AP Interview: Myanmar troops said to be moving to cities

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. independent investigator on Myanmar said Wednesday that “hardened” troops are being deployed from a number of border areas in northern Rakhine state to some cities, raising the possibility of bloodshed and “a tragic loss of life.”

Special rapporteur Tom Andrews said in an interview with The Associated Press that the initial restraint of police dealing with “robust citizen opposition to the coup” has moved on in some instances to use of rubber bullets, real ammunition being fired and use of water cannons.

He said he can now confirm “from a few sources” that some troops are moving to some populated cities from Rakhine, where the government is still fighting a Rohingya insurgency after a 2017 military crackdown that led 700,000 members of the Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh.

“The people of Myanmar understand what the military and these generals are capable of, and so the presence of military and of troops, the escalation of a military presence, and where these troops are coming from makes me very, very nervous,” Andrews said.

He said he is inspired by the “tenacity” and “courage” of the “remarkable people of Myanmar,” especially young people, who know what the military have done in the past and are still protesting and engaging in civil disobedience to pressure the military to reverse the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Tensions are extremely high,” Andrews said. “The population of Myanmar has responded vigorously, and they want to see action.”

He said three-quarters of civil servants are on strike, all private banks are closed, and the people have weakened the economy significantly from the inside.

Andrews said they are looking for the international community to act.

The former Democratic congressman from Maine, who served as general secretary of “The Nobel Peace Laureate Campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi and the People of Burma” in 2001, said the most important thing the international community can do now “is focused, targeted, tough economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.”

“I have confidence that there is great potential with those steps, by virtue of the fact that they have been successful in the past,” he said. “The incremental steps that have been taken in the direction of democracy before the coup took place were a direct result o economic pressure, sanctions being applied on the generals.”

Andrews said a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the generals and an arms embargo on Myanmar “”would be terrific,” but even if that’s not possible there are many other options including coordinating economic sanctions which has a much greater impact.

The Biden administration announced a first round of U.S. sanctions last week and promised more depending on what happens, he said.

Andrews said neighbor and ally China, which has a great deal of leverage on Myanmar, can play a very important role.

“Behind the scenes pressure from China would be very, very useful,” he said. “They’ve made some very helpful public statements, so I’m hopeful that they are going to play and continue to play a constructive role in respect to Myanmar.”

Andrews, who was also a consultant for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Euro-Burma Network, said he has not been able to come up with a good reason explaining why the generals carried out the coup.

Asked about the new charges against Suu Kyi, who remains in detention, he said, “every time the regime opens its mouth it just demonstrates just how isolated and insulated they are, because these charges and statements are just completely ridiculous.”

He said the military, known as the Tatmadaw, “don’t even pretend now to have a fair trial,” pointing to the secretive hearing for Suu Kyi which her lawyer wasn’t informed about until it was taking place.

“You have 8.6 million voting irregularities, supposedly, unsubstantiated, and then you come up with possession of walkie-talkies as the charge, and now additional charges being piled on top of it,” Andrews said. “One of the issues may be the security detail had the walkie-talkies, and they were provided by the military” so maybe that’s why they needed to come up with other charges.

“Look, there’s no credibility,” he said. “This is a sham trial. There’s nothing to this except a raw grab for power.”

Andrews said what’s extraordinary is that the military had enormous economic power that was guaranteed, very little accountability, control over significant branches of the government, and 25 percent of seats in Parliament which meant the constitution the generals wrote could never be changed.

“What’s amazing is that they violated the laws and the rules that they themselves set,” he said. “So you have a situation here in which they’ve overturned their own power structure that they created, their own constitution, their own rules of engagement.”

Andrews said he knows “this is a critical moment” but he doesn’t know how long it will take to resolve the crisis.

“I think that we now have an opportunity to see a resolution to this that avoids bloodshed if the Tatmadaw appreciates the fact that this is not going to go away — that they are not going to be able to turn the clock back to where it was,” he said. “And if the international community is clear with its resolve, and it is committed to increasing the pressure as opposed to decreasing the pressure or turning its attention away, then I think that we could see a resolution.”

“But the Tatmadaw has to appreciate and understand just how firmly committed the people of this country are to resisting what the Tatmadaw is trying to do and opposing and overturning this coup. The sooner they do this then the sooner we are to a resolution,” Andrews said..