Guest Column

Diplomacy Is Wasted on Myanmar’s Junta

By Naing Khit 22 September 2021

Cutting a finger from a corpse to steal a wedding ring is an act of absolute savagery. It’s just one of the recent atrocities Myanmar junta troops have committed. In this case the victim was a 30-year-old pastor, the father of two kids and an unborn baby still in his wife’s womb.

The shocking incident occurred in the aftermath of an attack on the beautiful hill town of Thantlang, Chin State in western Myanmar on Saturday, in which military troops launched artillery shells at a residential neighborhood amid clashes with civilian resistance fighters who have taken up arms against the military regime. The shelling torched a score of houses.

When Chin Christian pastor Cung Biak Hum went out to help put out the fires, junta soldiers fired several shots at him, killing him. They then cut off his finger and stole his gold wedding ring.

The shelling of the town, followed by junta soldiers’ random shooting into homes, and the killing of the pastor and the defilement of his corpse, left Thantlang terrorized. Immediately, almost the entire population of the devastated town—nearly 10,000 people—fled their houses. The pastor’s family is among those on the run.

Slain Pastor Cung Biak Hum / Chin World

This story is beyond deplorable.

Since the military coup on Feb. 1, however, the world has seen countless appalling incidents like the one involving Cung Biak Hum, as the coup-makers have unleashed their soldiers and police to kill, torture and arrest innocent citizens across the country who oppose the military dictatorship.

Such tragic stories are so numerous they become statistics after a while. Pastor Cung Biak Hum was just one among 1,114 people who have been killed since the coup, according to most recent list, updated on Sept. 20, from rights group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Some other victims appear to have suffered an even worse fate than the pastor, based on reports and pictures showing lifeless bodies with internal organs extracted, or with deadly bruises and cuts, and bullet wounds to the head. These documents provide incontrovertible evidence that the junta led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has committed many crimes, including war crimes.

Those people did not deserve such horrendous deaths. Not at all. But all were killed for their good and brave deeds. They are war heroes.

Certainly, it’s an unjust war that the generals—with about 400,000 troops at their disposal—have been waging against their own people, a nation of 54 million, across the country since their latest coup in February.

In the end, the people have been left with no choice but to defend themselves, their families, their communities and their country.

Toothless diplomacy

Myanmar’s history shows that political means, international economic sanctions or pressure, dialogue and diplomacy have never had the slightest effect on the bloodthirsty mindset of the coup-makers or curbed their lust for power.

None of these means applied by the international community or domestic opposition groups have ever convinced or swayed the generals in control of the military regimes that have staged coups over the past 59 years to compromise or restrain their political violence in any way.

The first dictator, General Ne Win, ruled the country for 26 years from 1962 to 1988; his successor generals, Saw Maung and later Than Shwe, ruled the country for 23 years from 1988 to 2011.

Throughout the second stint of military rule, various opposition groups, the National League for Democracy—which won a landslide victory in the 1990 election—and ethnic groups demanded the junta engage in dialogue to end the country’s political deadlock. In an attempt to make it happen, the international community led by Western countries imposed diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on the ruling generals, while the United Nations condemned them and sent various envoys to try and deal with them on countless missions.

Nothing happened.

Instead, for more than two decades, the regime led by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who was consistently ranked among the world’s most notorious dictators, simply toyed with them to buy time to achieve its goals.

The regime’s political transformation in 2011 came about not because of international pressure but because the generals had accomplished what they set out to do; promulgate the military-favoring 2008 constitution and organize non-inclusive elections in 2010, which it assumed would guarantee the military’s dominant role in the country’s politics.

The international community, world leaders and observers have long asked why the stubborn generals suddenly changed their political course back then. Perhaps most of them still don’t get the point even now. The point is that the generals were implementing their “road-map” in order to continue their rule disguised in civilian outfits.

Anti-regime protesters in Yangon call for international intervention in Myanmar in February. / The Irrawaddy

Now in 2021, with the new breed of generals led by Min Aung Hlaing having seized power again from the elected civilian government, history is repeating itself and the same cycle is playing out—a new coup d’état; nationwide peaceful protests against it; violent crackdowns and political persecution by the junta’s troops; international sanctions on the generals; international diplomacy; continuous calls for dialogue by the international community; new special envoys appointed by the United Nations and ASEAN, and so on.

It is the same old routine in the eyes of Myanmar’s people, who have experienced it many times over the past few decades. In the past, it brought no result at all.

In the early months of the anti-coup protests after the February takeover, protesters, including many young people, gathered in front of many embassies and the UN office in Yangon, calling for international intervention, citing the principle of R2P—the “responsibility to protect”—to end the coup in its early stage and return the country to democracy.

But they quickly realized this was a hopeless effort, and faced the reality of more violent crackdowns from the regime’s troops across the country. That was around March.

It was a trigger for all protesters, especially young ones, to take up arms to continue to fight against the military regime. The whole situation forced them to defend themselves with makeshift shields, slingshots (some regular, some makeshift giant ones) and air guns.

They were not stupid enough to think that they, using only these “weapons”, could beat the junta’s ruthless troops equipped with heavy automatic weapons. But they felt they had no choice—just as their ancestors felt when the British Empire’s troops waged wars on Myanmar throughout the 19th century. They, too, had nothing but traditional weapons like swords, spears and arrows but chose to fight back against a modern army.

Today, for young protesters, especially those from “Gen Z” or Generation Z, who before the coup were mostly interested in playing online games, and all others who oppose the coup—the entire population of this country—there’s no question that they would prefer to see a peaceful political means to end the military dictatorship and a return to democracy. But based on their experience over the decades of stubborn generals and the failures of various diplomatic means, the people have come to view diplomacy as a stupid pursuit, and to believe that the international community is useless.

Then, the new wave of armed uprising, or the “people’s defensive war”, began. Of course, civilian resistance fighters’ ultimate ambition is to root out the military dictatorship, but their immediate goal is to subvert the military regime so that it cannot rule the country totally. That’s the position the regime is in now, due to this resistance, as well as the various methods of civil disobedience adopted by the people since the coup.

The civilian armed resistance against the regime is supported by Myanmar’s popular shadow National Unity Government’s call for “nationwide revolt.” But while the majority of Myanmar people were elated by the call, the international community was not impressed.

Members of various ethnic communities in Yangon stage a protest against the coup in February. / The Irrawaddy

The UK said it “supports peaceful efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar”, and the US urged “all sides to be peaceful.” Since the UK and US calls for “peaceful efforts,” more civilians—including Pastor Cung Biak Hum—have been slain by the regime’s soldiers, not to mention the many villages and towns torched by them during their raids. The NUG, formed by elected lawmakers of the NLD and ethnic representatives, said their declaration of war against the regime was the result of the “diplomatic failure” to find a just solution for Myanmar since the coup.

For the time being, civilian armed resistance will only escalate in Myanmar, as the people have no choice. They all seem determined to die fighting rather than waiting to be killed by soldiers. Some practical souls may ridicule the idea, wondering how loosely organized civilian forces, collectively known as the People’s Defensive Force, equipped with rudimentary weapons, could compete with a regime whose soldiers are armed to the teeth. Yes, it is quite impossible and the prospect of victory farfetched.

It looks like a fight between David and Goliath—a small shepherd with a sling facing his giant foe. In the past in Myanmar, Goliath always beat David.

This time, however, many Myanmar people are putting their faith in David—who may be the underdog but is a confident fighter—and his simple weapon, rather than the world’s loud but ineffective diplomacy. Enough is enough.

Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.

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