Myanmar (Burma)

1 March 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
Over 1,500 people have been killed and at least 9,000 remain detained since the 1 February 2021 coup

Populations in Myanmar are facing crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by the military following the 1 February coup.

BACKGROUND:

On 1 February 2021 Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – led by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the country’s civilian-led government and declared a state of emergency. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in peaceful protests and strikes against the reimposition of military rule, while numerous civilian militias known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) have also formed as part of an armed resistance. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1,500 people have been killed by the security forces since 1 February and over 9,000 people remain detained for resisting the coup. At least 82 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals.

On 16 April a coalition of democratic opponents to military rule formed the National Unity Government (NUG), which includes members of parliament ousted by the military. The military has charged their members with high treason and pronounced that the NUG and PDFs are terrorist organizations. On 1 August General Min Aung Hlaing declared himself prime minister and extended the state of emergency until August 2023. The NUG subsequently announced war against the military junta, urging a nation-wide revolt.

The Tatmadaw has increasingly targeted civilian areas, including in Magway and Sagaing regions and Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, and Karen states, with airstrikes and other attacks, resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement. Since December the military has intensified offensives against the armed resistance and civilians, particularly in northwest and southeast Myanmar, threatening to plunge the country into a protracted civil war. The military’s assault on Loikaw, Kayah State – which began on 6 January – is ongoing and has contributed to the displacement of approximately half the region’s population.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, have indicated that abuses committed by the military since the coup may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), the “security forces have carried out a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population,” and “the reports of murders, sexual assaults, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and persecution collected by the Mechanism, if substantiated, would amount to crimes against humanity.”

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 3 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly 440,000 people have been newly displaced since the coup, bringing the estimated total number of internally displaced persons to over 800,000.

In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar concluded that senior members of the military, including General Min Aung Hlaing, should be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya ethnic group, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states. In 2019 the FFM also asserted that Myanmar breached its obligations under the Genocide Convention and “continues to harbor genocidal intent” towards the Rohingya.

The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population were forced to flee the country after the military launched “clearance operations” in Rakhine State in August 2017, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State face severe violations of their universal human rights. The 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most Rohingya stateless.

ANALYSIS:

Myanmar’s armed forces previously ruled the country from 1962-2011, overseeing the violent repression of the democracy movement and waging war against several ethnic armed groups.

Impunity for past atrocities has enabled the military to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against civilians, particularly those from ethnic minority populations. The risk of further atrocities remains extremely high as the Tatmadaw continues to target civilians and the armed resistance in what appears to be a widespread and systematic scorched earth campaign.

The coup also complicates the prospects for the safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Given its history, the military regime is unlikely to address the denial of citizenship for the Rohingya or accountability for past atrocities.

Myanmar’s military has manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect and bears responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

The only formal response by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to the genocide against the Rohingya was the adoption of a Presidential Statement on 6 November 2017 that stressed the “primary responsibility of the Myanmar government to protect its population.” Since the coup, the UNSC has privately met ten times on Myanmar and adopted nine statements. The UNSC has taken no substantial action.

In September 2018 the HRC created the IIMM to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law” committed in Myanmar.

In November 2019 Pre-Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized the Chief Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation into crimes against humanity that may have been committed against the Rohingya, resulting in their forced deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. On 11 November 2019 The Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. On 23 January 2020 the ICJ ordered Myanmar to comply with four provisional measures.

A number of governments have imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup, including Canada, the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US). The EU also suspended development funds. Oil conglomerates TotalEnergies and Chevron announced in January 2022 their withdrawal over the human rights crisis, and TotalEnergies has endorsed targeted sanctions. The EU, UK and US have also sanctioned several military-run conglomerates. In February the EU sanctioned the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Company. The Republic of Korea restricted military exports and suspended defense exchanges.

On 24 April 2021 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus,” however, it has not been effectively implemented. ASEAN blocked the junta from attending its October and February meetings.

On 18 June the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the immediate release of all political detainees and for all member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.

On 26 November Argentina’s judiciary opened a case under the principle of universal jurisdiction against senior Myanmar officials who are responsible for the Rohingya genocide.

NECESSARY ACTION:

The UNSC should impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar and refer the situation to the ICC. China, Russia, Serbia and India must halt their weapons transfers to Myanmar’s military. All UN member states and regional organizations should impose economic sanctions on Myanmar’s oil and gas sector. The military junta should not be diplomatically recognized as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar. Foreign companies should immediately divest and sever ties with all businesses linked to Myanmar’s military.

The new ASEAN Special Envoy, Prak Sokhonn, and UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, should promptly travel to Myanmar and engage with both the junta and the NUG.

General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders who bear responsibility for atrocity crimes should face international justice.

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