been halted. 

The Rohingya crisis is founded upon more than 60 years of deep hatred and discrimination intensified by decades of civil war. Since the late 1940s when Great Britain ended its colonial rule over Burma, Myanmar has been entangled in on-and-off ethnic conflict. Since its independence, the central government of Myanmar has fought the world’s longest continuing civil war against several of its 135 minority ethnic groups, which makes it one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in Asia. It is a multi-ethnic, multireligious and polyglot nation, but Bamar people are the predominant ethnic group, dominating Myanmar’s government and military. 

Suu Kyi guided Myanmar against a backdrop of raging nationalism. She won a revolutionary free and fair election in 2015 by a landslide, but she was barred from the presidency by a provision in the country’s military-drafted constitution of 2008. She governed alongside the president, Htin Kyaw, a National League for Democracy leader. Despite the country’s being run by her democratically elected government and the NLD, Myanmar remains under the constraints of the 2008 military constitution, which was written while the country was still under an oppressive military rule. The referendum in which this constitution was approved is viewed as fraudulent by the international community, and the constitution allows for several contentious points, including the reservation of 25% of seats in the national legislature for the Tatmadaw. In 2015, the military vetoed a number of proposed amendments to the constitution; thus, the legislative body failed to oust the anti-Rohingya Tatmadaw from power. This national and ‘democratic’ party seems undemocratic in foundation.

Since its 2011 transition from military rule to a democratic government under President Thein Sein, Myanmar has attracted foreign investments and reintegrated into the global market. Recently, Myanmar has worked closely with Japan and China to reinvigorate its economy. China and Japan hold major interest in Myanmar, due to geographical location, border wars and economic investment. Myanmar’s borders are rich in extensive natural resources: jade, copper, gold, tin, teak and rubber. Furthermore, India joins China and Japan in their quest for greater influence in and economic benefit from Myanmar. On Nov. 14, 2020, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organization in which Myanmar claims membership, and other nations, notably China, New Zealand and Australia, signed the world’s largest trade pact, evidencing the economic value of Myanmar. China seeks to establish a naval port in the Indian Ocean and pipelines, and, thus, solicits Burmese support. China, as one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council, holds veto power in the U.N. Problematically, Myanmar has sought to ensure an alliance with China, evidencing a systemic issue with the Security Council veto in the face of human rights abuses; national interest and sovereignty will influence China’s use of the veto, as the nation will be less likely to support intervention within an allied nation. Unless China condemns the military, this military coup and the genocide will not end in the near future. 

While a humanitarian approach to conflict-resolution is an idealist’s ending to mass atrocity, massive political shifts, such as this coup, provide more likely ends to the crisis. Transitional justice and reconciliation will be complicated in Myanmar, but, for now, the junta-led military coup proves imperative, as it provides a unifying factor for ethnic groups. The strongholds of diverse ethnic groups protest against a common enemy: Min Aung Hlaing. Videos and pictures show the streets of Yangon packed to capacity with protestors fighting for democracy. The Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar has inspired people of all ethnic backgrounds to refuse this regime. Despite the NLD’s previous lack of support for unity of the people of Myanmar, given the ongoing ethnic conflict and genocide that occurred under its rule, the country must rally together and support this established and legitimate democratic power. Of course, the NLD must still be condemned and punished for its continuing genocide against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. As such, the international community must act in the political environment created by this coup to reinforce democratic values within the nation, to support peacekeeping and reconciliation and to revise the infrastructure and constitution of Myanmar and of the NLD to support human rights for all. 

The struggle for human rights has not stopped in Myanmar, but, now, it is a more universal cry throughout the country. The Tatmadaw has claimed martial law. March 27, Armed Forces Day in Myanmar, was one of the deadliest days of this coup: There are over 100 confirmed deaths from the parades and protests. Innocent civilians are being murdered by the governing power. What is the fate of Myanmar? The fate of peaceful protest? As established by John Locke in the Age of Enlightenment, people have the natural right to revolt against a government that acts against the interest of its people. What is to become of this precedent with the martial law in Myanmar? 

This military coup is a means through which a true democracy — not a regime that disregards and systematically abuses the rights of minorities — can be established. By ousting the Tatmadaw for good, a new constitution can be written with influence from international actors to ensure that reconciliation unites the various ethnic groups of Myanmar. We must act to endorse a global commitment to human rights and peace. The military and the government of Myanmar both must be held accountable. Due to China’s power in the Security Council and its own national interest — alliances, economic desires and its own ongoing human rights abuses — China seems to be the linchpin of halting this atrocity. China must support intervention in and condemnation of Myanmar to terminate this coup and to stop genocide and mass atrocity crimes from occurring. History seems to be repeating itself in Myanmar, as this coup catalyzed military rule once again, after the country had briefly transitioned from six decades of military rule toward democracy. We, as students, must rally around the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar to fight for Myanmar’s freedom from military power and in support of halting the genocide and mass atrocity crimes that have occurred there. 

Here are five things that, as a college student in the United States, you can do right now to make a small impact on Myanmar’s fight for human rights and democracy:

  1.   Tell Congress to impose sanctions on the military in Myanmar. 
  2.   Educate yourself on what is occurring and stay up to date with the news. 
  3.   Find a petition you support and sign it. Here’s one
  4.   Make a gift in support of activists fighting for Myanmar, such as the International Campaign for the Rohingya. 
  5.   Make those in your social networks aware of what is happening!

Julia Shufro is a junior studying history. Julia can be reached at [email protected]