In the past week, the world has rightly united behind Ukraine as it faces a horrifying invasion from Russia. In just the first few days of the invasion, over 2,000 civilians have died as bombs fall indiscriminately over hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. Our horror at a war in Europe has been met with a degree of unity and resolve in the West that is remarkable for our divided age.
Western nations quickly united to levy a dizzying array of sanctions against Russia, going so far as to even sanction the personal assets of Putin himself. These sanctions will surely come at great cost to a Europe that is still heavily reliant on trade with Russia. FDR’s ‘arsenal of democracy’ is being revived as weapons from the West pour into Ukraine to defend their democratic government.
But the world cannot afford for the West’s unity, resolve, and sanctions to only be leveraged when the victims are European or White. Among countries striving for freedom and self-determination, Ukraine is not Russia’s first victim. Putin’s war on Ukraine is only made possible because he bore no consequences or cost for his decades-long assault on Syrian civilians and hospitals. In that conflict, Russian pilots systematically targeted hospitals to crush resistance. The world yawned and turned away.
For the past year, the same weapons being used to bomb hospitals in Ukraine and kill innocent civilians there, have been used in Myanmar to the same effect. In February 2021, the Burmese military overthrew the democratically-elected government of Myanmar. Prior to the coup, Myanmar had been in the early stages of a flowering democracy since 2011, after decades of repressive military rule. Protests quickly erupted throughout the country, propelled by a generation that grew up only knowing freedom. These peaceful protests quickly turned violent as the military junta levelled their weapons against those demonstrating for democracy. A year later, over a thousand civilians have been killed and hundreds of attacks against healthcare have been documented. In the year following the coup, Russia has continued to supply fighter jets to the Myanmar military government. Like in Syria, these jets have been used to target civilian populations and bomb hospitals in Myanmar.
The bravery demonstrated by protesters in Myanmar is no less than the bravery of Ukrainians now inspiring the whole world. I know because for the past year, their bravery has inspired me. Since the coup began, I’ve been working with Insecurity Insight to document attacks on healthcare in Myanmar. On the frontlines of the fight for democracy in Myanmar are doctors and healthcare workers. For them, democracy and healthcare are intimately intertwined. This makes them a potent target for the military regime. “Don’t give up, and keep fighting”, wrote Thiha Thin Thun, a young doctor in his will. “Never give up until we get democracy”. He was shot and killed days later while tending to injured protesters.
I have not worked in this field long enough to become jaded and overwhelmed with cynicism, as many human rights advocates do. “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State snarled at a reporter. Yes, it turns out—Americans, and the world do care about Ukraine. The solidarity shown by the world has been breathtaking and has reaffirmed my idealism. But it’s time for the world to demonstrate that we care about non-Europeans striving for democracy and for freedom too.
In the early days of the coup in Myanmar, protesters held signs appealing to the UN and to the US for their intervention, begging for the world’s attention. But it seems as if the world did not have any attention to give. The junta’s war on civilians is reliant on the rest of the world not caring. Impunity for Syria and Russia in their decades-long attack on civilians has only emboldened repressive regimes across the world. The EU and US did impose an impressive array of sanctions against the military government, but there is more we can do. Key democratic nations such as Australia, South Korea, and Japan that were quick to impose sanctions on Russia have failed to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s military government. A global arms embargo must be enacted to stop the flow of weapons that are harming civilians. We must work directly with the National Unity Government (NUG), the pro-democracy opposition government of Myanmar, to supply humanitarian aid. Likewise, U.N. members states can recognize the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. If this is done, the NUG can delegate authority to the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Myanmar—something that was done within days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We must levy the full force of our diplomatic and military might to bring the military junta to the negotiating table—even if it means supplying the NUG with arms.
In my South Carolina hometown, there was recently a rally in support of Ukraine that drew hundreds of protesters. In the decade that barrel bombs fell on Syrian hospitals and hundreds of thousands of civilians died, there was never a protest in support of Syrians being killed by Russia’s bombs. Likewise, in the year since the coup there has never been a protest in support of Burmese protesters. A Ukrainian flag flies on our city hall and flags have popped up on houses around our small town, a world away from the war. “The lack of outrage from the global medical community is disheartening”, wrote the official Twitter account of the protest movement. “Perhaps they have no idea”. This is perhaps a more comforting thought than that we just don’t care.
The fight being fought in Ukraine is the same fight that is now being fought in Myanmar. It’s the fight that was fought in Syria, before the world turned their back. It’s the fight being fought by protesters in Sudan now. It’s something that Americans and Europeans are very familiar with — the struggle for self-determination, for democracy, for freedom.
It’s clear now that the fight of our age will be one of democracy against autocracy. Outside of the West, it’s one that’s been going on for far too long while our attention faltered. It’s not surprising that Myanmar’s military junta has expressed support for the invasion of Ukraine.
A world away from the conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian flags have now started to appear at pro-democracy protests in Myanmar.
[Photo by MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye]
Brian Elmore is an analyst for Insecurity Insight, where he researches attacks on health-care in conflict. He is also a medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.