The media has been full recently, and for good reason, of the conflict in Ukraine, with Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable invasion of its neighbour. We have seen the pushback by Ukrainian forces—and people welcome that—and the counterattacks they have conducted. But it’s important to remember that that is not the only place where these kinds of actions are occurring.
In our region, Myanmar is facing a very similar situation, where the civilian population is being oppressed by its own military. The military had a coup to get rid of a democratically elected government—who, in fact, won in a landslide—and the military have sought to entrench their own power and to eliminate any dissent to that. Despite that—despite the overwhelming military force which is being applied—the National Unity Government and the ethnic armed forces, which have fought for some years in Myanmar, have actually made good progress in holding their own. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an independent group of former United Nations human rights experts, estimate that the National Unity Government and the resistance organisations now have effective control over some 52 per cent of Myanmar’s territory. They’ve said that the Myanmar military can claim to have stable control over only about 17 per cent.
So, on the one hand, we should be celebrating that, because that’s actually a fantastic outcome for a civilian population supported by some of the ethnic armed groups. But the reality on the ground for people is still stark. The Special Advisory Council note that the regime, which is unable to govern in the majority of the country, is reduced to being an occupying military force. What does that mean for people? It means that it has stepped up its atrocities, including arbitrary torture and killing of civilians, massacres, burning people alive, extrajudicial killing of resistance detainees and using civilians as human shields, as well as air and artillery strikes on residential areas, looting and burning of houses, and acts of sexual violence.
Just in the last week, we have seen the decapitation of a teacher in one of the areas held by NUG forces, where the military can interdict and have air strikes and send forces in to act and then withdraw. We’ve seen that. We’ve recently seen seven young students killed in a helicopter attack in a Buddhist monastery. The UN has documented some 260 attacks on schools and educational personnel, according to the UN Human Rights Committee. Just in the last week, a Myanmar military air attack killed 80 people at a celebration—predominantly civilians, musicians and people associated with one of the political groups there.
So there is a pattern of behaviour, and what we see in summary is that, to date, some 2,356 civilians have been executed extrajudicially by the regime, 91 of those being under the age of 14 and a further 209 being between the ages of 15 and 19. Some 12,655 have been illegally arrested, and four democracy activists, including a member of parliament, were given capital punishment and executed in July. Some 1.3 million people have been displaced and, because of the regime’s interdiction and control of World Food Programme and other aid which tries to get over the borders, many of those people are facing starvation. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar stresses that there are human rights abuses and war crimes being conducted on a daily basis.
So there are several requests. The first is that the government look to continue allowing those people from Myanmar who are in Australia to remain but also look at how we can increase the opportunity for people who are sheltering in third countries, like Thailand or Mizoram state, to come to Australia until their country is safe to return to. Second, with things like the ASEAN Military Medicine Conference, which it appears the regime’s military are going attend at this stage, ASEAN should take the step of saying that they will not accept anyone from the regime attending those sorts of conferences. Third, the junta is talking of having an election in August 2023 and is putting that forward as a way to end the conflict and gain some legitimacy. But that would entrench the military under the old 2008 constitution, whereas the democratically elected National Unity Government and the ethnic groups have developed a federal democracy charter, and the international community should be clearly recognising that any election must be under that charter.