Myanmar's nascent attempt at democracy has been cut short, again, by the country's military. Known as the Tatmadaw and led by Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing, the men in green deployed in the early hours of February 1 to arrest civilian de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior members of the then-ruling National League for Democracy party. The country is now under control of the military, who have declared a state of emergency for one year.
As news broke of their arrest (under ludicrous charges that include the import of a portable radio) the massive Civil Disobedience Movement sprung up in force. Many believe CDM has surpassed the turnouts seen in the 1988 uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. This is a people who have endured military misrule before, and they're fed up.
Predictably, the international community responded almost as quickly with strident calls to respect the 2020 election, which the NLD won handily. Canada and the G7 nations are "united in condemning the coup", Australia is "deeply concerned". The United States went even further than most, warning that they would "take action" if the military did not step down. But without articulating just what that action might be, Washington has, perhaps unintentionally, raised hopes among the protest movement that more than just sanctions are on the way.
In truth, foreign governments do a disservice to the people of Myanmar by exaggerating their hand. The same is true for legal institutions and human rights organisations - the mechanisms available to them under their mandates are frustratingly toothless. We have seen this before - the same military brutally put down the previous uprisings and faced sanctions but little else. We see it time and time again next door in Thailand.
More recently, Western nations were unwilling or unable to act in the face of the 2017 attack on the Rohingya. That attack was described by the United Nations as bearing "all the hallmarks of a genocide" but did not compel any deployment of foreign troops. The international community is certainly even less likely to put boots on the ground to force the return of the NLD government.
Realist, cynical observers of this international show of support might expect the people of Myanmar to understand the subtext - that aside from sanctions, the only action taken will likely come only in the form of solidarity expressed in press releases and debates in far-off meetings in Geneva and Washington. But many, if not most, protesters on the streets of Myanmar do speak the language of international relations. When they hear promises to hold the Tatmadaw accountable, they believe them. They may not know that the United States, the EU and their allies have neither the political will nor the resource-based interests in their country to follow through.
This is a lesson that Rohingya refugees have learnt all too well. In the wake of a catastrophic assault on the Muslim minority group in Myanmar's westernmost state, the United Nations held Security Council briefings, ordered investigations at the International Criminal Court, and issued provisional measures to protect the Rohingya via the International Court of Justice. Scores of nations issued condemnations and appealed to the Myanmar government (headed by Aung San Suu Kyi) to immediately cease horrific human rights violations. The Rohingya also cried out to the international community to save them first, and to return them to their homes second. Three years and some change later, more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees remain in sprawling camps in Bangladesh.
Humanitarian actors have done incredible and lifesaving work in those camps but conditions in Rakhine State, from which Rohingya refugees fled, are still not conducive for large-scale returns. Despite orders by international actors to the contrary, the Tatmadaw launched an effective campaign to destroy the homes Rohingya left behind - and destroyed key evidence of their own criminality in the process. Rohingya people begged states like the US to save them, and sadly learned the inherent limits of international action.
Myanmar protesters face a similar reckoning. They are not just hoping for Western intervention - they are explicitly calling for it. Protesters at rallies in the country's major cities over recent days have held placards proclaiming "We want ACTION - From UN, US & EU" and "US Army welcome to Myanmar".
Facebook pages covering the protests display the same sentiment. News articles are flooded with comments, in both Myanmar language and English, asking for external nations to swiftly respond.
Although Myanmar was late to widespread internet access, the nation has wholeheartedly embraced social media. Once banned from hearing critical foreign voices, now most people own two or more smartphones and voraciously consume news, primarily on Facebook.
This generation is different - they have immediate access to statements released by major world governments. Statements that are almost instantly translated and shared - buoying hopes that the military will be defeated with the help of foreign muscle power.
If, as I suspect, countries like the US have no intention of moving beyond sanctions and statements, they should stop writing cheques they will never cash. It is hard to overstate how reluctant the US is to militarily meddle in far-flung countries with little to nothing to offer in return. Especially if that country is perceived to already be within the clutches of its biggest neighbour, China.
This is not to argue passivity on the part of observers. We can, and should, aid the resistance with material support. The movement has shown it is ingeniously capable of doing much with very little - this week's mass "car engine failure" day is evidence of that. Civil servants have been known to show up at work on time and slip out the back to join strikes. Myanmar people have united around resistance en masse - no small feat in a country home to one of the world's longest civil wars.
If ever there has been a time that the country has what it needs to succeed, it may be now. To derail this with false promises is not showing the people the respect they deserve. Solidarity from abroad can be sustaining and encouraging - but if that's all that is on offer, then we must be forthright about it.
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