"The deafening silence from ASEAN is worrisome, and could embolden the Myanmar military to ratchet up the bloody suppression of dissent."
If even beauty queens are speaking out against the military junta in Myanmar—and one actually taking up arms alongside rebel forces—then the already-volatile situation in that country is leaving the civilian population with no other option but to take sides and make their voices heard.
In April, Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar spoke out against atrocities committed by her country’s military: “Today in my country Myanmar … there are so many people dying,” she said at the Miss Grand International event in Thailand. “Please help Myanmar. We need your urgent international help right now.”
In May, Myanmar’s contestant in the Miss Universe pageant, Thuzar Wint Lwin, appeared onstage clad in the traditional dress of the Chin ethnic minority and unfurled a banner that read: “Pray for Myanmar.” Before the pageant, she had joined street protests in Yangon against the military junta.
That same month, former beauty queen Htar Htet Htet, who represented Myanmar in the first Miss Grand International beauty pageant in Thailand in 2013, went a step further and joined ethnic groups fighting against the military junta. “The time has come to fight back,” she wrote on Facebook. “Everyone must do their bit for the revolution to succeed.” She also posted photos of herself clutching an assault rifle.
Five months after the Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw, took over the reins of government, citing alleged widespread fraud in the November election that saw the National League for Democracy led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi winning by a landslide, the situation there has escalated to a full-blown civil war, with a large well-armed and well-equipped military and police apparatus unleashing a brutal crackdown on those opposed to their coup d’etat.
More than 800 people have been killed in the military dictatorship’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces, with thousands more rounded up, tortured and clamped in jail.
Three leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in April with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military junta in Myanmar, and obtained a commitment from him for the immediate cessation of violence, the start of constructive dialogue among all parties, access to humanitarian assistance, and the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy who would be allowed to visit the country.
He has carried out not one of these four pledges.
Nor has the junta acceded to calls from the international community for the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, although the ASEAN wanted this right from the start as a key part of any return to the status quo before the coup d’etat.
The military mounted the coup d’etat on February 1 as they were unwilling to give up their lucrative and wide-ranging business interests and did not want a diminution of political influence in Myanmar with pro-democracy forces in positions of power. The military already enjoys 25 percent representation in the Myanmar parliament as ordained by their constitution.
I’ve been getting updates on the Myanmar situation from an online newsletter called Frontier Fridays. This week, the newsletter said, fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw and civilian resistance in Mandalay, the second biggest city in the country. Junta troops used rocket-propelled grenades, snipers and armored vehicles during the fighting. Both sides suffered casualties, but cited no figures. Mandalay has served as the heart of the anti-coup resistance since February, and was one of the first places where the junta employed deadly crackdowns to quell peaceful protests.
It’s in the countryside, however, where the armed resistance against the junta has intensified. Ethnic armies of varying sizes have united against the junta. They have welcomed the influx of youths and professionals who have fled repression in the cities to train and eventually take up arms. The new recruits have apparently seen the futility of continuing what started as a peaceful civil disobedience movement in favor of armed struggle.
The combined armed component of the resistance is estimated at around 70,000 fighters with assault rifles, pistols and explosives. Ranged against them is the Tatmadaw with 200,000 regulars all armed to the teeth and supported by artillery, tanks and jet fighters. But it appears that the military’s superiority is not likely to dent the determined resistance by various sectors, including civil servants, youth and students, and women.
What the resistance can count on is political and moral support by the international community. Several Western embassies in Yangon have released statements calling for an end to the violence. The United States has said it was “tracking reports of ongoing fighting in Mandalay” including “possible civilian casualties” and called for “a cessation of violence.” The French embassy also released a statement citing “the emergent need to build a credible and sustainable crisis recovery process” in the country.
It’s unfortunate that ASEAN leaders have not gone past their initial demand for an end to the violence—blithely ignored by the ruling junta—and are seemingly keeping quiet about the ongoing civil war that has now engulfed the whole country, very likely to intensify in the coming months. The deafening silence from ASEAN is worrisome, and could embolden the Myanmar military to ratchet up the bloody suppression of dissent and consolidate political power for themselves in the months ahead.