On 3rd March 2021, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the message “everything will be okay”, 19 year old dancer Ma Kyal Sin participated in a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Mandalay. The teenager was shot dead by a military sniper.
She is the powerful symbol of the youth fighting and dying to restore democracy in Myanmar.
I call on Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg to rise up and mobilize the youth of the world for Ma Kyal Sin, for the people of Myanmar.
The Myanmar military believe they are the only guarantors of the country’s territorial integrity. In truth it is a vast, armed to the teeth conglomerate, notorious for pillaging, rape and massacres of civilians, a thuggish and incredibly incompetent military leadership too involved in openly illegal businesses to have time to actually develop a professional force of disciplined soldiers, let alone being capable of jumpstarting the economy and improving the lives of the impoverished people.
During the decades of military fake socialism, the military thugs managed to turn a once world's biggest rice producer into Southeast Asia’s poorest country while Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Lao, Vietnam and the Philippines registered dramatic improvements.
Threats to Myanmar’s territorial integrity do not come from outside its border, even as its strategic location and vast resources are a magnet for regional powers. Apart from World War II, major wars involving Burmese forces and those of the Kingdom of Siam and China are centuries old now, dating back in the 1770s.
The only wars the Myanmar military have ever fought since independence from the British in 1948 were against their own people, including the numerous armed insurgents of the excluded nationalities. These, at one point numbering as many as 100,000, were never a unified group. Some sought political and economic devolution, while others were and are unscrupulously engaged in illicit money-making activities, also looting their own country. But they all have as common enemy, the military that has ruled them since independence, abysmally failing to unify the ethnic mosaic that is Myanmar.
Generations of thugs leading the Tatmadaw (the official name of the army) are the only ones to blame for the miserable state of the country. The sole rulers for 60 years, they never embraced or empowered their incredibly diverse people. They have instead set themselves up as the ruling class pillaging their nation’s vast wealth, their hands in every pie, unrestrained in their greed, their vast fortunes stashed in safe houses or sheltered in regional banks.
Their loot was/is always well safeguarded by those who profess non-interference in each other’s “internal affairs,” as if theft, murder, mass killings, rape, and burning of entire villages are a State’s sovereign privilege.
Some time in July 1994 I traveled up the Moel river in a wooden canoe, and disembarked at a major Karen camp in Mannerplaw, Burma. The Karen ethnic nationality, mostly Christian, and battling the army for decades, had firm control on what constituted the Karen State bordering Thailand.
In 1990 with friends in Sydney we had founded the Diplomacy Training Program and incorporated it in the Law School of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, where it remains almost 30 years on, providing innovative and practical intensive courses on international human rights, the UN system, advocacy and lobbying, media, etc. That July, 1994, I and some colleagues embarked on this perilous journey to deliver a two week human rights and diplomacy workshop for Burmese pro-democracy activists sheltered in Karen territory free from the army.
Being in the mosquito infested jungles of Burma, I asked myself whether I was being honest, imparting lessons on human rights treaties and workings of the UN system and international diplomacy to people stuck in the thick jungles? What’s the point? How useful would these international human rights treaties ever be for them?
I had been out of my country, East Timor, for quite a while at the time, living in the US, Australia and Europe, so I was no longer accustomed to tropical diseases; but what malaria can do to one was still very fresh in my memory. I had the indispensable mosquito net and at night as I retired to my room I would burn several Chinese mosquito coils filling the room with intoxicating smoke. I did leave the jungles of Myanmar successfully avoiding a bout of lethal cerebral malaria.
Fast forward to 2002. Against all odds East Timor, now Timor-Leste was free, the first new democracy of the millennium. Soon after as my country’s Foreign Affairs Minister I visited Myanmar to sign the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. I met with the Prime Minister and at least a dozen ministers in full military attire.
Not far from my hotel was Aung San Suu Kyi, confined to the old home of her parents. Her father, Aung San, called the Father of the Nation, who had founded the Myanmar Armed Forces, was murdered in 1947 along with most of his trusted cabinet members just a few months before independence. His one of three children, Aung San Suu Kyi was raised by her mother, Maha Thiri Thudhamma Khin Kyi, a diplomat.
Some years before that trip, in Bergen, Norway, I met Aung San Suu Kyi’s British husband Michael Vaillancourt Aris, lecturer on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan history and culture. Sadly, not long after, in 1999 I travelled to Oxford, this time to attend Aris’ cremation. Suu Kyi chose not to travel to UK to be with her dying husband during his prolonged illness and for the funeral as the military refused to assure that she would be allowed to return home. The macho military men were truly fearful of this elegant petite Burmese woman; they knew she was a potent magnetic, eloquent spokesperson for the vast masses of the people.
In spite of the demonization of this woman by the pious Western conservative and liberal elites over her excuses of the military’s savage crackdown on the Rohingya, Suu Kyi’s popularity remained sky high among her people.
I was literally alone in alerting the international community, including the UN Secretary-General, to understand Suu Kyi’s precarious hold on office, without any say and authority on defense and security matters, her every move watched by the army leaders.
But she did challenge the military. Though aware of the army’s top brass strong rejection of international scrutiny of their actions, Suu Kyi did invite the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to assist in resolving the Rakhine State decades old social, economic and political crisis. With her urging the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State was established in 2016, chaired by Kofi Annan and comprising six senior personalities, three internationals and three nationals.
After one year of consultations held across Rakhine State and in other parts of the country and the region, the Advisory Commission submitted its final report to national authorities on 23 August 2017.
I visited Myanmar that month and met with Suu Kyi as Kofi Annan was expected to deliver his report to her. She did receive it and pledged to implement in full its recommendations.
Even then, in spite of her audacity in inviting a high visibility international mission to poke into the “internal affairs” of Myanmar, her outside critics in Europe, US, Canada and Australia did not relent. It was during this period that I repeatedly said that it was unwise to demonize Aung San Suu Kyi. I specifically said, the military are the culprits – your ire and actions should be focused on them.
The military leaders, of course, were only too pleased to see their number one enemy brought down to earth, and were calculating that her national status would be dented as a result. But the November 2020 elections delivered an even bigger landslide victory for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. The head of Tatmadaw, General Min Aung Hlaing, and his acolytes were shell shocked. They were frightened that an emboldened Suu Kyi would use her near complete control of the parliament and popular support to start serious reforms across the board, phasing out the army involvement in businesses, reforming and professionalizing the armed forces.
The military leaders had bet on Donald Trump winning a second term. The election of Joe Biden meant that the military had to move now and move quickly - while the new US Administration was too preoccupied with the transition, Covid-19 and vaccines, and more important urgent matters.
But this time, the military are facing a nation that has enjoyed five years of freedom and improvements in their lives, and a citizenry that has not forgotten Myanmar’s pariah status of the recent past. They are determined to fight on. And fight they will.
So far the international community has failed the people of Myanmar. ASEAN’s much touted “centrality” sounds hollow and its muted response to the coup risks making it irrelevant.
The US is correct to take firm, prompt action, condemning the coup, demanding immediate release of Aung Suu Kyi and all elected leaders, and a return to democracy. Its imposed sanctions are well targeted.
But more is required. The UN must not recognize the usurpers of power. Countries around the world hosting Myanmar Embassies must continue to recognize the envoys accredited by the legitimate government. A special fund must be set up managed by the UN to make payments to Myanmar Embassies loyal to the legitimate government. Ambassadors and all personnel who change allegiance to the military must have their visas terminated and expelled.
Obviously China and Russia would veto any attempt at having a UN Security Council mandated sanctions against Myanmar military. So the US and the EU should coordinate action with other G7 and G20 countries as well as multilateral and regional financial institutions to impose worldwide sanctions targeting specifically military individuals, their interests and their families. Arrest warrants by INTERPOL should be considered against senior Myanmar military and their civilian cronies. Financial institutions must freeze all transactions with Myanmar banks and companies.
The US, EU, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia should increase support for Myanmar students to study abroad and welcome asylum seekers and refugees. Special funds should be allocated for civil society and pro-democracy organizations in Myanmar and abroad.
Ma Kyal Sin, a 19-year-old protester who was shot in the neck and killed while wearing a t-shirt that said “everything will be okay,” is the face of the Myanmar citizens determined to hold onto democracy and freedom. We must not fail them.