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Mandalay University graduates bow their heads as they hold posters of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, a 19-year-old woman fatally shot by police on February 9 in Naypyidaw, during an anti-coup protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, February 14, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo

Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate daily against the military junta in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Many Burmese people have expressed their opposition to the military's takeover of the democratically elected government – but they need the support of the outside world. Other countries and institutions should take concrete measures that can have an impact on the military. Targeted sanctions against the military's economic interests could be crucial. We represent nine Swedish organizations with operations in Burma that are urging this action two weeks after the military coup.

In recent weeks, we have seen news from Burma of events that we hoped belonged to the past. Once again, the military has seized power in the country and ousted the elected government. But as so many times before, thousands of people have taken to the streets, risking their safety. They show that they refuse to return to military dictatorship.

The military carried out its coup on February 1, the same day that the newly elected parliament was to take office. The new junta declared a one-year state of emergency, dismissed elected politicians, and took control of the country. More than 500 activists, journalists and politicians have been arrested so far, including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has already been put on trial, along with President Win Myint. Instead, the country is ruled by Commander-in-Chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the man that a UN-backed Fact-Finding Mission considers responsible for the “ethnic cleansing” campaign and atrocity crimes against the Rohingya minority.

As soon as the military seized power, people began to openly show their resistance. The protests grew rapidly and there are now daily mass demonstrations throughout the country. In the country's largest city, Yangon, more than 100,000 people are said to have joined the largest popular demonstrations since the days of the previous military junta.

There is great power and determination in the demonstrations that are now taking place. For 10 years, the population has experienced life in a more open society. The economy has grown, and the standard of living has improved. The young Burmese generation is also more connected to the outside world. The National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years over a 21-year period, stood and won two elections by a large majority since 2015. Her government has been a great disappointment to many, not least to the country's ethnic minorities, but a return to military dictatorship threatens these human rights gains. For Burma’s young people in particular, this is unthinkable.

The protests have been largely peaceful and well-organized, but police have responded with excessive force and at times unnecessary lethal force. Teargas, water cannons, and rubber bullets have been used against protesters, and, in some instances, live ammunition. In recent days, soldiers and military vehicles have been seen on the streets of cities around the country. There is a constant concern that the junta’s response may become even more brutal as crackdowns on protesters escalate. The military killed thousands of protesters during the 1988 uprisings.

The outside world should act quickly to put pressure on the military. Concrete measures are needed. The Burmese military has extensive economic interests. They control several conglomerates, which generate large revenues in addition to the formal defense budget. By targeting these, the outside world can put pressure on the junta.

Concerned governments should impose targeted sanctions against the Burmese military leadership and military-owned enterprises, in line with the recommendations of the UN Fact-Finding Mission for Burma. The United States has taken the lead and has already announced sanctions against 10 individuals responsible for the coup and three companies owned by the military. But the European Union has yet to take concrete measures in response to the generals’ ruthless crackdown. The Swedish government needs to push for immediate EU action against Burma’s military, its generals and their companies.  

The time to act is now. Burma cannot be left to slip back into the military's iron grip. The outside world should support those standing up to the military and seeking a return to a democratically elected government.

Abul Kalam, Swedish Rohingya Association

Anders L. Pettersson, Civil Rights Defenders

Anna Sundström, Olof Palme International Center

Eva Ekelund, Act Church of Sweden

Kristina Jelmin, Svenska Burmakommittén

Lina Arvidsson, LSU – The National Council of Swedish Youth Organisations

Måns Molander, Human Rights Watch

Ulrika Strand, The Swedish Foundation for Human Rights

Anna Widoff, HeSheWe

A Swedish version of this article has been published by Sydsvenskan.

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