Over this past weekend, protestors gathered in Pasadena to condemn the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar, which has resulted in over 700 deaths and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of protestors. For all Americans, the tragedy in Myanmar should be seen as a cruel blow to democratic principles. And for some of us, it is especially personal.
In the fall of 1943, my father graduated from West Point and was soon shipped over to Burma (now renamed Myanmar) to join the battle against the Japanese, who had occupied the country and captured thousands of Allied soldiers. My dad, whose own father had been captured in the Philippines in 1942 and was a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, was badly wounded within a month of arriving in Burma. After recuperating, he spent the rest of the war behind enemy lines commanding a guerilla force made up largely of Burmese soldiers from the Kachin and Karen mountain peoples.
Years later, when my father became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs, he became one of several generations of diplomats who struggled to deal with the Burmese military dictatorship under General Ne Win that had overthrown the democratic government established after the war. Despite the US and international sanctions placed on Burma over the years, efforts to weaken the Burmese dictatorship’s grip on the country were largely unsuccessful.
Minority groups like the Kachin, the Karins and the Muslim Ryoingas were especially oppressed and have been fighting against the regime for the past seventy years. Finally, in 2008, the dictatorship permitted a mixed civilian/military government under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and daughter of the Burmese leader for independence, General Aung San. This fragile civilian/military coalition collapsed this year, leading to a military coup, widespread protests and killings of civilians.
The United States has a vital interest in a democratic Myanmar, if only to honor the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers and Burmese soldiers and civilians during the fight against the Japanese. One only need watch the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai, for example, to appreciate the plight of Allied prisoners of war who suffered and died as part of the Burma campaign.
As protesters in current-day Myanmar take to the streets against a brutal dictatorship, the Biden administration has taken steps to cut off funding to the leaders of the military coup, but the repression continues. Rather than just targeting the finances of the generals, the US government and American companies should, along with the international community – particularly the Asian nations — sanction the economic infrastructure of the country, which is tightly held for the benefit of the military.
For the sake of the protesters who are risking their lives on the streets of Myanmar, as well as the Allied soldiers who fought and died to liberate Burma from Japanese occupation, the United States and its international partners should do everything it can to restore democracy to the country.
Hoyt Hilsman is an author, former Congressional candidate and past member of the Board of Trustees of Pasadena City College.