Wednesday

12th May 2021

Opinion

Myanmar - a new litmus test for EU's support for democracy

  • Aung San Suu Kyi, former Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was arrested on 1 February (Photo: Burma Democratic Concern (BDC))

When the military took control of Myanmar on 1 February, the international community was quick to condemn the coup.

UN secretary-general António Guterres has vowed to do everything possible "to make sure that this coup fails," just as US president Joe Biden has announced targeted sanctions against the top military personnel.

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In a collective effort, the EU and UK presented a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council condemning the coup, demanding basic civil liberties restored and political detainees released, which was adopted unanimously on 12 February.

Together with halting direct development cooperation and monetary transfers to the Burmese state apparatus, as many countries have already done, these efforts are all both timely and necessary.

The question remains, however, if it will have the necessary impact on the military and convince them of reinstating the elected government. Judging from the last two weeks, there is little indication that the military even considers stepping back.

The current stand-off between the military and the hundreds of thousands of protesters across Myanmar has clearly escalated in the last couple of days, with more arrests and more violent retaliations from the military.

Yet, as we know from experience, soon the international media attention will begin to wane, and attention will be drawn to another hotspot. Unfortunately, at a time when the military is rapidly rolling back substantial democratic progress achieved over the last decade.

One of the most concerning actions as of latest is a new cyber security law that the military circulated a draft of last week. If adopted, it will limit the space for freedom of expression and access to information significantly.

It contains, among other things, several restrictions on the types of content that may be disseminated online and puts in place systems to counter these types of content.

Typically for these types of laws adopted by authoritarian governments in the region, vague wording will allow for a clamp down on activists, citizens and media showing any sign of critique towards the military's way of operating.

On 14 February, the military announced yet another attack on freedom of expression with an enactment of amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure code.

The amendments broaden the scope of the crimes of high treason and sedition and create new, vaguely-worded offences relating to 'sabotage' or 'disruption' of military or government officials, causing 'fear', and knowingly spreading 'fake news'.

In a similar fashion, the media has also received notifications that changes are on the way.

'Coup government'

In a letter titled "Matter of reporting with news media ethics" from the Ministry of Information to the Myanmar Press Council, the media was warned against referring to senior General Min Aung Hlaing's junta as a "coup government".

In a clear threat, the letter let journalists know that if they refuse to comply they could face criminal charges, and publications could have their licences revoked.

These initiatives will significantly alter freedom of expression and access to information – in a time where the people of Myanmar need information more than ever.

Bearing in mind that Myanmar not only finds itself in the midst of a coup but also a pandemic and an economic crisis, access to information is of utmost importance for the public to make informed decisions about their daily lives and the well-being of their families.

These reductions in democratic fundamentals will also set an eery precedent and give some indication of what we might expect in the coming months.

Europe's dashed hopes

So where does this leave the European countries that have adamantly supported the democratic development in Myanmar for the past decade?

And, more importantly, where does this leave the protesters on the ground in Yangon, Naypyidaw, Mandalay and elsewhere that are bravely, and in rather innovative ways, opposing the military's attempt to quell the years of hard-fought democratic progress in Myanmar?

All projections indicate that activists, journalists, human rights defenders and civil society face some incredibly tough months ahead. But they are incredible persistent and are ready to take to the streets to show their disapproval of the coup and of the military's attack on their country and hard-earned rights.

While they are bearing the brunt for speaking out, we need to find ways to support their efforts in the same tireless manner that they present every day.

We need more than scare tactics now. We need action and we need to keep the international focus on Myanmar. We need to offer as much support as possible to civil society, independent media and human rights activists.

This translates into extensive advocacy efforts, international pressure but also more substantially, direct aid to those at the frontline. It is of utmost importance that the governments in Europe redirect the aid otherwise meant for governance development in Myanmar to the many trusted partners that European aid agencies have collaborated with for years.

The civil perseverance brings hope, but without broad support that hope might be futile.

Author bio

Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen is Asia advisor with International Media Support, a non-profit NGO working with media development in countries affected by conflict and political transition.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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