As Myanmar’s military cracks down on innocent civilians, it is showing the world its true colors. The Tatmadaw (military) is a dictatorial force committed to oppression, exploitation and the silencing of dissent. Now is the time for countries around the world to defend Myanmar’s democracy — and Japan has an important opportunity to lead the region in securing an inclusive democratic future for Myanmar.
Across my homeland, brave people are exercising their right to protest peacefully and stand against tyranny. In response, military forces have escalated their attacks, opening fire into the crowds and using tear gas, flash bangs and stun grenades to terrorize, maim and kill demonstrators.
The military’s actions are appalling and shocking, but they are not surprising. Its excessive use of force is part of a decades-long pattern of abuse and oppression that has long gone unanswered. In the face of impunity for its assault on ethnic minorities like my own people — the Rohingya — the Tatmadaw has now trained its sights on the general population.
That the military felt emboldened to perpetrate such abuses in the wake of 2017 Rohingya genocide should be a wake-up call to the international community, that a new approach to Myanmar is desperately needed.
As a regional leader, Japan has a particularly important role to play in shaping a democratic path for Myanmar. Over the past decade, Japanese governments have maintained ties to Myanmar’s military and avoided public condemnation of its abuses. This questionable stance to the military, it was hoped, would decrease Myanmar’s reliance on China and curtail China’s growing regional influence.
But as the military coup demonstrates, this approach is not working and only damages Japan’s image on the international stage. Rather than moving away from China, Myanmar’s military is moving closer — and those who refuse to stand up to the Myanmar military’s vicious assaults are becoming increasingly isolated.
This was the conclusion drawn by Japan’s most prominent beer producer. A mere three days within the coup, Kirin Brewery Company announced that it would cut ties with the Tatmadaw. This is a step in the right direction. But there is more that can be done from the region in creating the conditions to stop the violence against civilians in Burma and bring about a credible pathway to a genuine democratic transition. This is where Japan can play a critical role.
Firstly, as Myanmar’s largest donor and a key investor, Japan is in a unique position to put a severe dent in the military’s wallet, sending a clear message that there are consequences for the Tatmadaw’s violence. The people of Myanmar strongly encourage Japan to join the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in a concerted effort to sanction the military and their businesses to cut off their financial lifeline. The call for sanctions is not being made gratuitously; Aside from affecting the military’s economic power, it would align Japan with its allies and demonstrate its respect for international law, human rights and democracy in the region.
Secondly, it is inconceivable that military cooperation continues between Japan and the Tatmadaw, especially following the unlawful coup in Myanmar. Such a signal only emboldens the military. Instead the focus should be on isolating the military and not rewarding it with the recognition it desires. This means military cooperation between other states and the Myanmar military needs to come to an immediate halt.
Thirdly, Japan can help bring other regional partners on board toward a more effective Myanmar strategy. The regional response to the coup has so far been mixed and risks falling behind the rest of the international community.
The recent emergency meeting of ASEAN states failed to send out a clear message of condemnation toward the coup. This was a mistake. Japan is a regional power and it should take advantage of this position to call for a meeting with its regional partners to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military and restore true, inclusive democracy, one free of military control.
Finally, Japan should rethink its policy toward the Rohingya. Japan has long abstained from efforts to support justice for the atrocities we face, including abstaining from human rights resolutions at the U.N. Human Rights Council and General Assembly.
In an effort to achieve political neutrality, it has even refused to acknowledge our existence as Rohingya, choosing instead to refer to us as “Muslims in Rakhine State.” It is time for Japan to rethink this approach, and to embrace the need for justice, democracy and inclusion in a future Myanmar.
History shows that Myanmar’s military will not make any systematic changes if it’s left to its devices. This is the same military that forced a million Rohingya from our homeland, and stripped us of our rights to citizenship. The current coup is sadly the logical next step in efforts to seize power and squash dissent.
The military needs, at long last, to be held accountable for its actions or it will continue to act with impunity, with increasingly destabilizing consequences for the region and the world.
Tun Khin is president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization U.K.
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