Three fingers

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 2, 2021 - 12:00am

“We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people and to restore the democracy,” said Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar/Burma’s former ambassador to the United Nations.

In the context of UN diplomacy, Kyaw Moe Tun’s public defection from the ranks of Burmese diplomats, live and seen around the world, was as dramatic as it gets. It came during a General Assembly informal meeting on Myanmar at which the Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener also spoke, and just as dramatically raised the stakes for the world’s governments. For the first time, she officially called the military takeover on Feb. 1 a “coup,” saying that the power-grab and declaration of the state of emergency were “a clear violation of the constitution regardless of what they claim.”

In other words, the UN said that the military regime is illegitimate, suggesting this is not a fight between the political elite, ie between the military versus the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi; it is the military against the people of Myanmar, just as many protesters on the streets of cities and towns across the country have said.

It was when responding to Burgener that Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, unexpectedly announced that he was not representing the military, but the NLD, saying he was speaking instead for the democratically-elected parliamentarians of the country. He denounced the coup, urged the continued and strong support for the people as “imperative,” and appealed for all member-states and the UN to condemn the takeover and take “all strongest possible measures to stop the violent and brutal acts committed by the security forces against peaceful demonstrators and end the military coup immediately.”

The ambassador said he would join those continuing “to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people and for the people.” It was an act of extraordinary defiance against the new military rulers of his country. He urged the UN “to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military,” declaring: “The coup must fail.”

Kyaw Moe Tun appears to be one of Myanmar’s few career diplomats, rather than a politically appointed military man. He’s served his country in embassies in Jakarta, Singapore and at the Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva. Throughout he has explained and defended the actions of the government in Myanmar, while it was a military junta, and during the civilian-led but de facto military government of the last decade. In November, for example, he delivered a statement defending Myanmar on the status of the Rohingya. Myanmar is on trial on charges of genocide of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice. It’s worth also remembering that Aung San Suu Kyi herself went in person to the court to defend Myanmar, in a move that was widely seen as a ploy to win the nationalist vote at the elections that were held in November. Her party indeed won by a landslide but the military has prevented it from taking power by alleging the vote was rigged and taken over itself.

Unsurprisingly, the next day Myanmar’s state television announced Kyaw Moe Tun had been fired. The announcer said he had “betrayed the country and spoken for an unofficial organization which doesn’t represent the country and had abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”

The former ambassador’s grand gesture in front of the world is dividing opinion, and it’s not just between backers of the coup and its opponents on the street. There’s no doubt that this required personal courage on his part, but Kyaw Moe Tun’s previous failure to speak up when Myanmar’s government was accused of the worst crimes possible (crimes against humanity including genocide and ethnic cleansing) raises questions about what he really represents.

On the streets, huge demonstrations across the country were held again on Sunday when protesters were faced with the worst violence by security forces so far. Estimates vary, but the UN says at least 18 people were killed and 30 injured. One image, widely shared on social media and reminiscent of the 1986 Philippines’ people power, showed a nun in northern Kachin state kneeling on the ground and pleading with a line of riot police to stop arresting protesters. Kachin has been a war zone for decades, with the Kachin ethnic minority pitched against the Myanmar military for self-determination.

There are many similar civil conflicts on Burma’s borders because the constitution does not provide ethnic minorities with equal civil rights, including the right to vote. Continued fighting since December has forced more than six thousand Karen people to flee their homes; it’s still ongoing during the mass protests.
Many ethnic minority groups including Rohingya have joined the general strike and protests in a rare show of solidarity, but their aims are quite different from the NLD’s. While they also denounce the military coup, they want equal rights and federalism. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership failed the ethnic minorities who make up about a third of Burma’s population, so they don’t necessarily want her party back in power. It raises the question of whether they can really work together beyond the effort to overturn the military coup.

When Kyaw Moe Tun ended his surprise speech at the UN, he raised his hand in the three-fingered salute that’s been seen across the region by pro-democracy demonstrators. It’s a sign of defiance that’s surpassed its original reference to “The Hunger Games” movies and even been banned by the military regime in Thailand. It’s hard to overstate the significance of one of the state’s representatives taking up the cause in this way.

Some reports say it echoes the French Revolution aims: “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.” More than 230 years since that revolution, on the other side of the world, new uprisings demand no less of their leaders both outside and within their movements.

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