EVEN as the world weeps for Ukraine, there is another tragic story unfolding closer to home. Myanmar has been overshadowed by the conflict in Eastern Europe, and the developments in that Southeast Asian country should also raise concern here.
Of course, Ukraine attracts greater attention because it has more impact. The implications of its invasion are global with Filipinos immediately feeling the pinch of sky-high fuel prices.
Meanwhile, Myanmar has been mired in political strife for more than a year. The military there staged a coup d'état on Feb. 1, 2021, after the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide in the general elections. The military, which had backed the opposition, complained about widespread fraud, but that was disputed by Myanmar's election commission.
Ms. Suu Kyi was detained on seemingly trumped-up charges, including illegal possession of walkie-talkies. And the 76-year-old Nobel Laureate and so-called icon of democracy was sentenced to six years in jail. Then, political protests turned deadly, with riot police firing on unarmed civilians. Also, various ethnic groups resumed their armed opposition to the military government that had again seized control.
The political turmoil has affected Philippine companies that had invested in Myanmar. Among them is Ayala Corp., which invested $237.5 million in a conglomerate in Myanmar with interests in banking, property, tourism, automotive, health care and power.
As of 2016, other Philippine companies that had also invested in Myanmar included Liwayway, Unilab, Splash, Asia Brewery, Manila Water and Comworks. They were reportedly doing well in Myanmar, at least until the past year.
The corporate setback, of course, pales in comparison with the human tragedy happening in Myanmar. More than 1,500 have been killed since last year, according to the BBC, citing the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. That BBC story also mentioned Acled, or the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a US-based organization that compiles figures based on news reports and publications of human rights groups. The group claims that at least 12,000 have died in Myanmar to date.
There is worse.
Even before the coup, the Rohingya have been the target of genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar military. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in that mainly Buddhist country and their government's refusal to recognize them makes them stateless.
Suu Kyi was criticized for not doing more to protect the Muslim minority when she was the country's de facto leader. And with her in detention, the ethnic cleansing now goes on unchecked.
Recently, on the anniversary of military takeover, the United States and the United Kingdom announced new sanctions against the Myanmar military. According to an Agence France-Presse story, British Minister for Asia Amanda Milling said: “The Myanmar military has shown no signs of stopping its brutal campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar, who continue in their fight for democracy.” She added: “These sanctions target those who are instrumental in supplying the military with weapons that facilitate these abuses across the country.”
In 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte said that the Philippines would welcome Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. The Philippines has a long history of welcoming refugees, including Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and later the Jewish persecution in Europe.
The problem for the Rohingya, however, is getting to the Philippines. Many have perished while crossing the border to Bangladesh, which already has about 900,000 Rohingya refugees.
The refugee crisis in Eastern Europe is certainly worse based on numbers, with more than 3.8 million Ukrainians seeking refuge in neighboring countries. But at least they have the world's attention and sympathy. At least the Ukrainians are getting some arms to help them fight off the Russian invaders. And Ukraine has some 20,000 foreign volunteers to beef up its defense forces.
The Rohingya and others in Myanmar fighting for political rights and for mere survival have much less than the poor and embattled Ukrainians. Of course, the suffering of people in one corner of the world is no less than that of others elsewhere.
The point is that, lest we forget, Myanmar also deserves attention.
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