Women carry burning torches as they march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on July 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

The executions of four well-known democracy activists by the military junta in Myanmar in June has angered and incensed those who cherish freedom and justice all over the world. The four, Phyo Zeyar Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, have become immortalized in the noble struggle of the people of Myanmar for their dignity and humanity.

By killing these peaceful dissidents, the junta has in fact signed its own death warrant.

Since staging a coup against the democratically elected government of the day, that of the National League for Democracy (NLD), on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, has become increasingly brutal and desperate. It has killed more than 1,500 protesters, including at least 44 children. It has detained thousands more. Torture of detainees is rife and rampant. Scores of people have disappeared.

Both the president, Min Nyint, and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi are in jail. So are the ministers, deputy ministers and NLD members of parliament. Some civil servants, leaders of civil society, a number of Buddhist monks and scores of men and women from all walks of life are also behind bars.

The media are shackled. The judiciary is totally subservient to the junta. The universities are mere appendages of the bureaucracy. All formal religious institutions are under the dictates of the military elite.

Military dominance

Though Myanmar in the course of the last 60 years has known brief periods of freedom, it has been in the grip of the military most of the time since General Ne Win conducted a coup against the civilian government in 1962. It is against this backdrop that one should view the February 2021 coup and the recent execution of dissenters.

Given this tragic history of suppression and oppression, it is remarkable that the flame of dissent has been kept alive for so long in Myanmar.

Ever since the events of February 1, 2021, a lot of ordinary people have openly defied the junta through actions such as the striking of pots and pans in unison – a symbolic attempt to drive away evil – and organizing a silent strike on the first anniversary of the coup this year, which saw the closing of shops and the halting of all outdoor activities as men, women and children stayed at home.

There have also been signs of a civil-disobedience movement developing in protest against the excesses of the junta.

Even before the 2021 coup, when the military was already flexing its muscles, it is remarkable that millions of voters came out to support the NLD in the November 2020 election, handing it a huge victory, 396 out of 476 parliamentary seats, while the military-backed party won only 33 seats. That was a dramatic expression of dissent within an environment where military dominance was overwhelmingly evident.

Indeed, it is obvious that it was because of the NLD’s performance that the military elite conducted the coup a few months later. They knew that the people had repudiated their rule, had rejected their ruthless power.

Alone in their courage

When people have demonstrated so much courage, shown such tenacity in the face of great odds, how should we as their neighbors respond? Some ASEAN governments have expressed unhappiness over the junta’s use of force against peaceful protesters, but on the whole the regional grouping has refrained from advocating any punitive measures against the junta.

The time has come for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to change its stand. As a collective it should now state explicitly that executing dissidents is the ultimate act of violence and that it expects the regime to desist from such behavior immediately. If it does not, then ASEAN will suspend all military, economic and educational ties with Myanmar.

The same message should go out to all other countries that currently interact with Myanmar in these and other related spheres. Within Asia, China and India are cases in point.

It will not be easy for a number of ASEAN states or for China and India to act against Myanmar. They have often argued that such action would only drive a wedge between them and the ruling elite in Myanmar and it would become even more difficult to persuade the junta to change its behavior.

They forget that their present “soft” stance has only encouraged the military elite to become harsher and even more callous and cruel.

In this situation, civil-society groups in the ASEAN countries and elsewhere in Asia and citizens in general in the continent should pressure their governments to act on the basis of fundamental moral principles. To do otherwise is not only a betrayal of their conscience but also a repudiation of those sacred values that lie at the heart of the illustrious civilizations that constitute our heritage.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.