Populations in Myanmar are facing crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by the military following the February 2021 coup.
On 1 February 2021 Myanmar’s (Burma) military – the Tatmadaw – led 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 re-imposition of military rule, while numerous civilian militias – known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) – have also formed as part of an armed resistance. Several UN officials and entities, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), have indicated that abuses committed by the military likely amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 2,460 people have been killed by the security forces since February 2021, and over 12,900 people remain detained for resisting the coup. At least 110 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals, and four have been executed. The military has charged members of the National Unity Government (NUG) – a coalition of democratic opponents formed in opposition to military rule – with high treason and pronounced that the NUG and PDFs are terrorist organizations. The military has widely used internet shutdowns to limit communication and access to information since the coup and reportedly plans to increase its use of surveillance technology with facial recognition capabilities throughout the country.
The Tatmadaw has targeted civilian areas with airstrikes, scorched earth campaigns and other attacks, particularly in the opposition strongholds of Magway and Sagaing regions and Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Karen states, resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 28,000 civilian properties have been burned or destroyed. The military launched airstrikes targeting a concert in Kachin State in October, killing at least 80 people and injuring over 100. The assault likely amounts to a war crime.
At least 1.1 million people have been displaced since the coup, particularly in the northwest and southeast, bringing the estimated total number of internally displaced persons to over 1.4 million.
Meanwhile, escalating fighting in Rakhine and Chin states has displaced over 16,500 people since a November 2020 ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army (AA) broke down in August. The volatile security situation has restricted civilian movement in the region and hindered the provision of humanitarian aid. On 28 November 2022 the military and AA agreed to a temporary truce.
In August 2017 the military launched so-called “clearance operations” in Rakhine State. The operations forced the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population to flee the country, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council-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 estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State face severe violations of their universal human rights.
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 continue committing widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against civilians, particularly those from ethnic minority populations. The military is unlikely to pursue accountability for past atrocities.
The risk of further war crimes and crimes against humanity remains high as the Tatmadaw continues to target civilians and the armed resistance. The military’s use of banned landmines in Kayah State likely amounts to war crimes. The Tatmadaw’s reported use of surveillance technology and internet shutdowns appears to help facilitate the perpetration of atrocities and shield itself from accountability.
The coup and fighting in Rakhine State complicate the prospects for the safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Given its history, the military is unlikely to address the denial of citizenship for the Rohingya or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law that rendered most Rohingya stateless.
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.”
Numerous processes are underway to investigate and potentially hold perpetrators accountable for crimes against the Rohingya. This includes the IIMM, an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into crimes against humanity that may have resulted in the forced deportation of the Rohingya across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, and a trial at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) initiated by The Gambia in November 2019, accusing Myanmar of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. Several states have announced their intention to intervene in the case, including Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom (UK). On 26 November 2021 Argentina’s judiciary opened a case under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
In March 2022 the United States (US) government formally determined that the violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.
Since the coup, the UNSC has privately met 12 times on Myanmar and adopted 10 statements but has failed to take substantial action. On 18 June 2021 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 24 April 2021 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus.” Despite the failure to fully implement the plan, ASEAN continues to rely on the strategy as its main approach to the situation in Myanmar. A number of governments have imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup, including Canada, UK, US and the European Union (EU). The EU has also suspended development funds. Oil conglomerates TotalEnergies and Chevron announced in January 2022 their withdrawal over the human rights crisis. The Republic of Korea restricted military exports and suspended defense exchanges.
The UNSC should impose a comprehensive arms embargo and targeted sanctions on Myanmar and refer the situation to the ICC. China, Russia, Serbia and India must halt weapons transfers to Myanmar’s military. All UN member states, regional organizations and the UNSC should impose economic sanctions on Myanmar’s oil and gas sector, particularly the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. Foreign companies should immediately divest and sever ties with all businesses linked to Myanmar’s military.
ASEAN member states should condemn the Tatmadaw and engage with the NUG. The military junta should not be diplomatically recognized as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar.
More states, particularly Canada, Germany, Netherlands and UK, should formally intervene in the ICJ case. General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders who bear responsibility for atrocity crimes should face international justice.