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The World Has Failed to Stand With Myanmar

Despite this lack of support, I remain hopeful for my people’s future.

By , a Rohingya human rights and democracy activist.
Anti-coup protestors in Myanmar stand behind a barricade as smoke rises behind them.
Anti-coup protestors in Myanmar stand behind a barricade as smoke rises behind them.
Anti-coup protesters shout slogans at approaching security forces as smoke rises from burning car tires in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021. Stringer/Getty Images

Feb. 1 marks one year since Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s elected government, imprisoned key political leaders, and unleashed a brutal campaign of terror, detaining and massacring civilians calling for democracy. Under the leadership of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military has launched airstrikes on villages and internally displaced people’s camps and carried out brutal sexual and gender-based attacks on women and girls across the country.

That was just the beginning of a campaign of systematic violence that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Over the past year, the junta has killed at least 1,500 people and arrested nearly 12,000 nationwide.

Nevertheless, fearless and resilient, my country’s people remain more committed than ever to taking down the junta and ending this human rights catastrophe. Demonstrators have taken to the streets for months on end, key workers in state sectors have engaged in a sustained civil disobedience movement, and duly elected officials—alongside human rights activists and other leaders from diverse ethnic minority communities—have formed the National Unity Government (NUG), which seeks to overthrow the junta. Yet while more and more of us have come together to call for justice, freedom, and democracy, the international community has failed to truly stand in solidarity with us, issuing lofty statements of condemnation but taking few practical steps to protect our lives.

Feb. 1 marks one year since Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s elected government, imprisoned key political leaders, and unleashed a brutal campaign of terror, detaining and massacring civilians calling for democracy. Under the leadership of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military has launched airstrikes on villages and internally displaced people’s camps and carried out brutal sexual and gender-based attacks on women and girls across the country.

That was just the beginning of a campaign of systematic violence that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Over the past year, the junta has killed at least 1,500 people and arrested nearly 12,000 nationwide.

Nevertheless, fearless and resilient, my country’s people remain more committed than ever to taking down the junta and ending this human rights catastrophe. Demonstrators have taken to the streets for months on end, key workers in state sectors have engaged in a sustained civil disobedience movement, and duly elected officials—alongside human rights activists and other leaders from diverse ethnic minority communities—have formed the National Unity Government (NUG), which seeks to overthrow the junta. Yet while more and more of us have come together to call for justice, freedom, and democracy, the international community has failed to truly stand in solidarity with us, issuing lofty statements of condemnation but taking few practical steps to protect our lives.

U.N. member states have continued to justify their failure to act by hiding behind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its “Five-Point Consensus” on Myanmar, which calls for an end to violence, constructive dialogue, and an ASEAN special envoy to bring all parties together to find a peaceful solution to the coup. That consensus has been brazenly violated by Myanmar’s junta.

Such inaction has continued to allow the military and security forces to intensify their murderous campaign, leaving Myanmar’s youth no choice but to defend themselves and their future with arms.

It has broken my heart to watch my family, friends, and fellow civilians continue to be brutalized by perpetrators who have never been held to account for their past mass atrocities against ethnic minority groups. As a member of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority community, I know this terror personally: In 2005, when I was 18, the military and security forces imprisoned my family and me for seven years in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison due to my father’s democracy activism under the prior military dictatorship. After my release from prison in 2012—the year Myanmar held semi-democratic by-elections—I allowed myself to feel a glimmer of hope for my country. But the international community failed to end the military and security forces’ brutality.

The same is happening today. Under its principle of noninterference, for instance, ASEAN chooses to reject the thousands of civilians seeking refuge from the military’s airstrikes and instead engages with the military and security forces, including by allowing them to participate in key ASEAN meetings. This is the same approach it took in 2017, when it refused to condemn the military’s genocidal campaign against my community, the Rohingya. Meanwhile, Britain, Canada, the United States, and the European Union have yet to impose a comprehensive set of targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military and its related businesses, including the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

Just as it failed to do for my country’s ethnic minority groups for decades, the U.N. Security Council has yet to take any measures to protect Myanmar’s people since the coup. This is in spite of an order from the International Court of Justice to prevent genocide; an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court into potential crimes committed against Rohingya in the course of their flight across the border to Bangladesh from 2016 to 2017; numerous reports by a U.N. fact-finding mission that documented and issued recommendations on, among other abuses, war crimes and sexual violence; and mounting evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Security Council has only met behind closed doors and couldn’t even agree last week to address the country’s deteriorating humanitarian crisis in an open briefing, which would have allowed the council to hear from civil society groups and made each council member state’s positions on Myanmar public. In fact, the Security Council has not adopted a single resolution on Myanmar. To date, the Security Council has only once considered a resolution on the country, in the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution—a resolution China and Russia vetoed. Since then, the Security Council has only issued “presidential statements” four times—including one that condemned violence against Rohingya in 2017 and one that denounced the 2021 coup.

It is past time for the world to reject quiet diplomacy and end the military’s impunity.

Despite this historic lack of support, I remain hopeful for my people’s future. For the first time in my decade of activism, Myanmar’s people are uniting against a common enemy for a future where justice is served to all the victims and survivors of the military’s decades-long crimes.

More and more of my country’s people are confronting the history that the military has long weaponized to divide us. For too long, the military has fomented hatred along ethnic and religious lines. Now, Myanmar’s people are urging civilian leaders, including the NUG, to publicly acknowledge the atrocities committed against the Rohingya as genocide, to recognize Rohingya as an ethnic nationality entitled to citizenship and other collective and individual rights, and to ensure accountability and reparations for the crimes committed against them. Accountability is essential to stop the military from committing further crimes and to bring lasting peace. Myanmar has always had the potential for a truly inclusive democracy, and our struggle to realize that potential is what unites us.

Now, more than ever, international leaders must see that their tepid historical response to the military’s criminal acts enabled the security forces’ attacks against ethnic minority communities for generations and emboldened them to attack the entire population today.

It is past time for the world to reject quiet diplomacy and end the military’s impunity. At the most basic level, the international community must impose sanctions on the military and its businesses. It must also severely restrict the military’s private businesses and dealings with global conglomerates—as the U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar called for even before the coup.

Perhaps most importantly, the United Kingdom, as the Security Council’s penholder on Myanmar, should table a resolution on the situation. Fears of a veto by China and Russia seem to be an overarching consideration when it comes to Myanmar but not in other situations. For example, 16 resolutions have been tabled on Syria that have been vetoed. Such a resolution should pursue the key demands of Myanmar’s people, including a global arms embargo and support for cross-border humanitarian aid. Critically, it should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court so that the court will have jurisdiction over all crimes committed against Myanmar’s people without a group or geographic limitation.

The U.N., its member states, and the Security Council must do more than issue statements and meet behind closed doors. Ending the military’s decades-long impunity is the only way Myanmar can realize a democratic system rooted in justice and equality. Then, its people can finally be free.

Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya human rights and democracy activist, a former political prisoner, and a recipient of numerous awards, including the City of Athens Democracy Award. She is also the founder and executive director of Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar. Twitter: @waiwainu

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