Populations in Myanmar are facing crimes against humanity perpetrated by the military following the 1 February coup.
On 1 February Myanmar’s military, headed by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the civilian-led government and declared a state of emergency. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in protests and strikes against the reimposition of military rule. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 820 people have been killed by the security forces and at least 4,000 people are currently detained for resisting the coup.
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 – known as the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – as well as politicians from ethnic minority groups. The military has branded the NUG and CRPH unlawful organizations and charged their members with high treason.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, have said that abuses committed by the military since the coup may amount to crimes against humanity. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) has also started collecting evidence regarding potential crimes against humanity.
The security forces have recently launched fresh offensives against ethnic armed groups in some regions of the country. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 20 people have been killed and an estimated 42,000 displaced in south-eastern Myanmar due to clashes between the military and the Karen National Liberation Army, as well as indiscriminate attacks by the military on civilian areas. An estimated 5,000 people are also currently displaced in Kachin State due to armed confrontations between the military and Kachin Independence Army.
Myanmar’s armed forces – or 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 several crucial ministries and 25 percent of seats in parliament.
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. The FFM also asserted in 2019 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 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 and other human rights. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most Rohingya stateless.
Between November 2018 and November 2020 the military also engaged in an armed conflict with the Arakan Army, an armed group seeking self-determination for the ethnic Rakhine population. High Commissioner Bachelet said that attacks on civilians in Rakhine and Chin states may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Impunity for past atrocities has enabled the security forces to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against civilians, particularly those from ethnic minority populations. Anti-coup protests are unlikely to subside and the risk of further atrocities remains extremely high.
The coup also complicates the prospects for a safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Given its past history and public declarations, 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.
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.” The UNSC has met five times on the situation in Myanmar since the coup and adopted four statements.
During 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.
During November 2019 Pre-Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court 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, UK and US have also sanctioned several military-run conglomerates. The Republic of Korea restricted military exports and suspended defense exchanges. The EU also suspended development funds.
On 23 March the HRC adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, expressing concern at violent acts against peaceful demonstrators and extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. On 28 March High Commissioner Bachelet and the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, issued a joint statement calling on the military to stop killing civilians and reminding the international community of its responsibility to protect populations in Myanmar.
On 24 April the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a summit to discuss the situation in Myanmar and agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus,” which includes an immediate cessation of violence. The military’s indicated they would only consider ASEAN’s proposal “when the situation returns to stability in the country.”
The UNSC should immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar 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. 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.
General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders who bear responsibility for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide should face international justice.