Viewpoint by Jan Servaes
BRUSSELS (IDN) — Since the February 1, 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military has committed a variety of atrocities that, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, may amount to “crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
To consolidate its power against widespread popular resistance, the self-proclaimed State Administration Council (SAC) led by Min Aung Hlaing has killed at least 2,465 people, conducted indiscriminate airstrikes in ethnic areas and razed hundreds of villages. The country has plunged into chaos and teeters on the brink of a failed state.
The more than 13,000 political prisoners in Myanmar’s prisons live in appalling conditions where the use of torture is routine, often resulting in horribly mutilated bodies. The military regime is vigorously opposed by the civil disobedience movement led by local activists, trade unionists, workers and students. In response to popular resistance, military action remains brutal, structural and overt.
A so-called amnesty
On November 17, 2022, the Myanmar military released four wrongfully imprisoned foreigners in a mass amnesty for about 6,000 prisoners. However, as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said in a statement, this should not be seen as a change in the military’s inhumane policy.
The detainees should not have been in jail in the first place and thousands of Myanmar political prisoners are still there, the APHR said. In addition, rumours are circulating that some have been re-arrested almost immediately after their release.
As part of this massive amnesty, the junta also released Sean Turnell, an Australian citizen and economic adviser to former state adviser Aung San Suu Kyi; Vicky Bowman, a former British envoy; US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo; and Toru Kubota, a Japanese filmmaker. Another prisoner released is the former chief minister of the Tanintharyi region, U Myint Maung.
“This is a game the Myanmar generals have been playing for a very long time. In the midst of continuous atrocities, from time to time they make an apparent gesture of goodwill, minor in comparison with the crimes they commit on a daily basis, in order to alleviate international pressure and gain legitimacy. No one should fall for this trick; the global community should not be fooled into thinking that Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen have changed their ways,” said Kasit Piromya, former Thai foreign minister and APHR board member.
Sean Turnell was arrested on April 6, 2021, five days after the coup, on charges of trying to flee the country with classified information. Turnell said he had expected to be treated “with velvet gloves”. “They didn’t stick electrodes on me, but I was thrown into filthy cells. The food was delivered in a bucket. For 650 days I ate from a dirty bucket.” If this is the treatment of well-known international prisoners, closely followed by international diplomats, the worst can be feared for the thousands of anonymous detainees imprisoned, one hears on social media.
Vicky Bowman and her husband, Htein Lin, were arrested in August this year on charges of tampering with immigration documents, and Toru Kobuta was detained in July while filming an anti-military demonstration.
So while they have been released, others have not been so ‘lucky’. Since last year’s coup at least 73 detainees have died in police or military custody in police stations, military interrogation centres and prisons, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Among them are the four political prisoners executed in July: Phyo Zeya Thaw, former legislator for the National League for Democracy (NLD); the prominent activist Kyaw Min Yu, known as ‘Ko Jimmy’; Aung Thura Zaw; and Hla Myo Aung. According to Amnesty International, these were the first known judicial executions in Myanmar since 1988.
Again, “political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said, adding that it was an apparent move to ease “political pressure.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that while the amnesty is a “great relief for their families”, it is also “a reminder that thousands of other civilians are being held in appalling conditions without much support from the international community”.
According to AAPP, which documents human rights violations by the junta, the total number arrested in the anti-coup agitation is estimated at 16,316, of whom 12,923 are still in prison.
Lukewarm response from the international community
Meanwhile, the international response to the crisis is seriously inadequate, as argued in a report recently released by the International Parliamentary Inquiry, an initiative organized by APHR and whose committee consists of eight parliamentarians from seven different countries from Africa, America, Asia and Europe.
“The international community has been largely unable to respond effectively to the crisis. The junta’s international allies—notably Russia and China—have emerged as staunch and uncritical supporters, providing both weapons and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime. Foreign governments rhetorically claiming support for democracy have not backed up their rhetoric with the same force of action,” said the report, titled “Time is not on our side: The failed international response to the Myanmar coup.”
The reasons for the mass amnesty and release of the foreigners remain unclear, but they come after an ASEAN summit, at which member states reaffirmed their commitment to the Five Point Consensus, an agreement already signed in April 2021 aimed at tackling the crisis. The consensus has not yet yielded tangible results, as the APHR has repeatedly denounced.
“There is a legitimate concern that ASEAN member states will treat the Myanmar junta with even kinder gloves after the release of these political prisoners. Against all odds, ASEAN is sticking to an agreement that has proven to be an utter failure for more than a year and a half, instead of doing the right thing to resolve the crisis: putting real pressure on the military, and recognizing the Government of National Unity (NUG) as the legitimate authority in the country,” said Charles Santiago, former Malaysian MP, APHR Chair and one of the IPI committee members.
The UN Human Rights Council has also once again called on the international community to freeze the junta’s income. These are mainly oil and gas reserves that are collected through the government holding company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), in which US and Australian interests are also intertwined. So far only the EU decided on sanctions on 22 February 2022.
There is still a deep gulf between the word and the deed of most of the countries involved. [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 November 2022]
*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
Photo redit: Unsplash/Pyae Sone Htun
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