The soft manner and almost-permanent smile of Aung Myo Min – the minister of human rights for the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar – are misleading. The legendary human rights activist occupies a key place in what is considered to be the sole legitimate cabinet of his country. The government-in-exile was formed after a military junta took power in Myanmar – once known as Burma – on February 1, 2021.
Since he assumed office, Aung Myo Min has spent a good part of his time traveling the world, denouncing the violent repression of the regime in Myanmar, which stormed to power after the 2020 general elections, trampling on the results. Myo Ming requests that the international community place sanctions on the illegitimate rulers in Naypyidaw, his country’s capital.
In an interview with EL PAÍS, he explains that the generals don’t only limit themselves to repressing democratically-elected leaders, such as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Myo Min assures this newspaper that the junta also attacks ordinary citizens, who are resisting being placed under the military boot once again. He is concerned that the international community – more focused on the war in Ukraine – has forgotten what is happening in Myanmar, which was previously under military rule from 1962 until 2011.
The 57-year-old human rights activist – the first openly-gay minister in the government, who has spent his entire adult life fighting for democracy in his country – regrets that many don’t seem to notice the dangerous common thread that unites the two conflicts: the support that Moscow extends to the junta in Myanmar.
“The Myanmar issue is related to the EU and European countries, because the Myanmar military has a strong relationship with Moscow. Russia isn’t only invading Ukraine… it’s also supporting the military regime in Myanmar, providing it with fighter planes and technology to kill its own people,” he explains, during a visit to Brussels to speak with EU representatives and request tougher sanctions against the military. The minister also demands that Brussels consider an embargo on fuel meant for combat aircraft, which the junta uses against the population.
The figures of military repression, he maintains, say it all: in the two-and-a-half years that have passed since the latest junta – led by General Min Aung Hlaing – took power, the number of people murdered by the military regime amounts to 8,000. There are also, he lists, another 60,000 detainees, some 90,000 homes that have been bulldozed or burned, as well as two million new internally displaced people.
“We’re talking about all types of violence against civilians committed by the military: murders, burning of villages and massive attacks against civilian communities through airstrikes. We call it a terror campaign from the sky. That’s the current situation,” he notes, summarizing (without a smile) the situation in his country. The coup plotters took power in Myanmar in February of 2021 under false pretenses, claiming that electoral fraud had taken place in the presidential elections which were held three months before the coup. During those elections, Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League (NLD) won a second term.
In August, the military junta announced a partial pardon for 78-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, with the politician’s official prison sentence being reduced from 33 years to 21 years. Pure “propaganda,” scoffs Myo Min, who warns that no one knows exactly where the NLD leader is at the moment, nor what her state of health is.
“If the military junta was sincere and had good intentions, she wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place, because she’s not a criminal. She’s the democratic leader and the idol of the people, a symbol of democracy in the country. Reducing her sentence isn’t a gesture of goodwill,” he insists. He’s very concerned about the well-being of the Nobel laureate. “No one knows where she is… not even her son, who has made an international appeal [to receive knowledge] about her whereabouts.”
The announcement of the sentence being commuted was accompanied by a postponement of the promised elections. Elections that, in any case, Myo Min warns, would have lacked legitimacy and democratic guarantees, which is why the NUG never intended to participate. “The army has no legitimacy to organize elections, because they’re not the executive body of the country. The people don’t trust them, they hate them, because they’re common criminals who are committing all kinds of crimes against civilians. For us they’re like terrorists. So, how are we supposed to trust them? How can we participate in an election organized by a terrorist group?”
Although they have received a lot of “moral support” from the international community, full recognition of the NUG is still pending. After Myo Min’s first visit to Brussels at the end of last year, the European Parliament approved a resolution recognizing the exiled cabinet members as “the only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar.” Similarly, a UN report on the human rights situation in Myanmar – released at the beginning of 2023 – also recognized the government-in-exile. Josep Borrell – vice president of the European Commision – notes that many EU member states have a formal position of “recognizing states, not governments.” But, at the same time, he emphasizes that the NUG is considered to be “one of the key actors in determining the future” of Myanmar.
Although Myo Min would like a clearer position, his main objective during his visit to Brussels this week is to achieve “more action” from the EU with respect to his country. He especially wants democratic countries to impose “stronger economic sanctions” against the military and its allies. Above all, the opposition to the junta wants the EU to impose an embargo on fuel for combat aircraft and the companies that sell it – as the United States has already done – since the NUG affirms that the military is attacking civilians from the air, in parts of the country where it hasn’t consolidated its rule. Myo Min also emphasizes that “stronger legal action” should be taken against members of the regime.
“The situation in Myanmar doesn’t only pose a threat to the ASEAN region – it’s a challenge to international accountability, by a junta that commits all types of crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he maintains. He is appealing to the EU to “use all of its influence” to pressure the UN Security Council to demand greater accountability from the military. The NUG is also considering taking the case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. And the way to do it is [through] immediate actions, because, if the [generals stay in power], they will continue to kill more people.”
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