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. 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 daily large-scale protests across the country.
The security forces have recklessly used tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, stun grenades and live ammunition against protesters, killing over 130 people since the military takeover. Overnight raids on the homes of activists, as well as beatings and arrests, have been widespread. At least three political detainees have already died in custody. On 11 March the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that abuses committed by the military since the coup may amount to crimes against humanity.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, more than 2,000 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since 1 February. On 14 February the military-installed State Administrative Council amended Myanmar’s laws to guarantee impunity for military leaders and increase prison sentences for inciting hatred of the military.
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, 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 head 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 “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 basic rights. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most of the Rohingya population stateless.
Between November 2018 to November 2020 the military engaged in an armed conflict with the Arakan Army, an armed group seeking self-determination for the ethnic Rakhine population. A temporary ceasefire is currently in place. 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.
Impunity for atrocities has previously 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 violence by the security forces remains extremely high. The widespread and systematic use of deadly force against unarmed protesters may constitute crimes against humanity under international law.
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 and 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.” On 4 February 2021 the UNSC issued a Press Statement in response to the coup. On 10 March the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement that “stresses the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
During September 2018 the HRC created an Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar 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 – 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.
Since the 1 February coup, Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) have imposed targeted sanctions on some senior military officials. The UK has also launched an enhanced due diligence process to “mitigate the risk of military businesses operating in the UK” and suspended all trade promotion with Myanmar. The US has also implemented restrictions on any exports that could be put to military use. On 4 March the European Union suspended all development aid to Myanmar to avoid providing financial assistance to the military. On 12 March the Republic of Korea restricted military exports and suspended bilateral defense exchanges with Myanmar.
On 12 February the HRC held a Special Session on the Myanmar crisis and adopted a resolution calling for “the immediate and unconditional release of all persons arbitrarily detained.”
On 25 February the World Bank halted all withdrawal requests by Myanmar.
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 regime should not be diplomatically recognized as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar.
Foreign companies should 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.
General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior coup leaders who bear responsibility for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide should face international justice.