* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Since the coup in Myanmar on February 1, scores of lawmakers have gone into hiding, while many others have been detained
By Myat Thida Htun, Member of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw
In February this year, I was waiting to be sworn in as a parliamentarian in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw when the military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power and threw my country into chaos. Since then, I have lived on the run to escape arrest, torture, or worse. I have fled through jungles from safe house to safe house, all while trying to serve Myanmar’s people as part of the democratic resistance.
I am far from alone. Since the coup on 1 February, scores of lawmakers have gone into hiding, while many others have been detained. Our democracy has been decimated, with national and regional parliaments suspended, and hundreds of MPs stripped of their seats. Meanwhile, security forces have killed more than 1,200 people, disappeared hundreds, and forced tens of thousands to flee from their homes – human rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity.
The coup in Myanmar did not happen in isolation, however, but is just the most dramatic example of a wider democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia. As a new briefing by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights highlights, lawmakers were under attack across the region in 2021.
As a lawmaker in hiding in Myanmar, life has been a literal struggle for survival. After the coup, I returned to my native Mon State, but was soon warned that the junta was looking to arrest me. I saw no option but to flee, spending weeks in jungle areas with little or no food, water or electricity, while military drones circled the skies overhead. I eventually reached relative safety in an area controlled by an ethnic armed group where I remain today.
I still move to a new safe house every few days to avoid arrest, and have cut off contact with all family and friends back home. The junta has targeted the political opposition mercilessly, including by torturing and interrogating family members for information - I do not want to expose anyone to that risk.
At least 90 lawmakers remain in detention today, while many other political activists have been jailed on bogus charges or “disappeared”. Those imprisoned face serious risk of torture, which has long been rife in Myanmar. People “lucky” enough to be released since the coup have described witnessing mock executions, beatings, and sexual violence.
Another real concern is the lack of medical care, in particular as the junta has essentially let the pandemic run amok since seizing power. The UN estimates that at least 50 people have died in detention since the coup. One of them was a fellow parliamentarian, the elderly Nyunt Shwe who passed away from COVID-19 in August after he had been held in an overcrowded prison without adequate care for more than six months.
Despite the repression, we continue our resistance. I have joined hundreds of other MPs to form the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), vowing to carry out our mandates. We have also set up a National Unity Government (NUG) composed of opposition politicians, ethnic representatives and civil society. Together we are the true representatives of the Myanmar people, having been elected in a vote that international experts said reflected the will of the people.
The CRPH has brought ethnic groups together under one umbrella and supported a country-wide civil disobedience movement that has prevented the junta from governing. We have in effect become a parallel state, providing much-needed services where the military fails to. While soldiers were busy killing and jailing medical workers as COVID-19 surged, for example, the CRPH and partners have stepped in to provide care.
This speaks to the importance of committed lawmakers in an elected democracy and of institutions that support them. Parliamentarians play a key role in promoting human rights and holding power to account. When democracy returns to Myanmar – as I am convinced it will - establishing a new parliament free from military interference must be a top priority.
This assault on democracy in Myanmar must stop. The world must do much more to end the military’s reign of terror, including through an arms embargo and targeted sanctions. Other countries, in particular ASEAN Member States, must start publicly treating the CRPH and NUG as the true representatives of Myanmar’s people, thereby denying the junta the legitimacy it craves.
The coup in Myanmar and its devastating aftermath has shown how much people in Myanmar and our wider region yearn for real democracy and human rights. They will need lawmakers who can work without fear of reprisals to make this a reality.