Behind Myanmar’s Military Coup – Decades of Impunity

By Mark Farmaner

In December 2020, more than 100 British Parliamentarians wrote to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab with a request which should have been a no-brainer. They asked for the UK to join the case at the International Court of Justice, where Myanmar’s military were facing charges of genocide.

The letter had cross-party support, includingfrom Rushanara Ali MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, and former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Since 2017, when the world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya fled genocide taking place against them in Myanmar, arriving in Bangladesh with stories of massacres, mass rape and children thrown alive into fires, there had been a shocking lack of action taken by the international community. A UN-Fact-Finding Mission made a series of recommendations of action the international community needs to take to ensure justice and accountability. Their recommendations were largely ignored.

The only sanction the British government brought against the military was to ban 16 soldiers from taking holidays in the UK.

It took Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou to finally take action, taking Myanmar to court for breaking the Genocide Convention. They were backed by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, and later the Maldives, Netherlands and Canada. The UK, penholder on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council, didn’t even follow, let alone lead.

On 23rd January Dominic Raab replied to the MPs. He did not agree to their request. Instead,he responded that he was still considering the issue, as he had been for a year already.

Is it any wonder that military leader Min Aung Hlaing, having literally been allowed to get away with genocide, was confident that he could get away with a military coup as well?

For two months before the coup, his soldiers had been firing bombs into villages of ethnic Karen people, forcing 5,000 people to hide in the jungle. The British government and others didn’t even think this worth expressing concern about. For two years before that, they had been targeting ethnic Rakhine people, killing civilians and forcing a hundred thousand from their homes. Before that it was ethnic Kachin and ethnic Shan. The list goes on and on.

In fact, the Myanmar military has been committing international crimes against ethnic civilians for more than 70 years, and has been allowed to get away with it. When you look back at the history of when the international community has taken action on human rights atrocities in Myanmar, it’s only been when something happens in central Myanmar, or to Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the past ten years, as the international community hailed a so-called democratic transition and lifted sanctions,the soldiers never left the streets in many ethnic areas. Since 2012 when the military announced a ‘peace process’, propped up by tens of millions of dollars of international aid, conflict and human rights violations against ethnic people significantly increased.

One ethnic Karen activist speculated that if the military shot people and burned homes in the cities like they do in the jungles in ethnic states every day, then the international community might act.

They seem about to be proven right. Since the military coup, the EU and UK have announced they are considering targeted sanctions on the military. Rohingya activists, Burma Campaign UK, the Labour Party and even UN investigators have been calling for this for years, to no avail.

The people of Myanmar are crying out for international support. On protests they write signs in English so people around the world can understand them. They are risking their lives protesting for their freedom. The least we can do is back them up by stopping British companies doing business with the military, business which helps them to fund genocide and military coups.

The UK should be supporting referring Burma to the International Criminal Court and joining the genocide case at the International Court of Justice. We have our own arms embargo but the British government has so far refused to try to get other countries around the world to join them in imposing an arms embargo. For once, we have to surprise them, prove them wrong, and help hold them to account.

By itself the international community isn’t going to bring peace and democracy to Burma – no-one claims it can. But we have an important supporting role to play. We just aren’t playing it.

Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK

Image: Burma Campaign UK

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