The world must act now to stop the brutality of Myanmar’s junta

The army’s power grab is not only destroying democracy, it may also lead to another onslaught against the Rohingya.

Myanmar citizens living in Thailand protest against the military coup in their country in front of the UN office in Bangkok, Thailand on March 7, 2021 [Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun]

The streets of Myanmar are covered in blood – again. On March 3, the military which seized power more than one month ago dropped any pretence about allowing peaceful protests against the coup. In a brutal crackdown, at least 38 people were killed across the country, but the actual death toll is likely to be higher.

The shocking scenes brought back painful memories of the military-led repression of protests in Myanmar in 1988 and 2007, as well as military-led violence against ethnic groups like the Rohingya. The bloody scenes must be a wakeup call for the world to act now to support the protesters and ensure a return to a genuinely inclusive democracy. If the Myanmar army’s reign of terror becomes normalised, there is every chance violence will escalate.

Since the new military regime seized power on February 1, it has arrested hundreds of opposition activists, abolished the democratically elected parliament, and enacted a slew of new repressive laws. People in Myanmar have responded by organising a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that has ground much of the country to a halt, as everyone from civil servants to doctors and train drivers has refused to work in protest against the new junta.

For us Rohingya, the violence on March 3 echoes the vicious, genocidal military campaign unleashed in Rakhine State in 2017. The army and its proxies killed thousands of people and drove more than 700,000 to flee into Bangladesh. The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw as it is known, has also committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against other ethnic minorities.

Friends and family members I speak to back home in Rakhine State are terrified the coup violence can escalate and reach them as well. If the military feels enough domestic pressure, there is every risk it could try to stir up “patriotic” support for renewed military campaigns against the Rohingya or other minorities.

However, there have been glimmers of hope over the past month with the tentative thaw in relations between ethnic groups, united in their hatred of the military. I have been inundated with messages on social media from Bamar people who apologise for spewing hate speech against the Rohingya and say they now understand the Tatmadaw is the common enemy. From the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have posted their support for protesters.

This interethnic solidarity shows what Myanmar could look like if there were no military interference. We cannot forget that during the election in 2020, many people – including the Rohingya – were effectively disenfranchised. But to reverse this process, to build an equitable society where people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds enjoy equal rights, we first have to defeat the coup. And for that, we urgently need the world’s support.

This year’s coup – and the violence over the past few weeks – is the direct result of the world’s failure to act forcefully against the military in the past, not least after the campaign against the Rohingya in 2017.  Many of the commanders identified as responsible then – including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – are now in direct control of the country. It is no exaggeration to say brutality and repression is in the DNA of the Tatmadaw.

The international community must take a forceful stance against the coup and push for an immediate return to democracy. Countries must impose targeted sanctions on the military leadership and their associated businesses, along with a global arms embargo.

Crucially, efforts to hold the military to account for past abuses must be prioritised. States must add support to the investigations already happening at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice, while members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) must finally stop playing politics with people’s lives and support a full referral to the ICC. Only justice can break this cycle of violence.

Regional governments must take responsible action as well. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), this coup is a litmus test for its ability to play a constructive and democratic role in the region. Indonesia has so far led diplomatic efforts reportedly focused on making sure the Tatmadaw keeps its commitment to hold new elections within a year. While regional engagement is welcome, this is a deeply flawed plan that would essentially legitimise a military coup.

ASEAN must instead push the Tatmadaw back into the barracks and facilitate the return of the government that was democratically elected in November last year. China must also stop shielding Myanmar from scrutiny on the world stage and stop threatening to veto action against the military coup at the UNSC.

Most importantly, the world must show its unconditional support to those risking their lives and liberty for democracy across Myanmar. The CDM and protesters need to be recognised as legitimate actors and offered the help they need, whether political, economic or technical. Ultimately, the pressure the military feels from within the country will always be much more effective than anything from the outside.

As Rohingya people, we know from heart-breaking experience what being on the receiving end of the Tatmadaw’s wrath means. On March 3, at least 38 more people in Myanmar sacrificed their lives to stand up to a military that craves power above all else. Now, the world must unite and act so that these sacrifices were not in vain.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.