The prosecution and inevitable conviction of Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, its former president, are a show of strength by the military that only emphasises its failures. These two are “hostages, not criminals”, observed Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. The generals’ attempt to launder the detention through closed court proceedings fooled no one. The repression has only grown in the 10 months since the junta seized power, because it knows repression is all it has.
The military chief Min Aung Hlaing made a serious miscalculation when he launched the coup, overturning the arrangements that allowed the army to maintain a high degree of power despite the National League for Democracy’s electoral triumphs. He assumed the military could return to the old ways, beating down political opposition and keeping the 76-year-old safely locked away. Perhaps he hoped that international reaction might be muted by the Nobel peace prize laureate’s tarnished reputation, after she personally defended Myanmar in the international court of justice genocide case over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims. (Rohingya survivors this week announced that they are suing Facebook for £150bn over hate speech on the social media platform.)
But everyone knows she was seized and sentenced for representing democracy. This is not about one individual, but 54 million. The effects of the coup were devastatingly broad, plunging the country into economic despair; three-quarters of households have lost income since February, compounding the pandemic’s effects, and health and education systems have collapsed. The opposition to it was equally wide-ranging. Tens of thousands joined a civil disobedience movement.
The military assumed its brutal tactics would swiftly quell opposition once more. The regime is believed to have killed 1,250 people – including young children – and arrested 10,000; detainees have been raped and tortured. But the resistance has been extraordinary. Ordinary families have boycotted military-linked companies; some opponents have taken up arms, launching attacks on army convoys, local administrators and similar targets in the country’s heart, in an unprecedented development. Some have forged links with ethnic armed groups that have long battled the centre. The military has retaliated by pummelling civilian areas with heavy weaponry. In September, the national unity government – the shadow government of elected but now exiled politicians – called for a “people’s defensive war”. Army morale has plunged, producing a steady trickle of defectors.
Though the military says there will be elections in 2023, it launched its coup in part because it finally realised that it could not win over the public. Its actions convinced many that the generals must be removed from power entirely – which will, of course, entrench their determination to crush opposition. No one expects them to go anywhere any time soon.
The UK has steadily if slowly ramped up sanctions, but others could do much more: notably, the EU and the US should levy sanctions on oil and gas. A UN committee last week deferred the junta’s application for a new representative; the generals must not be afforded respectability. Finally, with no swift or easy resolutions to this crisis in sight, all who support democracy should diplomatically and financially back the UN’s independent investigation mechanism for Myanmar’s attempts to bring justice to victims of human rights abuses in the long term.