A Brutal Year
Smoke and flames billow from abandoned vehicles on the roadside of Kayah State, Myanmar. Shells of burnt-out cars are strewn across the road. Charred bodies lay on the floor. Thirty-five people have been killed, including women, children and charity workers.
These were the bleak scenes that unfolded on Christmas Eve 2021. They marked a brutal new low in the violence and conflict that began a year ago today, when the military junta launched a coup and seized power in Myanmar.
Though this atrocity captured the attention of Western media, this was not an isolated incident and is part of an escalation in military violence in Myanmar. Michael Isherwood, chair of the Burma Humanitarian Mission and program director of Backpack Medics, laments that he now sees a military “randomly shooting unarmed men, women and children, who steal livestock and burn homes to the ground, who use rape as a weapon”.
The events of the last 12 months, and the decades of political history leading up to the coup, are complex and sensitive. With this in mind, I will offer only a sketch here of the current situation in Myanmar. What is all too clear is the brutality and fear that has once again gripped the country.
- Myanmar’s military first seized power in a coup in 1962, having become independent in 1948.
- Throughout the 1980’s and 1990s the National League for Democracy (NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi) grew in popularity, opposing the military leadership primarily through peaceful protest.
- In was not until 2008 that a transition to democracy began, under a new constitution drafted by the military, and nationwide parliamentary elections were held in 2015.
- Fresh elections were held in November 2020 in which the NLD won a landslide victory and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were reduced to a rump.
The Coup Itself
The new Parliament, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy, was due to commence on the first of February 2021. This new Parliament would never sit. In the early hours of that morning, key figures from the NLD, including Suu Kyi, were rounded up by military forces and arrested. Suu Kyi was charged with violating the country’s official secrets act, possessing illegal walkie-talkies and publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm”.
The junta declared a state of emergency in Myanmar. They alleged widespread voter fraud at the election and demanded a rerun of the vote. Military leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, committed to fresh elections within the year. The electoral commission strenuously challenged the suggestion that the initial election had been compromised.
The overthrow of the election result served to bolster the power of Min Aung Hlaing, who was becoming less relevant to Myanmar’s power structures. Suu Kyi’s popularity was evident. Her (internationally rebuked) defence of the military operations in Rakhine state, targeting the Rohingya Muslim people, did little to dent her domestic popularity. It became harder for the military to attack her as a threat to national unity. Facing a loss of political influence, the military chose to grip the situation by the throat.
Early responses to the coup overwhelmingly took the form of peaceful demonstrations. People from across society, teachers, lawyers, students, bank officers and government workers, protested in the streets.
The Military took an increasingly violent attitude towards protestors. Curfews and limits on gatherings were imposed alongside security forces deploying water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition to try to disperse protesters. This show of force was lethal. The bloodiest day in March saw more than 100 protestors killed.
From the summer onwards, many commentators began to describe the situation in Myanmar as a civil war. The National Unity Government (NUG) (including Suu Kyi) has formed a shadow Government in opposition to the military. The NUG has drawn together ministers from a wide range of ethnic groups. The NUG is advocating for the cultivation of national defence forces to oppose the military. Whilst this is a response to the oppressive actions of the military, there are concerns over where this armed resistance could lead. There is a risk that empowering resistance to the military may rely on fanning the flames of other hostilities and grievances.
There are reports from Open Doors of individuals facing discrimination, violence and displacement on the basis of their religion. JPIT’s church partners in Myanmar tell us how they have suffered terribly whilst managing the simultaneous challenges of COVID and violent conflict. They have shared with us brutal accounts of majority Christian villages being bombed and communication channels across churches destroyed.
So far in the conflict, over 1300 people have died, thousands have been injured and tens of thousands displaced. The fresh elections that the military had promised seem to have literally gone up in flames; peace is desperately far away for the people of Myanmar.
The picture I have painted is undeniably bleak. Conflict is stiffening rather than thawing. The United Nations is warning of an impending humanitarian crisis, with up to half of the country facing poverty and starvation. Possible international responses including economic sanctions run the risk of exacerbating the suffering of civilians as much as it might damage the junta.
It is easy to feel powerless to impact this seemingly intractable injustice. Nonetheless, we at the Joint Public Issues Team believe that chinks of light can always break into the darkest of rooms. Today, we have supported our Church leaders in writing to the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to encourage greater diplomatic engagement on the part of the UK. We are actively exploring how we can use our voice to advocate for the victimised in Myanmar and to work towards peace. But it is right to first stop and acknowledge the brutality that has already occurred and to stand with those who face yet more fear and uncertainty.
We ask that you would join with us today and pray:
Prayer for Myanmar
Loving God, as we approach the anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar, we feel a sense of hopelessness that there seems to be no peaceful resolution. We pray for those who have been imprisoned, tortured, killed. We pray for those who have lost livelihoods, homes and witnessed scenes of daily violence and death. We pray for young people denied an education as the schools remain closed and for the sick when hospitals and clinics are no longer able to function. Like the Psalmist, we cry out: ‘How long, how long?’
You are the God of justice but there is no justice in Myanmar.
You are the God who gives dignity to all creation but that dignity is being denied for the people of Myanmar.
You are the God who stands alongside us. Help us to stand in solidarity with our siblings there, especially with the Methodist family.
May we never cease to pray, to protest and to give voice to the people there.
May our desire for peace in Myanmar never rest until peace, with godly justice, is tangible and real.
We make this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.