The last time Burma’s military overthrew an elected government, Tom Andrews was finding his way in Washington as a newly elected congressman from Maine.
“I got to go to Congress when I won, and they went to prison,” he told Fox News.
Thirty-one years later, Burma’s army has seized control again, and Andrews is a special rapporteur with the United Nations, investigating human rights in Burma. He watched, astonished, as the military swept in and arrested hundreds of lawmakers on Feb. 1.
“I have to admit, it was a surprise to me,” Andrews says. “We saw the warning signs. There was lots of concern about what might happen. But I was advising people, look, I really don’t think it’s going to happen because the military wrote the constitution. They negotiated themselves an extremely good deal. They have enormous wealth and power.
“So, with all of those advantages, I said, look, it just doesn’t seem to make sense that the military would be giving all that up, risking a coup, no matter what they thought might come out of it.”
Andrews believes the army is now receiving a surprise of its own, in the form of large daily protests. From bodybuilders to ballroom dancers, tens of thousands of people have hit the streets to condemn the takeover, attending colorful and largely peaceful rallies featuring singing, chanting and three-finger salutes of defiance adopted from the “Hunger Games” novels.
“I have never seen [Burma] so unified,” Andrews says. “I’ve seen monks walking with Muslim clerics. I’ve seen construction workers walking with bankers, walking with teachers and health care workers. It’s really remarkable.”
But Burma has a history of bloody military putdowns, and Andrews worries about what comes next. Last week, a 19-year-old woman was shot in the head, seemingly struck by a stray police bullet. Doctors say she is not expected to survive.
“My fear is violence: that we will see indiscriminate shooting into crowds; that we’ll see significant numbers of people die at the hands of the military. That’s what I’m terrified of because we’ve seen it happen in the past.”
A former Democratic lawmaker, Andrews welcomes President Biden’s decision to impose sanctions on Burmese military leaders but says more penalties should follow: “We need to follow that up now with additional steps, both diplomatic and – as it becomes clearer and clearer this is necessary – increased, tougher economic sanctions.”
Burmese military leaders were already under U.S. sanctions for a deadly crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims, described by the State Department as “ethnic cleansing” in 2018. Among the lawmakers now under arrest is the country’s leader since 2015, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi – whose own reputation has been tarnished in recent years over the Rohingya crackdown.
The junta says its takeover – which has brought an abrupt halt to Burma’s fragile process toward democracy – was necessary because Suu Kyi’s government had failed to investigate fraud claims in elections her party won in a landslide; Burma’s election commission has dismissed those allegations.
Despite his fears of bloodshed, Andrews believes Burma’s protesters are determined to do all they can to win back freedom and democracy.
“They are showing tenacity, they’re showing creativity, and they’re showing a great deal of courage in standing up to this military regime.
“If I were a betting person, I’d be betting on that.”