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For weeks, the anti-coup protests in Myanmar drew comparisons with Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Both movements, largely leaderless, are filled with passionate young people seeking greater freedom, real democracy, and a better future. Both faced a Goliath-sized enemy—in Myanmar, the authoritarian military junta, and in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party.
The protesters in Myanmar even took tips from their counterparts in Hong Kong: They donned hard hats, created makeshift shields, and used Twitter hashtags to publicize the movement.
Yet since the end of February, both movements have faced major government crackdowns. In Myanmar, the military violently suppressed protesters, killing more than 120 people by March 14. In Hong Kong, Beijing-backed authorities crushed the territory’s remaining vestiges of democracy, detaining 47 pro-democracy figures and approving changes that would remove the public’s ability to freely elect lawmakers.
While protesters seem to be losing their battle in both places, they face starkly different styles of suppression—one bloody, and one legislative.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, cell phone footage showed soldiers shooting rifles into a crowd of protesters. Young protesters carrying a bloodied, limp body as gunshots rang out in the background. Other video showed the harrowing moment a soldier tried to shoot a civilian filming from his apartment window.
One widely shared photo showed a 19-year-old protester wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Everything will be OK” while demonstrating on the streets of Mandalay. The next photo showed her lying on a stretcher, killed by a shot to the head.
At night, the authorities switched off the internet while troops roamed the streets, firing into the air and raiding the homes of protest leaders and political opponents. The military has arrested nearly 1,800 people since the Feb. 1 coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
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One year ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, human rights groups and lawmakers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada are calling for a boycott of the games over China’s human rights abuses.
Last week, parliaments in the Netherlands and Canada voted to declare the Chinese government’s treatment of minority Uyghurs constitutes genocide. Canadian lawmakers also passed an amendment calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Winter Games from Beijing if the genocide continues.
Chinese authorities have sent more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to reeducation camps in Xinjiang, a region in China’s northwest. The region made headlines again recently as survivors and a former guard revealed the extent of rape, sexual abuse, and torture in the camps.
With Beijing set to host the Winter Games, some critics compare the situation to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when the United States and other nations gave Adolf Hitler a platform and legitimized the Nazi regime by competing in the games. At the time, the Nazis had already enacted discriminatory policies against Jews and the disabled.
Now the question is whether to allow another authoritarian dictatorship host the games.
Earlier this year, the United States declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs to be genocide. Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced resolutions calling for the 2022 Winter Games to be moved out of Beijing.
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent President Joe Biden a letter on Feb. 22 with a similar message. “Participation in an Olympics held in a country that is openly committing genocide not only undermines [U.S. and international] values but casts a shadow on the promise for all those who seek free and just societies,” Katko wrote.
In the United Kingdom, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey and Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant called on British athletes to boycott the games. Davey noted sports can’t be separated from politics in the face of genocide, pointing to a 1938 soccer match in Berlin where the English team gave the Nazi salute in front of 100,000 spectators.
In Canada last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most of his Cabinet abstained from the genocide vote: Trudeau said the term genocide is “extremely loaded” and said further examination was needed.
China has continued to deny any human rights abuses in Xinjiang, claiming the camps are “vocation training centers” and churning out propaganda videos showing Uyghurs dancing and smiling.
But a BBC report last month painted a different picture of the camps. Tursunay Ziawudun, a former Uyghur detainee, said men would come to cells after midnight, pick the women they wanted, and rape them in a room without surveillance cameras. She said masked men gang-raped her multiple times, and someone tortured her with an electric prod stuck into her genital tract.
When the Associated Press last September asked the IOC about its decision to hold the games in Beijing, the organization defended its position, stating that “awarding the Olympic Games to a national Olympic committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in the country.” It added it must remain “neutral on all global political issues.”
With the IOC seeming unwilling to budge, 180 human rights groups—including those representing Uyghurs and the regions of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan—signed an open letter last month calling on world leaders to boycott the 2022 Olympics.
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That’s what outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of committing against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, making the United States the first country to make such a declaration. He also called China a perpetrator of crimes against humanity.
The U.S. pressure on the Chinese Communist Party over its atrocities in Xinjiang—including detaining at least 1 million Uyghurs in reeducation camps, initiating a mass sterilization campaign, and using Uyghurs for forced labor—appears set to continue under the administration of President Joe Biden. Biden’s secretary of state appointee, Antony Blinken, expressed agreement with the genocide designation.
Uyghur diaspora communities cheered the decision: “This declaration doesn’t immediately change anything, but as any victim will tell you, having the eyes of the world community see us, and acknowledge that our horror is real, means everything,” said Rushan Abbas, director of Campaign for Uyghurs.
For Abbas, the decision was personal: Her sister Gulshan, a retired doctor, disappeared into the opaque camp system two years ago. At the end of 2020, she found out that Chinese authorities sentenced Gulshan to 20 years in prison on vague terrorism charges. Rushan believes her sister is paying the price for her international activism.