On Monday, Burma’s military revealed it had executed four democracy activists, in one of the clearest signs yet that the junta that staged a coup last year is not loosening its grip . The military had ruled the country – formerly known as Burma – for half a century. In 2011, it began a process of liberalization, and in 2015 activist Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to lead a civilian government. But the army maintained its power and waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya minority. Then, in 2021, he imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi and regained formal control of the government. Widespread resistance by citizens of Myanmar has been met with increasing repression, culminating in these recent killings.
I recently spoke by telephone with Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. A former Democratic congressman from Maine, Andrews is also a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Schell Center for International Human Rights. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the shape of the protest movement in Myanmar, the international community’s sporadic interest in the human rights situation there below and what the military junta hopes to accomplish.
What is your job exactly?
I have the role and the responsibility to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, as well as to the General Assembly, on what is happening with regard to human rights in Myanmar, and to provide an analysis of these developments as well as recommendations on what the international community can do.
Why did the soldiers execute these four people?
I think they demonstrate that there are no limits to the depths of their depravity. In their evil way, they are trying to scare the people of Myanmar even more than they already have. They are despised in Myanmar. There is broad opposition against them, and they understand that. So I think their only hope is just to scare people and scare the opposition into giving up. Frankly, I think it’s going to have the opposite effect.
Thousands of people were killed by the junta and more than fourteen thousand were arbitrarily detained. Fourteen hundred are children. The junta is currently holding sixty-one children hostage in an attempt to get their family members to surrender. I documented the torture of one hundred and forty-two children. Horrible tortures: cigarettes that burn them, cut them, stab them. Junta leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing, who carried out the coup in February last year, commanded the troops that carried out the genocidal attacks on the Rohingya ethnic minority five years ago. So that gives you an idea of what they are capable of.
Myanmar was under military rule for a very long time, and then there was this period of openness that a lot of people were extremely optimistic about, and some things changed. Over the past two years, that progress seemed to recede, culminating in the coup you just mentioned. How do you understand why the military, who had given up part of the power, decided that they had to take it back?
That’s a very good question, and to be completely honest with you, a few days before the coup I was telling people that I didn’t think they were going to try a coup precisely because they had enormous economic power. They controlled much of the country’s natural resources. They completely controlled the army, including the border. They controlled the country’s internal apparatus, the police networks and the security forces. And, unlike the period before the reforms began, they have engaged with the international community. They could be seen less as pariahs than as respected members of the international community. This facade was provided to them by the civil part of the government.
It was under Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s true. The junta wrote this constitution which absolutely guaranteed that it would maintain power – in terms of economic and military might – but then it would have a civilian government which would have limited power and could become the image that [the country] would project to the world, of a democracy that could be respected.
It wasn’t a democracy at all, and what most people would charitably say is, “Well, Myanmar is on its way to democracy, it’s in a process of democracy, and it’s a step in this process, and we hope that with more commitment and investment we will see a stronger transformation and a deeper transition to democracy. The Obama administration, for example. The United States lifted nearly all of the sanctions it had previously imposed, with the promise that this advance would continue. And, of course, we now know that was not the case.
Before her image was tarnished by the Rohingya genocide, and before she gained some power, I think people saw Aung San Suu Kyi as the face of opposition to military rule in Myanmar. What is the face of the opposition today, with her under house arrest? Do you think it is more or less widespread than in the previous period? I’m curious how you see it.
Well, first of all, Isaac, let me just tell you: she’s not under house arrest. She is in jail.
Yes sorry. She was under house arrest.
It’s true. Now we don’t know what his condition is. But I think the movement is led by a diversity of people across the country. And if you can say anything about them, from my experience and all my conversations and engagement with people on the ground in Myanmar, that’s young leadership, that’s diverse leadership. It is one who deliberately engages in a way in which there is no identifiable leader.
The country is very diverse, and leaders now want to make it clear that they respect that diversity. He respects the ethnic minority communities that have been sidelined for so long or, if you were Rohingya, in Rakhine State, brutally attacked. They are relentless and tenacious. They use a variety of tactics to build and strengthen the opposition. They started with massive protests, with millions of people on the streets across the country. Then the junta started annihilating them, just murdering people, ordering the soldiers to shoot the crowd with live ammunition. So their tactics have changed, but there is a very vibrant civil disobedience movement there.
They are now imposing what have been described as citizen sanctions in the country. People refuse to pay their taxes, their utility bills, because it goes into the pockets of the junta, and they don’t buy anything that could even be indirectly tied to the junta’s coffers. So that’s the movement, and I would say from my experience that a lot of the leaders are young and a lot of those young people are women.
Why do you think that is?
Many of them told me that they had heard and seen what had happened to their parents and grandparents, and when things started to unfreeze—when these small reforms started to take place— they started to be connected to the world through the internet, and they started to engage with the world. Their expectations, their perceptions, their hopes have all changed as a result. They said to me, “Listen, we’re not going back. We are not going back to what our parents and grandparents had to endure. We simply are not.
So that may not answer your gender question, but I’ve heard from a lot of these young people that their engagement with the world directly, personally, through technology and the internet, played a big role in their vehemence and their willingness to take risks, to stop at nothing to save themselves and their country.