- Myanmar has “clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday.
- The military in Myanmar overthrow the democratically elected government in February.
- It has killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in the weeks since.
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Myanmar is on the verge of a “full-blown conflict,” a top United Nations official warned Tuesday, urging the world community not to repeat the passive observation that allowed the conflict in Syria to grow into the bloodiest of the 21st century.
“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.
“There too we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile, noting that the absence of an international response led the repression to both persist and grow worse, leading to “some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence.”
In February, Myanmar’s long-dominant military overthrew the country’s tenuous democracy, making false claims of voter fraud to evict de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party from power. In the weeks since, the military has repeatedly opened fire on protesters, killing over 700 people, including 82 in one city last Friday.
In March, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was “deeply concerned” by the violence in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“We, of course, continue to work with our allies and partners and like-minded institutions as we condemn the actions of the military, call for the immediate restoration of democracy, and hold those who seize power accountable,” Psaki said.
But in her remarks Tuesday, Bachelet said the world was not doing nearly enough to actually stop the bloodshed.
“Statements of condemnation, and limited targeted sanctions, are clearly not enough,” she said. “States with influence need to urgently apply concerted pressure on the military in Myanmar to halt the commission of grave human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity.”
Myanmar’s envoy to the UN, appointed by the last democratically elected government, has urged the international community to impose an arms embargo on the country as well as a no-fly zone, which would entail forcing the military junta’s aircraft out of the skies.
While much attention has been focused on the military’s response to pro-democracy rallies, it has also been launching airstrikes against armed groups in Karen state, along the border with Thailand. Locals have claimed the strikes have exacted a civilian toll, causing thousands to flee and prompting fears of an all-out civil war.
The parallels to Syria are glaring. In early 2011, thousands of people inspired by the Arab Spring took to the streets to demand reform in an authoritarian dictatorship led by Bashar al-Assad. The crackdown was swift and brutal: snipers took shots at activists, thousands of whom disappeared in torture chambers (the UN would later declare the government guilty of “extermination”).
At first, Western leaders offered only tepid criticism. “What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “but there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities [and] police actions which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”
Many members of Congress, she added, believe Assad is a “reformer.” Indeed, the US had collaborated with Assad’s government during the War on Terror, the Bush administration sent detainees there who were later tortured. (The US, likewise, helped train Myanmar’s military, suspending that assistance in 2017 amid the Rohingya genocide.) And the Obama administration had recently reopened the US embassy in Damascus, hoping to see a formal peace agreement between Israel and Assad’s government.
It would take months more for President Barack Obama to demand Assad step down – time that allowed massacres to continue and armed groups, including extremists, to fill the vacuum left by the seeming indifference of the world’s democracies.
Assad would go on to bomb most of the country’s cities to rubble, while using chemical weapons to kill civilians who defied his regime, according to reports from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That – a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, with millions forced to become refugees – is a future Bachelet hopes to stave off.
“The military seems intent on intensifying its pitiless policy of violence against the people of Myanmar, using military-grade and indiscriminate weaponry,” she observed.
But it is not just the US and its allies that she called out. At the UN, Russia and China, as with Syria before, have blocked the UN from even condemning the coup in Myanmar.
“The UN High Commissioner has sounded the alarm bell,” Sherine Tadros, deputy director of advocacy at Amnesty International, told Insider. “It’s now up to members of the Security Council to act and impose a comprehensive, global arms embargo and targeted sanctions on senior officials before the situation worsens further.”
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