Editorial – The Observer
As the military cracks down ever harder on protesters, the west and China must work together to prevent disaster
It began with red balloons and ribbons, silent symbols of
resistance to Myanmar’s military coup. Then came the subversive banging and
clanging of saucepans and gongs, a traditional way to exorcise devils. As the
initial shock of the 1 February putsch began to wear off, the first street
demonstrations started in cities and towns across the country. Now the protests
are occurring daily, huge in numbers and bravely, passionately defiant.
An epic battle of wills is under way in Myanmar that the world cannot ignore. On one side of the divide stand young people, students, teachers, oil workers, Buddhist monks, housewives, artists, activists, election officials and civil servants, their hopes of an open, democratic future connected to the modern world sacrificed to the selfish ambitions, historical amnesia and authoritarianism of the coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing.
On the other side stand the generals, Myanmar’s de facto rulers, self-appointed national guardians and highly conservative economic power-brokers. Even after they stepped back in 2015, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to take a frontline role in politics, the men in uniform retained overall control through a constitution written by them. Brutality, bullheadedness and venality are what they do best.
This seismic battle is not simply about who’s in charge, although Min Aung Hlaing’s claim that the NLD’s landslide election victory in November was fraudulent is absurd. It’s about competing visions for a country that, despite a wealth of natural and human resources, has been criminally misgoverned, corruptly exploited and set against itself on ethnic lines for decades. Let’s not forget it was these same generals who created the 2017 Rohingya Muslim genocide.
How this battle plays out is of increasing concern. Aung San Suu Kyi and other leading politicians are under arrest. So, too, are an estimated 350 civil society leaders. Latest reports speak of growing terror as security force goon squads drag people from their homes in the dead of night. Social media has been curtailed, curfews imposed and the police response to protesters appears to be hardening alarmingly. Down this trajectory lies tragedy.
Only the people of Myanmar will ultimately decide the country’s future. But that’s not to say a watching world cannot influence events. On Friday, a resolution by the United Nations human rights council, watered down by China and Russia, called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and a halt to violence against demonstrators.
Much more is required in terms of practical steps – for the junta will certainly ignore the UN, as in the past. Joe Biden’s swift action in imposing penalties on individuals involved in the coup and freezing assets held in the US has provided a lead. What is needed now is a broader tranche of internationally enforced sanctions, carefully targeted at the military as an institution and at its commercial interests, as well as a total arms embargo.
For this to work, China – Myanmar’s neighbour, trading partner and biggest investor – must be brought on board. Beijing has so far refused to condemn the coup outright. But it holds the key. The US, the UK, the EU and regional countries in Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) should act together to persuade China to help mount an urgent diplomatic intervention. The aim? The immediate release of all political prisoners and all-party negotiations to get the country back on track.
China will suffer more than most if the battle for Myanmar’s future turns violent and the country is destabilised permanently. Beijing already has one failed state on its doorstep – North Korea. It surely does not want another. But if the chaos deepens the biggest losers will be ordinary people now bravely standing up for their rights. Myanmar need not be another democratic disaster – and it could be a turning point. The west and China must work together to resolve this crisis.
Myanmar: troops and police forcefully disperse marchers in Mandalay
Protests against military coup continue despite overnight internet blackout and extra soldiers deployed. Troops have joined police in forcefully dispersing marchers in the city of Mandalay in northern Myanmar, as protests against the military coup continued despite the deployment of extra soldiers in some areas and an eight-hour internet blackout overnight. Images and reports from the city on Monday showed police and soldiers using rubber bullets and slingshots to disperse protesters: