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Myanmar’s people, shadow govt mourn UK monarch amid junta silence

Citizens of Myanmar reacted to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who died last week at age 96 after 70 years on the British throne, with sadness on Monday, remembering the monarch as a champion of democracy and a source of comfort in the face of national adversity.

Elizabeth’s reign began in 1952, just four years after the end of more than a century of British rule in Myanmar, at a time of strong anti-British sentiment in the fledgling Southeast Asian nation. Myanmar did not join the Commonwealth after independence, like most other former colonies.

However, many Burmese remember her as overseeing improved bilateral relations that culminated in substantial support from London for democratic reforms in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi, prior to its ousting by the military last year.

“The queen was part of the ruling class of the country that has continuously supported the cause of Myanmar’s democracy,” Thet Oo, a resident of Salingyi township in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, told RFA Burmese. “I wish for her to rise into heaven.”

Khin Maung Nyo, a Yangon-based writer who previously studied in the U.K., told RFA that while the queen’s role was largely ceremonial, she was seen as a steadying and unifying presence.

“People saw her as their guardian angel watching from above as a loving mother would or as a good ruler should. That’s why her subjects from all the 15 Commonwealth realms loved and respected her,” he said.

“During the time I was in England, the country was having economic problems but the people struggled hard in unity. Though there are a lot of problems at the Palace, I’m sure Prince Charles will be able to steer the country, as King Charles III, out of danger.”

The Burmese people can empathize with the grief currently felt by Britons, a Mandalay resident who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA.

“I can see the entire British population is in grief because she had done many good deeds during her 70 years of rule. It’s sad to see them like this. Stories about their grief made me remember the time when our people were similarly in grief when General Aung San was assassinated [in 1947],” the Mandalay resident said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who was a revolutionary hero that many consider to be the founder of modern Myanmar.

“Nobody would be grieving for those leaders who didn’t do any good for the country. Just look at [previous military rulers] Gen. Ne Win and Senior Gen. Saw Maung. Nobody was moved or sorry for them. People only grieve for good rulers,” he said.  

Junta silence

Though the junta has remained silent on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) made a point of publicly showing condolences both at home and abroad, a NUG spokesman told RFA.

The NUG’s Acting President Duwa Lashi La sent his official message shortly after learning of the queen’s death on behalf of the shadow government, formed by former lawmakers who were ousted by the junta in the Feb. 1, 2021 coup.

“The prime minister has also sent a similar message on behalf of the NUG government, and our representative in Britain has, in person, signed the Book of Condolences,” said NUG spokesman Kyaw Zaw.

The British government and the royal family have continuously supported the democracy movement in Myanmar and the queen had been, according to Kyaw Zaw, a “good friend” of Aung San Suu Kyi, the most well-known figure in the movement who served as State Counselor prior to the coup.

The junta’s official newspaper reported on the queen’s death in its Sept. 9 issue.

RFA attempted to reach junta Deputy Minister of Information Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment on why the junta, which claims to be Myanmar’s legitimate government, had not sent a message of condolence to London, but received no reply.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing sent such a message to the government of Japan after the assassination of its former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July.

Post-coup relations

Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayningha Strategic Studies Institute, made up of former military officers, told RFA that the junta likely chose to stay silent because Britain and the international community have been putting pressure on Myanmar since the coup.

“Diplomatic relations with countries like Britain … have not been very good since February 1 [2021],” said Thein Tun Oo. 

“As you know, former British ambassador Vicky Bowman was also recently arrested [by the junta] and punished for meddling in Myanmar politics. So, politically, especially diplomatically, relations are not very good.”

Last week, former U.K. Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman and her Burmese husband, Htein Lin, were sentenced to one year in prison each on immigration violation charges, which activists said were concocted by the junta.

Authorities arrested Bowman, who served as ambassador from 2002-2006, and her husband, an artist and former political prisoner, on Aug. 25 for allegedly violating immigration laws and jailed them in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. The arrests came after the U.K. announced a new round of sanctions against the junta.

Than Soe Naing, a political observer, said the snub was a result of political and economic sanctions on the junta.

“The British royal family stands with the democratic forces of the world who are fighting against the military dictatorship today and so, they have no reason to send a message of condolences to the death of a state leader of England which is putting all kinds of political and economic sanctions on the junta,” Tan Soe Naing said.

“That’s why their papers only announce the news of the death. They have not acknowledged and expressed sorrow in any way,” he said.

The British government has consistently supported Myanmar’s democracy since the 1988 military coup. When Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was a British national, was released from house arrest in June 2012, she traveled to Britain on her first trip away from Myanmar. The queen and the British government received her.

An official of the British embassy in Yangon confirmed to RFA that it had not received any condolences from the junta.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.