Updated: March 16, 2021 9:00:56 am
The Myanmar junta has made it plain it will stop at nothing to suppress the protests against its February 1 coup. The near daily death toll of pro-democracy protestors is a distressing reminder of the promise of Myanmar just until a couple of months ago, and how the country’s military has turned the clock back by at least a decade, if not more. The gunning down of protestors is a devastating attack on the people of Myanmar, who have mostly peacefully demanded a return to democracy. The violence that the military has unleashed on the people after usurping power following the sweeping electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, shows it has no intention of being hemmed in by democracy, even of the hybrid kind written into Myanmar’s Constitution. On Sunday, the military shot down 39 people, the highest single-day death toll, taking the total number of people killed just for voicing protests against the junta since the coup to more than 100. Suu Kyi remains in detention, and has been accused, along with other leaders of the NLD, of corruption by the military regime. There is a crackdown on media, and at least 10 journalists have been detained without charges.
The coup seems to have taken the world by surprise. Last week, the United Nations Security Council asked the military rulers “to exercise utmost restraint”. The US, Britain and Canada have individually announced sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes on Myanmar’s top army generals. There has been talk of freezing arms sales, with South Korea already announcing suspension of defence exchanges with Myanmar. But Russia and China, which have close relations with the Myanmar military, may take the edge off such action. ASEAN has more or less accepted the new leadership, weakly calling for Suu Kyi’s release. Japan, the second-biggest investor in Myanmar after China, has said it is “considering” how to respond to the developments.
India, the biggest democracy in the region (and indeed the world), which has close links with both the Myanmar military and with Suu Kyi and the NLD, has been silent after its initial expression of “concern”. In the Nineties, India teetered between its storied friendship with Suu Kyi, and the need to engage with the military amid concerns that Indian militant groups in the Northeast were being given safe haven in Myanmar. In the first decade of the 21st century, the rivalry with China for influence in the region made that engagement even more necessary. But the moral dilemma for fence-sitters may be sharper today. Colombo’s invitation to Myanmar for the April 1 BIMSTEC foreign ministers’ meeting has triggered protests in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and will bring home that dilemma for Delhi, too. Speaking in another context, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has said India is not looking for Western approval on India’s democratic credentials. What democratic values does India, then, stand for? Its words and actions on Myanmar will provide an indication.
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