Opinion: What a hip-hop star on death row has to do with dictators everywhere

In 2000, he released my country’s first hip-hop album. In what was then Myanmar, this was almost a revolution. His rap touched the lives of many.

In 2011, after a period in prison for his political activism and just as our democratic transition began, Zeyar Thaw was released and elected to parliament.

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 registered nearly 3,000 people since the illegal coup. More than a million people have been displaced from their homes, and many have sought shelter in refugee camps. Another 1.6 million others have lost their jobs. More than 19,000 houses have been destroyed, the NUG estimates.
I was elected by the people in my constituency in November 2020. I waited for the oath of office and the election of our next president. But on February 1, 2021, soldiers commanded by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing surrounded the dormitories where we lived as MPs. They forced us all to choose — do we surrender to their weapons 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 them I spent in solitary confinement. This time I couldn’t watch another despotic general throw 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 took to the streets against the unwanted coup.

We have chosen to assert our legitimacy as elected MPs. We have formed the government of national unity because our freedom will not be stolen by the Russian cannons of the army.

Russia continues to be a major supplier of weapons, equipment and training to the military in my country, including fighter jets, helicopters and drones – weapons that have been used to bomb and kill civilians since the coup.

We have experienced firsthand 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 effort 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 International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg with the aim of strengthening their ties with the Russian regime.
Commander in Chief of Myanmar, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing at Armed Forces Day in Myanmar Naypyidaw on March 27, 2021.

We live in a world where dictators support each other to maintain their power. Therefore, it must be clear that the struggle for democracy and freedom waged by the Myanmar people is a struggle that affects everyone.

I am the Foreign Minister of the Government of National Unity of Myanmar. My job is to tell the world that we will not be defeated. But what can I say to the people of Myanmar in return? What does the world say to us?

More than a year after the coup, no country has formally recognized General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. The military continues its violent campaign: killing, burning, destroying food and crops, incarcerating people without charge. The generals are accused of terrible crimes against the Rohingya Muslim community and other ethnic minorities in our country.

It claims to target what it calls and has called “terrorists” and blames many of these incidents on resistance fighters, rather than its own military.

Military hardware is on display during the 77th day of the Armed Forces Parade in Naypyidaw on March 27.
But the words of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in March 2022 must be heard: “There is no one for whom the Burmese army will not come. No one is safe from atrocities under his rule. And so more people in Burma now recognize that end.” This crisis, which restores the road to democracy, begins with ensuring the human rights of all people in the country, including the Rohingya.”

We must overcome this junta and change their calculation so that they realize that they cannot keep Myanmar in the chains of their fear and greed forever.

This is how we’re going to do it.

We must deny the junta the income that finances its violence. The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed some sanctions against the regime. But much more needs to be done to deny the junta the foreign currency it craves.

The military continues to rely on funds from foreign companies to finance its acts of war. That flow of money, especially petrodollars, must and can be stopped.

It also depends on Russia. Russian weapons are pouring into my country and Min Aung Hlaing has visited Moscow and has even been honored by a university in Moscow since the coup. The Russian veto makes it impossible for the UN Security Council to reach a common position on stopping this violence.

The example of Ukraine shows how the world can use economic levers to put pressure on a regime.

So far, in Myanmar, sanctions have mostly been applied to individuals — more can and should be done to address oil revenues and the ease with which the military can use the international banking system to mine its stolen wealth and import the weapons that it needs to prosecute its crimes. Recently, the British government has imposed sanctions on Russian companies that support the military junta: a step in the right direction.

The murderous acts of the Myanmar military will not stop until their income falls.

Domestically, we will overcome the junta through the power of inclusion. My country has been at war with itself for decades. Now, unlike the military, a new alliance between Myanmar’s ethnic groups is building a new, shared future. We are tackling the root causes of violence through our new Federal Democratic Charter – a plan for a decentralized, inclusive Myanmar. We learn together where to go.

This vision has been validated by our National Union Consultative Council, the most inclusive, content and people-centric process we have ever had in Myanmar. This NUCC brings together representatives from different political parties, ethnic voices and civil society to create common solutions to the challenges we face. We learn together where to go.

And we put that inclusion into practice. Many parts of our country are already free from junta control thanks to the courage of ethnic resistance organizations and the actions of the people in defending their own homes.

In these areas, we work with ethno-political and civil society organizations to build local administrations led by the people’s representatives, and these new administrations take responsibility for health and human services.

Another element in our plan is to oppose the mock elections that the junta wants to impose on the country.

This tactic is well known, creating elections where only they can stand, only they can win, and then parade the results as if it matters. This traps Myanmar in endless cycles of powerlessness and violence.

Karen refugees fleeing fighting between Myanmar's military and insurgents at a temporary camp on the Myanmar side of the Moei River that forms the border with Thailand.
Our intention is to give the people of the country real freedom, not some mockery that serves the aspirations of a general who knows the people rejected him the last time they had a choice.
Internationally, we assert the right of the people of Myanmar to the government they elect. The French Senate and other parliaments have already established that we are the legitimate government because we carry the authority of the 2020 elections 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 civilian rule.
This must start with a more effective plan to deliver humanitarian aid. Attempts to deliver aid will fail if the donors veto the military over how it is delivered — Min Aung Hlaing and his cronies don’t care about the suffering of the people. They have even targeted food supplies in recent days to starve our people.
The leaders of the coup in Myanmar tried to crush the resistance.  But a year later it's stronger than ever

They made it clear that they want full control over humanitarian aid as a way to gain legitimacy and influence their strategy.

We at the National Unity Government stand ready to empower humanitarian organizations to reach those most in need. Myanmar has a resilient civil society that does an incredible job serving their communities. Humanitarian aid can and should be delivered accountable to the Myanmar people.

Finally, we must hold Min Aung Hlaing and his accomplices to account for the crimes they have committed. The murdered children, the people imprisoned and tortured, the villagers forced to watch their crops being destroyed – victims have a right to justice and it will not be denied them.

We have seen the international response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That response 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, the people and my friends — Zeyar Thaw and Ko Jimmy, are about to be killed — they’re waiting for the world to believe that Myanmar can be free too.

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