Blog: Myanmar coup

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June 17, 2021

The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support

The International Human Rights Clinic was pleased to co-sponsor an event in the Asia Center’s Asia: Beyond the Headlines event series on, “The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support.” We were joined by panelists:

Moe Thuzar, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, National University of Singapore Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences; Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Kelley Currie, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security; former  U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the U.S. Representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch

The event was moderated by James Robson, James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center.

Panelists discussed the ASEAN response to the coup, what the international community can do to support democracy in Myanmar, and how economic sanctions could impact the Myanmar military.

The Clinic has also been co-sponsoring a series with Just Security exploring the implications of the coup in Myanmar. Read all the posts in our Beyond the Myanmar coup series.

June 17, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Don’t Let the Light of Education Be Extinguished

Posted by Soe San

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post first appeared on Just Security on June 16, 2021). 

Just over a year ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar was in the midst of instituting fundamental changes to a previously lifeless education system. It foreshadowed a new era for students in Myanmar. In the preceding decades, military rule had undermined any innovation in schooling. Military leaders’ fear of student-led uprisings repeatedly resulted in draconian policies, including the closing or relocation of universities outside the cities, strict control of curricula, and the shortening of the academic year. Part of the NLD’s plan to continue to revamp education also offered a move away from an antiquated system of rote learning. The reforms were encouraging schools and universities to instead adopt student-centered teaching models and focus on elevating critical and independent thinking.

Echoing experiences felt across the globe, the COVID pandemic brought abrupt and unforeseen challenges to the NLD government’s education agenda, however. And like so many others, the NLD adapted—for example, as large class sizes prevented the full reopening of schools, the government laid the foundation for virtual learning around the country. Alongside high hopes for the vaccine rollout in Myanmar, the school bell was waiting to welcome back students and teachers for the 2021 school year and usher in the reforms that the government had been planning.

This cautious optimism came to a grinding halt when Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military, staged a coup d’état on Feb. 1, 2021. The coup has had an undeniable impact on every part of society in Myanmar. The education arena has been no different. For students and teachers, it has meant grave interruptions to what was an already a difficult year for schooling. From contested reopening plans to internet outages and the reemergence of ethnic violence, the fear of backtracking to an educational system that hampered Myanmar’s students for decades affects all involved in education. The chaos of the ongoing struggle for power threatens learning outcomes for a whole generation of Myanmar’s youth, while also undermining the careers of thousands of teachers and professors. To ensure the welfare of our students and teachers, we must not lose sight of the important developments undertaken by the NLD government and continue both foreign and domestic investment in education. We must not let the light of hope that comes with education be extinguished.

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May 19, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Crisis Born from Impunity

Posted by Grant Shubin and Akila Radhakrishnan

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 18, 2021). 

In his first speech since illegally attempting a coup d’etat, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law.” He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But in reality, Min Aung Hlaing and indeed all of the military (Tatmadaw) are very much above the law in Myanmar.

Of the coup’s many potential causes, perhaps the most overt is that military leadership thought they could get away with it. The military’s constitutional insulation from civilian oversight and control, the failure thus far to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and international crimes, and even periodic cheerleading from the international community for a “democratic transition” emboldened the military into thinking that subverting the will of the people could be done without major consequence. To quote the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “This crisis was born of impunity.”

After all, the military has been getting away with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, so why not a coup?

In the aftermath of Feb. 1, a great many novel and knotted international legal questions have arisen. Chief among them is a question about the status of the constitutional order in Myanmar: the military has strained to claim that it is upholding the 2008 Constitution, while the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)/National Unity Government (NUG) have abolished the 2008 Constitution and issued a new Federal Democratic Charter that envisions a different system entirely. Rather than getting into the merits of these claims, this piece looks at the related – and in many ways inseparable – issue of how military impunity is an essential part of the narrative of the ongoing crisis and how accountability must be part of the solution moving forward. In doing so we analyze the major areas of concern in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the lack of concerted international action to address the military’s grave crimes, how those collective failings created an environment of impunity that paved the way for the coup, and why this path must be avoided going forward.

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May 17, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The ASEAN Way Must Change

Posted by Vanessa Chong and Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published to Just Security on May 14, 2021). 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long failed to meet its aspirations of supporting the rule of law and human rights, instead emphasizing to a fault the principle of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its members – even when these internal affairs entail mass atrocity crimes. Most recently, this ambivalence has manifested in a lack of concrete actions in response to the coup in Myanmar. This ineffectual reaction underscores what has long been clear: ASEAN must change its approach to the “internal affairs” of its members and recognize that regional stability depends on respect for democracy, human rights, and rule of law within each member.

ASEAN’s Response to the Myanmar Coup

When the Myanmar military attempted to seize all levers of power on Feb. 1 and detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and scores of others, the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Prawit Wongsuwan, promptly dismissed news of the coup d’état. “It’s their internal affair,” he said. At the height of the junta’s attack on unarmed civilians, on March 27, three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Thailand, Viet Nam, and Laos – sent representatives to a military parade in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, hosted by coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing. On the same day, strong evidence indicates that Min Aung Hlaing’s forces killed more than 100 women, men, and children in a matter of hours.

When ASEAN foreign ministers met in an “informal” meeting on March 2, the first involving the bloc since the power grab, the ministers failed to muster a collective condemnation of the coup, let alone address the systematic killings underway. On April 24, ASEAN held a special summit on Myanmar, inviting Min Aung Hlaing but not representatives of the elected civilian government he overthrew. Without input from such elected officials, the ASEAN leaders reaffirmed the bloc’s commitments “to the purposes and principles enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, including adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, respect for fundamental freedoms, and the promotion and protection of human rights.” As he stepped out of the meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin celebrated the outcomes of the convening by hastily declaring “We have succeeded.” As the leaders met that day and spoke of rule of law, at least 3 people were killed in Myanmar.

The April 24 meeting resulted in ASEAN’s “Five Points of Consensus,” an agreement on five issues to facilitate a peaceful solution for Myanmar’s current crisis. However, there are clear warning signs that the group will fall short of its commitments. ASEAN not only failed again to condemn the coup or call on Min Aung Hlaing to immediately return power to the elected government, it failed to specifically condemn past attacks on civilians and once again evaded holding Min Aung Hlaing accountable for these attacks.

These clumsy, callous approaches are nothing new. They are sadly consistent with traditions of “the ASEAN way”  – a euphemism for a style of regional cooperation that puts national sovereignty first  and that emphasizes “non-interference” in the “internal affairs” of other states. But to ensure continued stability in the region, it is clear the old ASEAN way must change.

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April 29, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: “In Accordance with the Law” – How the Military Perverts Rule of Law to Oppress Civilians

Posted by Pwint Htun

Women hold a sign that says, "rule of law," while a hand reaches in a box to vote. Blood is spattered across the scene.
Original art of Maung Maung Tinn, refugee from Myanmar, from “Born Free and Equal” (with permission by artist).

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post was published on the Just Security blog on April 28, 2021.)

“When protestors refuse to listen to our orders to disperse, we shoot at the protestors in accordance with the law.”

These are the chilling words of a Tatmadaw soldier. Unfortunately, they are not isolated ones, and they show how the idea of “law” has been perverted to justify both the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the deplorable violence that has followed. The word “law” (or “upaday” in Burmese) has long been a tenuous concept in Myanmar. After decades living under a military dictatorship, in which laws were used as tools of oppression and could change at the whim of those in power, the people of Myanmar have, understandably, little trust in law. The recent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and the current junta have only further affirmed this perception. The concept of law and the related idea of the rule of law have been warped and manipulated by soldiers and police officers, many of whom believe they are enforcing the “law” to uphold order when they crack down on protests against the coup.

At a recent military tribunal, the “law” was weaponized as a tool to instill fear by issuing unappealable death penalty sentences to 19 young protestors for one soldier’s death even though there were no eye witnesses to the alleged crime. In telling contrast, since early February, nearly 800 unarmed civilians have been killed at the hands of Tatmadaw. It is difficult to imagine a version of Myanmar further away from rule of law than this one. There instead needs to be an all-out effort to strengthen the true meaning of the rule of law in Myanmar by both returning the country to civilian rule and undertaking constitutional reforms to enshrine democratic rights instead of using the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as a tool protecting military might.

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April 27, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Echoes of the Past, Crises of the Moment, Visions of the Future

Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series will brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The article first appeared on Just Security on April 26, 2021). 

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – shattered the all too brief effort to transition to democracy in Myanmar. Over the past two and a half months, the Tatmadaw has continued its illegitimate effort to undermine the democratic elections from last year and prevent the elected government from taking power. In the face of mass popular opposition and international condemnation, the military has only escalated its use of violence against its own population – systematically stripping away rights and violently attacking protestors and dissidents, reportedly killing over 700 civilians as of Apr. 20, 2021, and detaining more than 3,000.

Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the people of Myanmar have stood their ground and refused to be silenced. On Apr. 16, opponents of the coup from across the political spectrum announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) to resist the military. Just as importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a grassroots movement aimed at disrupting state functions and crippling the economy in order to undermine the military’s attempt to rule, has been hugely successful in galvanizing collective action since early February. In addition to the tens of thousands of CDM participants walking out of their private and public sector positions, protests across the country have seen massive youth engagement on a scale not seen in a generation. The organizing power has been impressive. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been used to spread awareness and coordinate protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance. The military has taken notice of the CDM’s power, issuing threats against young people protesting and shooting indiscriminately at protestors of all ages, including children. Parallel movements have arisen in areas like neighboring Thailand, with Thai youth protesting their own authoritarian government in solidarity with activists from Myanmar.

Today we launch a Just Security series that will take a deep dive into the situation in Myanmar. The series will provide insights that put the coup and civilian response into historical and modern context, deepen unexplored angles on the current crises, and survey possibilities and ways forward over the next six months to a year. This series also aims to elevate policy discussions on a number of issues, ranging from peace and accountability to religion and democracy, asking: What is happening now and why?

Within the series, contributions from authors from Myanmar and others working closely on the situation will explore topics such as youth leadership in the CDM and protests, domestic and international solidarity, environmental concerns, the dissolution of rule of law in Myanmar, and what the coup means for ongoing international accountability efforts. Below, we offer an overview of the major themes of the series, along with a timeline of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. The current uprising against military rule must be understood in the context of these decades-long struggles for peace, democracy, accountability, and justice.

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