Another birthday spent behind bars

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Another birthday spent behind bars

Saturday, 01 July 2023 | Hiranmay Karlekar

Another birthday spent behind bars

A symbol of aspirations for freedom and democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly been kept in 10 ft by 10 ft concrete cell with two windows

Unnoticed by the world at large, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of Myanmar’s aspiration for freedom and democracy, spent her 78th birthday on June 19 in Naypyidaw Prison. Mohinga Matters, an important source of information about developments in Myanmar, cites those released from the same prison as saying that she has been kept in a 10x10 feet small concrete building with two small windows. If any of the heads of state and governments demanded her release on the occasion of her birthday, it was not audible enough to be heard. The overwhelming majority of the Myanmar diaspora, including her younger son, Ko Htein Lin Kim Aris, rallied in her support for the restoration of democracy in that country.

In a video message released on the eve of her birthday, and carried by an independent news agency, he appealed to Myanmar’s ruling junta to release her and all other political prisoners and agree to a ceasefire while opening negotiations for handing power back to the democratically elected government.  He also said that he had not been granted any contact with her since her arrest and subsequent internment. All his efforts to know about her whereabouts and the conditions in which she was being kept, fetched no response.

The statement touched upon matters on which there is a wide global consensus—the utter illegality of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest and internment, the sheer mockery of the trials she is facing, and the savage repression the Junta has unleashed on the country. In addition, he made two noteworthy points. The first is that the world should put meaningful pressure on Myanmar’s military to end its brutal attacks on its own people. Also, the British government and all other countries should regard Myanmar (he used the original name of Burma) as a pariah state, withdraw all its diplomats and citizens from there, and open negotiations with the National Unity Government (formed on April 16, 2021, by some leaders of the National League for Democracy — the party led by Daw Suu Kyi — activists and representatives of several insurgent ethnic organisations and minor parties). The second is that the military would not win the current civil war in the country; the people will not allow their freedoms to be taken away.

As to the first, the United States and the European countries have taken measures like sanctioning the generals and others involved in the coup on February 1, 2021, which prevented the NLD, which had swept the general elections held on 8 November 2020, from assuming power, and the subsequent atrocities. As late as June 22, 2023, the US Department of Treasury imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence and two junta-owned banks. Unfortunately, such measures have not deterred the junta because sanctions do not deliver and it is supported by China and Russia.

Given their preoccupations with the Ukraine war, the US and the European countries are unlikely to provide the kind of support needed to tilt the balance in favour of the NUG and its military wing, the Peoples’ Defence Force, which, and their allies, will have to fight the junta on their own.

Prima facie, the odds are against them and the Sit-Tat which (and not Tatmadaw), is what the Junta’s armed forces should be called, is a much bigger and better-armed force compared to that of the PDF and its allies. The United States Institute of Peace, however, featured a piece by Ye Myo Hein, datelined May 4, 2023, which gives a very different estimate. According to it, while the Sit-Tat’s headcount was widely thought to total 300,000-400,000 before the coup, “Extensive interviews with military deserters and defectors, analysis of internal military directives and meeting notes, historical records of troop movements and sizes, and casualty counts from primary conflict data and military hospital records,” show “that the military currently has about 150,000 personnel. Roughly 70,000 are combat soldiers. At least 21,000 service members have been lost through casualties, desertion and defection since the coup. At this troop level, the Sit-Tat is barely able to sustain itself as a fighting force, much less a government.”

Not surprisingly, a brief released on September 5, 2022, by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts supporting the country’s struggle for democracy, said that the junta had stable control over only 72 out of the country’s 330 townships, constituting only 17 per cent of Myanmar’s land area.”. The NUG and ethnic resistance organisations effectively controlled over 52 per cent of Myanmar’s territory and 23 per cent was contested.

The Junta has lost further ground since then. In most parts of the country, its forces do not venture out of their fortified camps. It is finding it increasingly difficult to find recruits. In a piece (June 27) in the NIKKEI , Gwen Robinson, its Asia editor-at-large, cites a World Bank report saying that the intensifying crisis since the coup will leave Myanmar’s economy permanently scarred. It will, however, be a long time before the junta is ousted. The PDF and its allies, the ethnic militias, lack heavy weaponry and air support. Myanmar will continue to burn in the interim.

(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer. The views expressed are personal)

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