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. Abuses committed by the military since the coup likely amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. At least 1.5 million people have been displaced since the coup.
The Tatmadaw has targeted civilian areas with airstrikes, scorched earth campaigns and other attacks, particularly in the anti-military strongholds of Magway and Sagaing regions and Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Karen states, resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement. According to Data for Myanmar and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 70,000 homes have been burned or destroyed since the coup. Aerial bombardments have also indiscriminately targeted schools and monasteries. On 11 April military jets perpetrated an aerial attack in Pa Zi Gyi village, Sagaing Region, reportedly killing over 165 people, including women and children, in the deadliest single attack since the coup. Over 4,000 people have been killed by security forces since February 2021. The Women’s League of Burma has also documented more than 100 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, including incidents where women have been gang-raped by soldiers and raped at checkpoints due to their inability to pay bribes.
Since the coup the military has arbitrarily detained thousands of people involved in resisting the junta. 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. Although the junta has announced several mass prisoner releases, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has said that at least 19,950 people remain detained for resisting the coup.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attempted to mitigate the crisis in April 2021 by agreeing to a “Five-Point Consensus,” which called for a cessation of hostilities and other steps to confront the crisis. Subsequent regional and multilateral pressure has been limited. In December 2022 the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution condemning the human rights crisis, demanding an end to the violence and calling for political prisoners to be released. Numerous governments have attempted to restrict the military’s capacity to commit crimes through a variety of measures, including by imposing extensive targeted sanctions on military leaders, military-affiliated companies and others who enable their crimes, including companies who supply the military with aviation fuel. Some states have also suspended development funds, imposed arms embargos, banned dual-use goods for the military and banned the supply of aviation fuel to Myanmar, among other measures.
In August 2017 the military launched so-called “clearance operations” in Rakhine State with the purported aim of confronting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. During those operations the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population were forced to flee, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission 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.
Several processes are underway to investigate and potentially hold perpetrators accountable for crimes against the Rohingya. This includes the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation and a trial at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) initiated by The Gambia accusing Myanmar of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have announced their intention to intervene in the case. Cases have also been brought forward under the principle of universal jurisdiction in Argentina, Germany and Türkiye.
On 28 June 2023 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, published a report focused on the military’s systematic denial of humanitarian aid to civilians, documenting an “all-encompassing system of military measures” aimed at intentionally blocking humanitarian access, including imposing increasing legal and administrative restrictions on travel, banking, finance, importation and procurement. On 8 August the IIMM released its annual report, documenting evidence of the military and affiliated militias committing “increasingly frequent and brazen war crimes” over the past year in the context of indiscriminate targeting with bombings, killings of those detained and burning of civilian structures.
The Myanmar military and Bangladesh have started promoting a “pilot repatriation program” for Rohingya to return from Bangladesh, which has been widely criticized by international human rights observers. Despite risks related to repatriation raised by High Commissioner Türk and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, on 14 July the HRC adopted a resolution that called for Myanmar to “immediately commence the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation and subsequent reintegration of all forcibly displaced Rohingya Muslims and other minorities from Bangladesh” and called upon the UN to provide necessary support to expedite the process.
On 1 August the Tatmadaw extended the state of emergency by a further six months. The military has extended successive states of emergency in order to maintain power and avoid holding constitutionally-mandated elections. It has also taken steps to block and ban anti-military parties, including by effectively dissolving the previous government’s National League for Democracy and nearly 40 other political parties in March 2023.
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 risk of further war crimes and crimes against humanity remains high as the Tatmadaw continues to perpetrate indiscriminate aerial bombardments in civilian areas. The Tatmadaw’s reported use of surveillance technology and internet shutdowns appears to help facilitate the commission of atrocities and shield itself from accountability. Military forces perpetrated pervasive sexual and gender-based violence during the Rohingya clearance operations and appear to be continuing this pattern of abuse in their conduct against those perceived as resisting the junta.
Divisions within the UNSC have hampered the development of a coordinated international response to atrocities in Myanmar. Despite the failed implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, ASEAN continues to rely on the strategy as its main approach and the UNSC has consistently deferred to the regional body in place of action.
The coup and ongoing hostilities complicate the prospects for the safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
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 and block the military’s access to aviation fuel. Foreign companies should immediately divest and sever ties with all businesses linked to Myanmar’s military.
The military junta should not be diplomatically recognized as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar. ASEAN member states should condemn the Tatmadaw and increasingly engage with the NUG.
More states should formally intervene in the ICJ case. All those responsible for atrocity crimes, including senior military leaders, should face international justice.