The military coup in Burma can be defeated – but the British government needs to do more

By Karin Valtersson

On 1st February 2021, disturbing messages began coming out of Burma, also known as Myanmar. In a scene all too familiar for the older generations, the military had rolled out their tanks onto the streets, and elected MPs and high-profile activists were being arrested, among those State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military had again seized power in an illegitimate coup.

But after this, things did not go to plan for the military. For a year now, the people of Burma have resisted the military coup in any way imaginable: through protests, by boycotting military-owned businesses and products and refusing to pay electricity bills, depriving the military of money. Striking workers have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, with doctors, nurses, civil servants and others refusing to work for the illegitimate military regime. Some have taken up arms in People’s Defence Forces and joined with already established ethnic armies. People are doing all they can to resist military rule.

The military has responded in the only way it knows: through violence. Since the coup, 1,469 people have been killed, over 11,500 arrested and over 8,500 are currently detained. In ethnic states along Burma’s borders, where many political activists from central Burma have fled, the military has stepped up attacks, both by ground attacks and arial strikes. Over 300,000 people have had to flee their homes and are in desperate need of food, shelter and medicine. People have been burnt alive, children killed, whole villages torched to the ground. Sexual violence, torture and arbitrary killings are being used by the military, with impunity.

The British government has condemned the coup, and has introduced several rounds of sanctions on military-owned and controlled companies to cut the flow of money to the military. This is very welcome, but much more needs to be done. The Labour Party has got an important role to play here to put pressure on the government to act.

What the people of Burma are asking for is this: cut the military’s access to funds and arms, deny them the legitimacy they crave, ensure justice and accountability for the military’s crimes, and increase humanitarian support.

Here is what the British government should urgently do:

On justice and accountability: The British government should publicly declare support for a referral of Burma to the International Criminal Court. A referral by the UN Security Council would likely be vetoed by China and Russia at the moment, but a declaration of support for a referral by the British government would put pressure on the Burmese military. In fact, the military’s sense of impunity from the genocide of the Rohingya is one of the factors that led them to believe they could get away with a military coup, calculating on the inaction by the international community. The British government should also declare its intention to join the already ongoing Rohingya genocide case at the International Court of Justice. More here.

Arms embargoes: The UK has a long-standing arms embargo on Burma, but effort should be made to put pressure on other countries to put in place unilateral arms embargoes, as a global arms embargo is also likely to be vetoed at the UN Security Council. The government should also sanction the supply of aviation fuel to Burma to halt the bomber jets causing the majority of displacement. More here.

Sanctions: The British government shouldcontinue to identify sources of revenue for the military junta and impose sanctions on these. The government should work for sanctions on gas revenues, a major source for income for the Burmese military, and where French Total and American Chevron are still involved in production. More here.

Legitimacy: Refuse to participate in meetings where representatives of the military are present, and recognise the National Unity Government (NUG), made up of elected MPs and representatives from civil society and ethnic groups as the legitimate government of Burma. Burma is still allowed a military attaché in London, and he should be kicked out immediately. More here.

Aid: Increase humanitarian support through grassroots organisations and cross-border, including provision of Covid vaccinations. More here.

One year on from the coup, the military has not been able to consolidate its grip on power. The people of Burma are doing all they can to stop them, and they are paying a heavy price. The international community, including the British government, has to do more.

Karin Valtersson has worked on democracy, human rights and development in Burma since 2010 and is Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK.

Image: Credit: Joel Nilsson.

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