Populations in Myanmar are facing crimes against humanity perpetrated by the military following the 1 February coup.
On 1 February Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – headed by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the country’s civilian-led government and declared a state of emergency. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in peaceful protests and strikes against the reimposition of military rule, while numerous People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) have formed throughout Myanmar as part of an armed resistance to military rule. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1,000 people have been killed by the security forces since 1 February and over 6,000 people remain detained for resisting the coup. At least 65 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 – known as the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – as well as politicians from ethnic minority groups. The military has charged their members with high treason and declared the CRPH, 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, when he promised to hold general elections.
The security forces have also launched offensives against ethnic armed groups and PDFs in some regions of the country. Sporadic clashes continue to occur in Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Shan and other states, resulting in civilian casualties and displacement. During June security forces set ablaze Kinma village in the Magway Region, destroying more than 200 homes. During July the bodies of 40 people, who were reportedly killed by the military, were found in the township of Kani, Sagaing region.
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. 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 and over 210,000 have been displaced since the coup. Security forces have targeted healthcare professionals treating injured protesters and have issued hundreds of arrest warrants for doctors and nurses accused of supporting the civil disobedience movement. According to Special Rapporteur Andrews, Myanmar’s security forces have engaged in at least 260 attacks against medical personnel and facilities, killing 18 people. The military has also taken over at least 50 hospitals. Despite a catastrophic wave of COVID-19 infections, the military continues to confiscate medical supplies from private companies and charities.
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. Despite the beginning of a transition to civilian rule in 2011, the military retained control of 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. 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 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 subject to severe violations of their universal human rights. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most Rohingya stateless.
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 and armed resistance 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, 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 seven times on Myanmar since the coup and adopted four statements. No substantive action has been taken.
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 (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, 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 24 April the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus,” which includes an immediate cessation of violence. On 4 August ASEAN announced the appointment of Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erywan Yusof, as its Special Envoy to Myanmar.
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.
The UNSC should immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar and refer the situation to the ICC. All UN member states and regional organizations should take urgent measures in response to the reimposition of military rule, including by imposing 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 ASEAN Special Envoy should promptly travel to Myanmar and engage with both the junta and the NUG.
Myanmar’s military must cease attacking healthcare workers, occupying hospitals and obstructing efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders who bear responsibility for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide should face international justice.