On 1 February Myanmar’s military, headed by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the civilian-led government, detaining President U Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the chief ministers of all 14 states. The military has declared a state of emergency for one year. The coup was launched in response to the decisive victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2020 elections, where military-backed candidates were comprehensively defeated. The situation in the country remains extremely volatile, with troops deployed in all major cities and some signs of civilian protests.
Myanmar’s armed forces – also known as the Tatmadaw – previously ruled the country from 1962-2011, overseeing the violent repression of the democracy movement and waging war against several ethnic armed groups. Despite the beginning of a transition to civilian rule in 2011, the military retained control of significant ministries within the government, maintained 25 percent of seats in parliament, and controlled large sections of the economy. Although the NLD won the 2015 elections, enabling Aung San Suu Kyi to become de facto leader of the government, the Tatmadaw continued to commit atrocities.
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 as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states. The FFM also asserted in 2019 that Myanmar breached its obligations under the Genocide Convention and “continues to harbor genocidal intent” toward the Rohingya.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population were forced to flee the country after the military launched so-called “clearance operations” in Rakhine State on 25 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 are still subject to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. This includes more than 120,000 Rohingya who have been confined and segregated in camps since 2012.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group, have been systematically persecuted for generations. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most of the population stateless. The rights of the Rohingya are further limited by the so-called “Protection of Race and Religion” laws that place harsh restrictions on fundamental religious freedoms, as well as reproductive and marital rights.
Since November 2018 the military has also engaged in an armed conflict with the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group seeking self-determination for the ethnic Rakhine population. A ceasefire was reached between the AA and the military during November 2020 amid calls to hold supplementary elections in parts of Rakhine State where voting was canceled due to insecurity. During the two-year conflict, Myanmar’s security forces shelled villages, blocked food supplies and arbitrarily detained civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that attacks on civilians in Rakhine and Chin states may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. AA members have also been accused of violations and abuses. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 100,000 people are currently displaced in Rakhine and Chin states.
The reimposition of military rule poses a grave and imminent threat to all civilians in Myanmar. Impunity for atrocities has previously enabled the military to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against vulnerable populations, particularly ethnic minorities. The state of emergency declared by the military on 1 February denies the people of Myanmar their universal human rights and endangers their safety and security.
Military rule also negates the opportunity for a safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Given its past history and public declarations, the new military government is unlikely to end the persecution of the Rohingya or address underlying issues, such as the denial of citizenship and restrictions on freedom of movement.
Myanmar’s military has manifestly failed to uphold its responsibility to protect the Rohingya and other minority populations in the past, and bears responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
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 August 2017 various states and regional organizations have responded to atrocities in Rakhine State. The European Union has reinforced its arms embargo on Myanmar and imposed restrictive measures on 14 individuals, while Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and United States all imposed targeted sanctions on senior military officers. In May 2020 Germany announced that it was suspending development cooperation with Myanmar.
During September 2018 the HRC created an Independent Investigative Mechanism to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law” committed in Myanmar.
During 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 – to prevent genocidal acts, ensure military and police forces do not commit genocidal acts, preserve all evidence of genocidal acts, and report on compliance with these measures.
On 31 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the “situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar,” calling for an end to ongoing violations of international law and extending the mandate of the Special Envoy.
On 1 February various states, the UN Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, condemned the coup and called for the unconditional release of all detainees. On 2 February the UNSC discussed the coup in Myanmar but due to opposition from China and Russia, they did not adopt a formal statement or resolution.
The UNSC should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC, impose a comprehensive arms embargo and sanction senior military officials, including General Min Aung Hlaing. All UN member states and regional organizations should take urgent measures in response to the reimposition of military rule, including an arms embargo and targeted sanctions. Foreign companies should also immediately divest and sever ties with businesses linked to Myanmar’s military rulers, including the military-controlled conglomerates Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corporation.
Myanmar’s military must immediately release all political detainees, accept the legitimacy of the 2020 election results and restore the civilian-led government.