The expression “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention!” is appropriate for the international community’s weak response to the brutal repression of democracy, freedom and human rights in Myanmar today. Outside Myanmar there is not enough outrage. And – despite the incredible efforts of journalists and human rights defenders – the world is not paying enough attention.
Within Myanmar the silent strike on February 1, 2023, to mark the second anniversary of the military coup, emptied the streets across the country. In cities and towns and villages, people of all ethnicities and languages protested loudly and visibly through their silence and their absence.
The international response to this incredible act of courage by the people of Myanmar was simply shameful. Instead of making noise in the corridors of government power, condemning companies that still support the military junta through investments and business deals, there was also silence. Instead of loudly denouncing continued economic aid and trade that is propping up the illegal and illegitimate military government of State Administration Council (SAC), the international community watched and waited. More silence.
While the international community seemed to miss the true meaning of the courageous silent strike on February 1, the illegal and illegitimate military government of State Administration Council (SAC) clearly understood. In the screaming silence of February 1, the complete lack of authority and legitimacy of the SAC military junta was exposed. Except for its own armed forces, roving gangs of thugs, and business cronies, everyone is opposed to the SAC military junta. Panicked by this, the military junta extended the state of emergency and escalated its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.
A new wave of arrests, repression and state violence has begun.
The military junta also realized that such an effective, widespread silent strike by the people will undermine the fraudulent national elections planned for August 2023. The aim of the illegal and illegitimate military SAC government is to hold elections in August to appease the international community. The goal is for the elections to show “gradual progress” in a return to democracy. Economic and trade advisors of several governments – including the EU – are advising the military SAC and its business cronies that the illusion of elections in August will help ease the sanctions, unfreeze the assets of military leaders, and get back to “business as usual”.
But the silent strike on February 1 shatters this illusion. The prospect of a widespread boycott of the fraudulent elections is very real. In an act of desperation the military junta has launched a new offensive against the people of Myanmar. The international community must respond now by immediately condemning the elections as fraudulent and illegal. The international community must be outraged and must show this outrage through concerted action against the illegal and illegitimate military SAC government and its business cronies.
Such action means full recognition of the National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate government of the Myanmar people. By full recognition we mean that recognition must be backed with bilateral aid and government-to-government cooperation with NUG. Full recognition must be include official diplomatic recognition of NUG by all government departments/bureaus and their overseas trade missions.
Anyone who is paying attention and outraged will challenge the hypocrisy of their own governments that claim to recognize NUG, but allow their own government departments and overseas trade missions to keep the trade, aid and investment flowing. It is these same overseas trade and aid missions that will lobby internally to accept the August elections as “flawed but a sign of progress”.
If foreign governments accept the elections as a sign of “gradual progress” in a return to democracy, then the return to democracy will never happen. The only thing that will return is business deals with military cronies.
We cannot hold democracy, freedom and human rights in Myanmar hostage to “strategic” considerations of a prolonged war in the Ukraine, energy needs and food security. Farmers and farm workers joined the silent strike on February 1. So why are the EU and other countries still importing rice and other essential foods? Why are they trying to “normalize” trade during a humanitarian crisis? Any attempt by any part of a foreign government or any of its trade and investment bodies to present the August elections as a precursor to “business as usual” is in itself complicity in crimes against humanity.
In their silent strike on February 1, 2023, the people of Myanmar have spoken. We must pay attention, be outraged, and take action.