Presentation by Phil Robertson* at the Launch of the Exhibition “Stand for Democracy in Myanmar” on April 26, 2022
Good evening, my name is Phil Robertson, and I’m the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. Thank you to the organizers for inviting me to give some brief remarks today.
It’s an honor to be here with you today to help launch this fantastic exhibition by Marcelo Brodsky called “Stand for Democracy in Myanmar” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The quality of these art works is just amazing and inspiring. I want to commend Marcelo, as well as the organizers of this event: Lia Sciortino and the SEA Junction, and the Human Rights Art Initiative.
Let me also add that it’s great to see the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and the Asia Democracy Network supporting an important event like this.
This kind of inspiring, awareness raising event is really important here in Thailand, which once again is a frontline state in the people’s struggle to prevent the Myanmar military from dragging the country back into the dark ages of dictatorship. In Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, and other spots along the Thai-Burma border, there is a sense of déjà vu as groups organize and respond to the coup.
It’s also important because Thailand is doing the wrong thing towards Burma, with refugee pushbacks at the border – where people are fleeing from fighting but cannot cross the border to safety because the army pushes them back. It’s also been clear all along that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan as close friends and allies of the Burmese generals in the junta.
At events like these, others talk about the art – and I always end up being the speaker who delivers the hard, cold facts about how bad the situation actually is. Sadly, today will be no exception.
As you might expect, I’m going to focus on human rights violations, atrocities committed by the junta and the importance of ways to hold them accountable.
After discussing those issues, I’ll then share some views on what the international community is doing, or not doing, to help restore democracy and uphold respect for human rights in Myanmar.
But before I get into those remarks, let me start by saying that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. In these paintings and art, and in the day to day actions of the Burmese people in the CDM – through boycotts, strikes, organizing, pop up protests, documenting rights abuses, exposing junta actions, and taking to social media, the Burmese people are saying clearly that they will not ever accept this military regime.
The sustained actions of the people to resist over the past 450 days since the February 1, 2021, coup is really what’s happening in Myanmar. No previous cycle of protest and resistance was sustained like this, and none has resulted in the creation of an armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces, or PDFs.
Now as a representative of an international human rights organization, I have to say that we don’t support violence. But I also have to say that the PDFs are a fact, and these PDFs are part of the new reality that we have not seen before like this.
Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and the SAC thought that this coup was going to be easy, that the people would protest a bit and then accept, and the military could drag the country back to the dark days of military rule. Just like Vladimir Putin underestimated the resistance of the Ukrainian people, so too did Min Aung Hlaing underestimate the determination of the Burmese people to defend their rights, and their democracy.
Both Putin and his close friend Min Aung Hlaing also underestimated the willingness of the international community to condemn their actions, and respond – and while I can certainly say that we are far from what we need for the Burmese people’s struggle in terms of international solidarity, I have confidence that with continued advocacy, we will get there.
But that international solidarity is not going to come from ASEAN, and it’s time to dump the failed notion of “ASEAN centrality” in resolving the situation in Myanmar. It’s worth noting that on April 24, we just marked the first anniversary of the failed ASEAN so-called 5 Point Consensus, agreed between coup commander Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and the ASEAN leaders in Jakarta. Nothing has been achieved on any of those five points. Nothing.
Right now, what’s happening in Myanmar is a tug of war between the military leaders and their forces versus the people. The government has the upper hand in ability to use violence, and inspire terror – through the nightly raids and arrests that happen across Burma, and the torture in military interrogation centers – but the people have their economic weapons, the mass strike, the boycotts, and refusal to support the government, and increasingly by striking back violently by the PDFs.
This tug of war may take a while, but I think that time is on the side of the people, and that while there will certainly be lots more suffering and tragically lost lives, the people will prevail. The international community has a role to play in supporting the people’s cause, and hurrying that day of victory.
Quite clearly, the Myanmar junta has committed crimes against humanity against the people. These are systematic and severe abuses, and they are not occurring under just one military or police command, or in one area, but across the country.
We’ve seen massacres in Karenni state, in towns and villages across Sagaing division, in Chin state, and elsewhere. These atrocities reinforce what we always known – that the Tatmadaw has no hesitation in using deadly force against anyone it encounters when it goes into the field, and that it practices scorched earth tactics against villages and settlements, and often kills anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by the troops as they conduct their so-called ‘clearance operations.’
We’ve seen indiscriminate use of aerial bombardments in Karen state, Kachin state, and elsewhere, bombing churches, schools, hospitals, and villages without any regard for the welfare of civilians. Using artillery to shell areas where the Tatmadaw believes the People’s Defense Forces (or, PDFs) are active, is another regularly seen tactic.
And of course, the Myanmar military has returned to use of rape as a weapon of war against the country’s ethnic minority women.
There is no accountability for rank-and-file soldiers, or police, committing atrocities, nor for their commanders. This is the historic practice of the Myanmar military, which sees itself as being above the law, and acts accordingly.
What happened to the Rohingya in 2017, where crimes against humanity and acts of genocide were committed as over 750,000 people were driven out of the country in the course of two months, is just the worst example of the kinds of killings, beatings, rape and sexual violence, forced labor and forced portering, and wholesale destruction of villages that the Tatmadaw have inflicted on other ethnic minorities across the country over years. If you listen to the Kachin, the Karenni, Karen, Shan, Mon, Pao-O, Chin, Rakhine, Kokang, and others – all the same sorts of horror stories about the Tatmadaw come forth.
What’s different this time is the junta is also perpetrating its atrocities on ethnic Burmans in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, and Burman heartland regions such as Sagaing division. So, the 65% of the people who are ethnic Burman, and especially the youth who came of age during the democratic transition between 2011 and 2021, are seeing the true face of the Tatmadaw and experiencing their brutal tactics.
As of yesterday, April 25, Bo Kyi and his team at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated that 1794 people have been killed by the security forces, and more than 12,300 arrested or sentenced to prison. Almost another 2000 are evading arrest warrants and are on the run, including probably some of the people here.
Torture and killings in detention are back. Extrajudicial executions are back. Growing numbers of political prisoners are back. But the resistance of the people is not slowing, and is not diminishing.
But what is certainly diminishing is support for the military junta. Foreign investors are heading for the door. International chambers of commerce bemoan the junta’s policies. And the junta is shooting itself in the foot with mandatory currency conversion requirements that will make it difficult, if not impossible for foreign companies to do business in Burma. It’s also good news that the MEHL and MEC military conglomerates are under scrutiny and attack like never before. Every day brings a new expose, and new pressure for additional sanctions.
No one ever thought companies like Total, or Kirin Beer, would leave their lucrative contracts in Myanmar, working hand-in-hand with the military, but they have.
What we need now is to expand the international economic sanctions against the Myanmar junta and its supporters, especially from governments like Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, and Thailand who have refused to do anything. While pressure from North America and Europe is helpful, it is not enough.
And what we need is for countries like the US, the EU and its member states, and others to get their hands dirty with real action. Pushing this whole situation off to ASEAN, in the name of maintaining the bogus fiction of ASEAN centrality, doesn’t work. Hun Sen, the chair of ASEAN, is busy trying to find a way to “reinstate ASEAN’s integration with the participation of all member states” as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have reported in quoting a representative from the office of the ASEAN Special Envoy. That representative also told APHR that they hope “to show others that Myanmar has been accommodating in all possible ways and means.”
And now we see that President Biden invited all the ASEAN leaders (minus the Burma junta representatives, of course) to the White House for talks on May 12 and 13.
Presumably, the dire situation in Burma will be discussed but so far there have been no indications from the US government about what, if any, human rights issues will be raised. The pressure needs to come very clearly that return to the ASEAN status quo is unacceptable. ASEAN needs a deadline, or it needs to get out of the way.
The crisis in Myanmar is getting worse, and the international community, and all of us, need to do our part to rally support for the people of Burma, and against the military junta that is so cruelly repressing them.
Thank you very much. I hope that you enjoy this amazing art exhibition.
Phil Robertson is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He oversees the organization’s work throughout Asia, with special focus on Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch in 2009, he worked for fifteen years in Southeast Asia on human rights, labor rights, protection of migrant workers, and counter-human trafficking efforts with a variety of non-governmental organizations, international and regional trade union federations, and UN agencies (see further https://www.hrw.org/about/people/phil-robertson) .He can be reached at email: RobertP@hrw.org, mobile phone: (+66) 85-060-8406.