Noleen Heyzer, the special envoy of the U.N. general-secretary, claimed that she would not return to Myanmar unless she could meet with former leader Aung San Suu Kyi during her brief visit there for discussions with the military leadership. According to Reuters, Suu Kyi has been detained since the February 1st coup last year and has been kept in solitary confinement since June. She has not been permitted visitors, and in August, a military spokesperson declared that the dictatorship would not permit anyone to meet with those who were charged with crimes. Suu Kyi was found guilty of electoral fraud on September 2 and received a sentence of three further years in prison with hard labor. Suu Kyi is currently on trial for charges ranging from corruption to the disclosure of state secrets. The total maximum sentence for the crimes she is charged with is more than 190 years.
Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who assisted in guiding Myanmar from a military regime into a limited democracy in the 2010s, served as State Counselor of Myanmar in the Myanmar government from 2016 until the 2021 coup, a position that is similar to Prime Minister. She and her government came under fire from human rights organizations and several nations, including the United States, during their term in office for their silence in the face of the military’s genocidal treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Since 2016, more than 1 million Rohingya have fled the country, the majority to Bangladesh, a neighbor. According to The Guardian, she testified before the International Court of Justice in 2019 to defend Myanmar’s military against accusations of committing genocide against the Rohingya.
The United Nations, numerous European nations, and the United States have all denounced her detention, trial, and sentencing, as well as those of other government officials. However, many other nations have remained silent about the coup attempt or have expressed support for talks between the government and military leaders, which were allegedly sparked by claims that Suu Kyi’s party committed electoral fraud. Other motives that have been suggested as possible triggers include an effort to maintain military sway over Burmese politics, a bid to seize control of $370+ million in IMF non-conditional loans that were released to the Central Bank of Myanmar as part of an emergency aid package in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and concerns among the Myanmar military that Suu Kyi’s government was pursuing an unduly close relationship with China, a country that Suu Kyi has criticized as being.
A United Nations resolution that denounced the coup was blocked by China and Russia. Heyzer noted in a statement that there were “continued differences in positioning among member states of the U.N.” with regard to Myanmar and that “political solutions ultimately cannot be imposed from the outside,” according to Reuters. Heyzer’s comments reflect the tensions surrounding the response to Myanmar’s current government. She claimed, in remarks made at a seminar in Singapore, that “there is no clear road out of this crisis and that there would be no simple remedies.”
Suu Kyi, who is 77 years old, is a divisive figure both inside and outside of Myanmar, but there is little doubt that the reasons for her current detention and the accusations made against her are political. The military may have seized power through coercion, but ongoing demonstrations, despite brutal crackdowns, and other acts of armed and civil resistance against the junta show that the people of Myanmar do not support this blatant rejection of their elected government. The military regime in Myanmar lacks democratic legitimacy to rule.
It is the duty of democratic states around the world and supranational organizations that uphold democratic principles, such as the United Nations and the European Union, to put pressure on the military government in Myanmar to release political prisoners, end persecution for political reasons, and generally respect the human rights of all Myanmar citizens. The military junta’s disdain for democratic principles and human rights must not go unpunishedThe democratic countries of the world must continue to stand by them externally as the people of Myanmar continue to express their opposition to the regime despite tactics like internet blackouts, arrests and criminal charges against protestors, and the violent use of force that has resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 protestors and the imprisonment of over 10,000 protestors, according to The New York Times.
President Joe Biden of the United States has sanctioned individuals responsible for the coup and the military regime in Myanmar and has frozen government funds, but a concerted reaction from Western partners is required. The conclusion is too comparable for the West to ignore, with dead civilians and a democracy under assault, even though there are obvious differences between the war in Ukraine and the situation in Myanmar. Military commanders in a previous junta-run state become more assertive when democracy is endangered in one nation.
Democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, whether it be in Myanmar or the United States, where, despite being the oldest democracy on the globe, over half of its inhabitants was once barred from voting due to their sex or skin color. This was within living memory. In the words of American Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who shared with Suu Kyi the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi as an inspiration for non-violent protest, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” whether under the siege of an oppressive military junta or subject to unfair laws.
Harunur Rasid is a London-based Myanmar affairs analyst and researcher