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Myanmar: International Action Urgently Needed

Crerdit: STR/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jul 3 2024 (IPS) - Myanmar’s army, at war with pro-democracy forces and ethnic militias, must know it’s nowhere near victory. It recently came close to losing control of Myawaddy, one of the country’s biggest cities, at a key location on the border with Thailand. Many areas are outside its control.

The army surely expected an easier ride when it ousted the elected government in a coup on 1 February 2021. It had ruled Myanmar for decades before democracy returned in 2015. But many democracy supporters took up arms, and in several parts of the country they’ve allied with militia groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, with a long history of resisting military oppression.

Setbacks and violence

Army morale has collapsed. Thousands of soldiers are reported to have surrendered, including complete battalions – some out of moral objections to the junta’s violence and others because they saw defeat as inevitable. There have also been many defections, with defectors reporting they’d been ordered to kill unarmed civilians. Forces fighting the junta’s troops are encouraging defectors to join their ranks.

In response to reversals, in February the junta announced it would introduce compulsory conscription for young people, demanding up to five years of military service. An estimated 60,000 men are expected to be called up in the first round. The announcement prompted many young people to flee the country if they could, and if not, seek refuge in parts of Myanmar free from military control.

There have also been reports of army squads kidnapping people and forcing them to serve. Given minimal training, they’re cannon fodder and human shields. Rohingya people – an officially stateless Muslim minority – are among those reportedly being forcibly enlisted. They’re being pressed into service by the same military that committed genocide against them.

People who manage to cross into Thailand face hostility from Thai authorities and risk being returned against their will. Even after leaving Myanmar, refugees face the danger of transnational repression, as government intelligence agents reportedly operate in neighbouring countries and the authorities are freezing bank accounts, seizing assets and cancelling passports.

Conscription isn’t just about giving the junta more personnel to compensate for its losses – it’s also part of a sustained campaign of terror intended to subdue civilians and suppress activism. Neighbourhoods are being burned to the ground and hundreds have died in the flames. The air force is targeting unarmed towns and villages. The junta enjoys total impunity for these and many other vile acts.

The authorities hold thousands of political prisoners on fabricated charges and subject them to systematic torture. The UN independent fact-finding mission reports that at least 1,703 people have died in custody since the coup, likely an underestimate. Many have been convicted in secret military trials and some sentenced to death.

There’s also a growing humanitarian crisis, with many hospitals destroyed, acute food shortages in Rakhine state, where many Rohingya people live, and an estimated three million displaced. Voluntary groups are doing their best to help communities, but the situation is made much worse by the military obstructing access for aid workers.

International neglect

In March, UN human rights chief Volker Türk described the situation in Myanmar as ‘a never-ending nightmare’. It’s up to the international community to exert the pressure needed to end it.

It’s by no means certain the military will be defeated. Adversity could lead to infighting and the rise of even more vicious leaders. One thing that could make a decisive difference is disruption of the supply chain, particularly the jet fuel that enables lethal airstrikes on civilians. In April, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on states to stop supplying the military with jet fuel. States should implement it.

Repressive states such as China, India and Russia have been happy enough to keep supplying the junta with weapons. But democratic states must take the lead and apply more concerted pressure. Some, including Australia, the UK and USA, have imposed new sanctions on junta members this year, but these have been slow in coming and fall short of the approach the Human Rights Council resolution demands.

But the worst response has come from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Ignoring reality and civil society’s proposals, ASEAN has stuck to a plan it developed in April 2021 that simply hasn’t worked. The junta takes advantage of ASEAN’s weakness. It announced compulsory conscription shortly after a visit by ASEAN’s Special Envoy for Myanmar.

ASEAN’s neglect has allowed human rights violations and, increasingly, transnational organised crime to flourish. The junta is involved in crimes such as drug trafficking, illegal gambling and online fraud. It uses the proceeds of these, often carried out with the help of Chinese gangs, to finance its war on its people. As a result, Myanmar now ranks number one on the Global Organized Crime Index. This is a regional problem, affecting people in Myanmar’s neighbouring countries as well.

ASEAN members also have an obligation to accept refugees from Myanmar, including those fleeing conscription. They should commit to protecting them and not forcing them back, particularly when they’re democracy and human rights activists whose lives would be at risk.

Forced conscription must be the tipping point for international action. This must include international justice, since there’s none in Myanmar. The junta has ignored an order from the International Court of Justice to protect Rohingya people and prevent actions that could violate the Genocide Convention, following a case brought by the government of The Gambia alleging genocide against the Rohingya. The UN Security Council should now use its power to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court so prosecutions of military leaders can begin.

China and Russia, which have so far refused to back calls for action, should end their block on Security Council action, in the interests of human rights and to prevent growing regional instability.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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