We're Live Bangla Friday, March 31, 2023

As the focus on Myanmar fades Ukraine takes the spotlight

myanmer has ben

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the illegal military takeover on 1 February 2021. Though the military continues to commit crimes against its own people by shooting peaceful protesters, detaining political activists, and sentencing members of the political elite to years behind bars, media attention has gradually been fading. Despite its brutality, the coup’s one-year anniversary has not been given coverage in some countries (for example in Slovakia, an EU member). But the situation in Myanmar that has been dragging on for over a year must not be forgotten. In fact, the situation is deteriorating and the movement of refugees and regional efforts to secure peace need reporting. Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated this lack of attention. As reports condemning Russian actions against its neighbour continue to dominate Western liberal media, is the Myanmar cause destined to be forgotten?

While last year’s military takeover was not a foreign invasion, similarities can be drawn between Russia’s actions and how the Tatmadaw (as Myanmar’s military is known locally) imposed its will on the people in Myanmar. “The concept of bullying is similar”, Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), commented on the situation. In both cases, millions of people end up suffering not only from persecution and displacement but also from the immediate threat of bombs overhead. At the same time, resistance against the aggressor has been extremely strong, and both Min Aung Hlaing and Vladimir Putin have underestimated the people they seek to subdue.

Nevertheless, there is a stark difference in the coverage of Ukraine and Myanmar. Visuals of Ukrainians fighting, as well as people fleeing from the war to Europe, dominate the digital space. However, similar images from Myanmar have not permeated global media in the same way, despite daily reports of fighting between the opposition-led paramilitary People’s Defence Forces (created after the coup) and the Tatmadaw. Though thousands of Burmese citizens are fleeing conflict zones, there are very few reports from refugee camps or internal displacement camps within the country. While this disparity in media coverage seems to indicate a degree of apathy towards far-away regions, the lack of attention to Myanmar is also due to several internal factors, such as the remote nature of parts of the conflict, the systematic persecution of local journalists by the junta, and extremely limited access to the country for foreign journalists.

Split loyalties

Myanmar pro-democracy activists portray the situation in Ukraine as being intimately linked to their own country’s political struggle. The people of Myanmar feel both sympathy and empathy toward their Ukrainian counterparts. Just a few days after the Russian invasion, people took to the streets in Yangon, Mandalay, Dawei, Kachin and Sagaing holding posters saying “Glory to Ukraine” and “Putin Must Fail”. Ukraine has also supported the people of Myanmar in the past, and although it was found to have been selling engines and aircraft parts to the Tatmadaw both before and after the coup, the country issued a statement last year in which it condemned the coup and blamed Russia for blocking action in stopping the junta’s violence.

Views on the Russian invasion mirror Myanmar’s current political divide, with the State Administration Council (SAC), as Myanmar’s junta styles itself, supporting Russia, while the opposition shadow government, the NUG, and its supporters stand fully behind the Ukrainian cause. The junta was initially silent about the invasion but later expressed its support for Moscow, placing itself at odds with most of the global community. While most countries and world leaders have condemned the military action and introduced sanctions on Russia, the SAC’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zaw Min Tun, asserts that “the Russians were working to consolidate their nation’s sovereignty”. The military’s support for Russia comes as no surprise; under coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing the Tatmadaw has cultivated closer ties with Russia, making it one of the regime’s few international friends.

Russia is a major supplier of arms and dual-use goods for the Tatmadaw, allowing the military to commit crimes against its own people. Russian companies, including multiple subsidiaries of the state-owned arms giant Rostec, as well as manufacturers of missile systems, radar, and police equipment, have provided the Tatmadaw with military equipment. Rosoboronexport, the international trade arm of Rostec, even has a representative office in Myanmar. According to leaked documents, Russian companies supply Myanmar’s military both directly and via private Burmese military brokers.

Will Russian arms slow?

The same Russian arms industry that supplies Myanmar’s military is manufacturing arms that are enabling Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The military regime is worried that the Russian supply of hardware to Myanmar could slow down as it is now needed elsewhere. Moreover, Western financial sanctions on Russia are worrying for the junta as many generals and Myanmar’s arms dealers have bank accounts in Russia. Therefore, the recent disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT might entail difficulties in communicating with banks beyond its borders.

With the current situation, Russian weapon sales to the Tatmadaw might actually help sustain the global focus on Myanmar, which, as described above, has been fading in recent months. With Russia and its aggression in the spotlight, more attention might be paid to Russia’s military business and international cooperation. The activist group Justice for Myanmar has recently identified 19 Russian companies that have been supplying weapons to the Tatmadaw and are calling for sanctions to be imposed on them. Let this be a gentle reminder that staying neutral in either case is not an option. We need to stand firmly behind both the people of Ukraine and Myanmar. International pressure must persist.