Editor’s Note: Zin Mar Aung is Foreign Affairs Minister of the National Unity Government of Myanmar. A former political prisoner and lawmaker, Zin Mar Aung was ousted from office when the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021. She is currently outside of her country for her safety. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
I am thinking of a man who sang of freedom. His name is Zeyar Thaw.
He released my country’s first hip-hop album in 2000. In the Myanmar of that time, this was almost a revolution. His rap touched the lives of many.
Anyone who spoke of freedom then was living dangerously. A founder of Generation Wave, a pro-democracy movement, Zeyar Thaw’s music brought him inevitably into politics.
In 2011, after a stint in prison for his political activism and just as our democratic transition began, Zeyar Thaw was released and elected to parliament.
Now he is sitting on death row. A few weeks ago, Zeyar Thaw and fellow freedom activist Ko Jimmy were sentenced to die by the military regime that stole power in February 2021. If their execution goes ahead it will be the first in the country in decades.
Their crime? The regime accuses them of being “involved in terrorist acts.” What does this mean? That they believe in freedom.
The National Unity Government (NUG) has recorded almost 3,000 people who have been killed since the illegal coup. More than one million people have been displaced from their homes, with many seeking shelter in refugee camps. Another 1.6 million more have lost their jobs. More than 19,000 homes have been destroyed, the NUG estimates.
I was elected by the people of my constituency in November 2020. I was waiting to take the oath of office and to choose our next President. But on February 1, 2021, soldiers under the command of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing surrounded the dormitories where we lived as parliamentary members. They forced each of us to choose – do we surrender to their guns or do we resist?
I had already endured 11 hard years as a political prisoner under a previous military regime between 1998 and 2009. Most of those I spent in solitary confinement. This time, I could not just watch as another despotic general forced my country into chaos. I chose resistance.
So did Zeyar Thaw and Ko Jimmy and many thousands across Myanmar. Nurses, teachers, doctors, farmers, even children – they came out into the streets against the unwanted coup.
We chose to assert our legitimacy, as elected members of parliament. We formed the National Unity Government because our freedom will not be stolen by the military’s Russian guns.
Russia continues to be a major supplier of arms, equipment and training to the military in my country, including fighter jets, helicopters and drones – weapons which have been used to bomb and kill civilians since the coup.
We have first-hand experience that Russia’s military interference is not limited to Ukraine. Russia and Myanmar are strengthening their ties and we see it as part of a larger strategic engagement with Southeast Asia – a coordinated attempt to promote autocracy and erode democracy in the region.
In turn, the military junta has sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Just last week a high level delegation from the military council attended the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum with the aim of strengthening their ties with the Russian regime.
We are living in a world where dictators support each other to retain their power. Therefore it must be clear that the struggle for democracy and freedom undertaken by the Myanmar people is a struggle that concerns everyone.
I am the Foreign Minister of the National Unity Government of Myanmar. It is my task to tell the world we will not be defeated. But what can I tell the people of Myanmar in return? What is the world saying to us?
Over a year on from the coup, no country has formally recognized the regime of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The military continues its campaign of violence – killing, burning, destroying food and crops, imprisoning people without charge. The generals stand accused of dreadful crimes against the Rohingya Muslim community and other ethnic minority people in our country.
It claims it is targeting what it calls and has designated “terrorists” and blames many of these incidents on resistance fighters, rather than its own military.
But US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s words in March 2022 need to be heard: “There is no one the Burmese military won’t come for. No one is safe from atrocities under its rule. And so more people in Burma now recognize that ending this crisis, restoring the path to democracy, starts with ensuring the human rights of all people in the country, including Rohingya.”
We have to overcome this junta, changing their calculus so that they realize that they cannot keep Myanmar forever in the chains of their fear and greed.
This is how we are going to do it.
We must deny the junta the income that funds its violence. The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed some sanctions against the regime. But much more must be done to deny the junta the foreign currency it craves.
The military continues to rely on funds from foreign companies to fund its acts of war. That flow of money, especially oil dollars, must and can be stopped.
In photos: Unrest in Myanmar
It also relies on Russia. Russian weapons are flowing into my country, and Min Aung Hlaing has visited Moscow and even been honored by a Moscow university since the coup. Russia’s veto makes it impossible for the UN Security Council to reach any common position on stopping this violence.
The example of Ukraine demonstrates how the world can use economic levers to put pressure on a regime.
Sanctions have thus far been used in Myanmar mostly against individuals – more can and must be done to go after oil revenues and the ease with which the military can use the international banking system to extract its stolen riches and import the weapons it needs to prosecute its crimes. Recently, the UK government imposed sanctions against Russian companies that are supporting the military junta: this a step in the right direction.
The murderous acts of the Myanmar military will not stop until their income fails.
Domestically, we will overcome the junta by the power of inclusion. My country has been at war with itself for many decades. Now, in opposition to the military, a new alliance between the ethnic groups of Myanmar is building a new, shared future. We are addressing the root causes of violence through our new Federal Democratic Charter – a plan for a decentralized, inclusive Myanmar. We are learning together where we need to go.
This vision has been validated by our National Union Consultative Council, the most inclusive, substantive and people-oriented process we have ever had in Myanmar. This NUCC brings together representatives of different political parties, ethnic voices and civil society to create common solutions to the challenges we face. We are learning together where we need to go.
And we are putting this inclusion into practice. Many parts of our country are already free from junta control thanks to the bravery of ethnic resistance organizations and the actions of the people in defending their own homes.
In these areas, we are working with ethnic political and civil society organizations to build local administrations led by the people’s representatives, and these new administrations are taking responsibility for health and human services.
Another element in our plan is to oppose the sham election that the junta seeks to impose on the country.
This tactic is familiar, creating elections in which only they can stand, only they can win, and then parading the result as if it matters. This traps Myanmar in endless cycles of disempowerment and violence.
Our intention is to give the people of the country real freedom, not some mockery that serves the ambitions of one general who knows the people spurned him last time they had a choice.
Internationally, we assert the right of the people of Myanmar to the government that they choose. The French Senate and other parliaments have already determined that we are the legitimate government, because we carry the authority of the 2020 election and the consent of the people.
The current ASEAN Five Point Consensus has failed. The international community needs a more effective strategy to help Myanmar – and restore the civilian government.
This must start with a more effective plan to deliver humanitarian assistance. Efforts at providing aid will fail if the donors allow the military a veto over how it is delivered — Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen do not care about the sufferings of the people. They have even in the last few days targeted food supplies so as to starve our people.
They made clear that they want full control on humanitarian aid as a way to gain legitimacy and leverage on their strategy.
We in the National Unity Government stand ready to enable humanitarian agencies to reach those most in need. Myanmar has a resilient civil society that is carrying out incredible work to serve their communities. Humanitarian aid can and should be delivered while being accountable to the Myanmar people.
Finally, we must hold Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen to account for the crimes they committed. The murdered children, the people taken and tortured in prison, the villagers forced to watch their crops destroyed – victims have a right to justice, and it shall not be denied to them.
We have seen the international reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That reaction gives me hope. We do not want to live in a world where such crimes can be committed with impunity. People believe that Ukraine can and should be free.
My country, its people and my friends – Zeyar Thaw and Ko Jimmy, about to be murdered – they are waiting for the world to believe that Myanmar can be free as well.