People or power?

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2021 - 12:00am

A summit of the leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday that was widely flagged to be an important regional response to the crisis in Myanmar, also known as Burma, appears to have completely failed to bring about any meaningful relief. It is long past time for an honest no-nonsense region-wide debate over the group’s lamentable failures.

The leader of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing, is the public face of the military offensive against civilians of one ethnic group in Western Burma that committed alleged crimes against humanity and genocide. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, causing a massive humanitarian emergency for which Dhaka and international donors are having to pay the price.

There are two ongoing legal proceedings before international courts – the International Criminal Court (ICC) situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in relation to the application of the Genocide Convention, brought by The Gambia v Myanmar. Evidence is also being collected for case files by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM).

In 2018 the IIMM documented mass killings, the scorching of Rohingya settlements and large-scale gang rape and other sexual violence by Tatmadaw soldiers. The poignant testimony of one survivor laid bare the monstrous extent of sexual violence: “I was lucky, I was only raped by three men,” she said. Rapes were often in public spaces in front of families, including children.

The Mission also met many children with visible injuries matching accounts of being shot, stabbed or burned. Satellite imagery corroborates accounts of widespread, systematic, deliberate and targeted destruction, during which Rohingya populated-areas were burned down with nearby ethnic Rakhine settlements left unscathed.

In Kachin and Shan states, the Mission verified a number of incidents in the context of armed conflicts, confirming consistent patterns of violations of international law. The report finds that Tatmadaw operations in northern Myanmar are “characterized by systematic attacks directed at civilians” and conducted “in flagrant disregard for life, property and well-being of civilians.”

Such attacks serve as a catalyst for a wide range of other violations, including killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearances, forced labor, land grabbing and the burning of villages. Tatmadaw operations have a devastating impact on the population.

The Mission also confirmed that violations and abuses were committed by non-State armed groups. This includes the “ethnic armed organizations” in Kachin and Shan states and ARSA in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s military has been carrying out these campaigns with impunity long before the February coup. Since Min Aung Hlaing and his gang took over, oppressive tactics carried out by the same battalions are being used against populations across the land.

Imagine that the People Power mass demonstrations in Manila in 1986 had taken place in every big city. Now think what outrage there would have been if the military had remained loyal to the regime, conducting raids on residential neighborhoods. The police conducting the so-called war on drugs have killed thousands of people by their own admission. Notoriously, it’s known as Operation Tokhang, from the local words for “knock” and “plead.”

They knock first; in Myanmar they have cordoned off some neighborhoods, then randomly fired automatic and heavy weapons, even air power in a border area. In others, snipers have shot unarmed civilians, including women and children. There is video evidence of soldiers nabbing, beating and torturing and even killing ordinary people execution-style. As of April 25, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Burma has confirmed that 751 people have been killed by this junta coup. The actual number of fatalities is likely much higher. 4,473 people have been arrested for taking part in the civilian disobedience movement.

The country has ground to a standstill. Things were bad even before the coup because of the pandemic. Now the very people who could save lives, doctors and nurses, are being specifically targeted for arrest by the military because they have joined the movement.

The international community could not be seen to stand idly by, and regional neighbors, through ASEAN, were to take the lead. Expectations were high from the outset. Some might say they were unrealistic, given the region’s record. Even they would deservedly have been disappointed with the eventual concluding statement.

From the very first sentence, our leaders have chosen to obfuscate and evade, saying the meeting “was convened with the view to advance ASEAN Community building, hasten recovery from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID19) pandemic, strengthen ASEAN’s external relations and address pressing issues of common interest to all ASEAN Member-States.” There is no mention of Myanmar/Burma or the people in the region.

That comes later with the stated recognition “that the strength of the ASEAN Community lies in putting people at its center.” Brunei’s chairmanship is given its due with its slogan “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper,” supposedly focusing on “harnessing the caring nature of people in the region.” It’s an ambitious and ridiculous claim, given the actual extent of state violence, repression  and poverty across the region.

Only in the final eighth and ninth points does the statement address Myanmar: “We, as an ASEAN family,” it begins, framing the filial, loyal and uncritical tone of our leaders to support and legitimize any and all actions they undertake. Four words that are a death knoll for people’s aspirations for governments to acknowledge the truth of what is happening to their people and to be accountable for it. The statement mentions “reports of fatalities and escalation of violence,” as if they might not be true.

Make no mistake, our leaders in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, know exactly what is going on there. They do not acknowledge it explicitly for fear their own fragile pedestals are knocked out from under them. That would be like saying the Emperor is naked, even as he dangles his bits with glee in the world’s face.

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