International Accountability Needed to End Decades Long Impunity and Abusive Tactics of the Myanmar Army
As representatives of the UN Security Council (UNSC) visit Bangladesh and Myanmar, calls from within Myanmar grow for the Council to take concrete steps toward accountability for the Myanmar Army, including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Kachin and Karen civil society organizations have also joined the recent calls for ICC referral in order to seek justice for the decades of abuses suffered by Kachin, Karen and other ethnic minorities at the hands of the Myanmar Army. This is not the first time that the UNSC has been called upon by conflict-affected ethnic communities in Myanmar to take action against the Myanmar Army. It must act now in the face of years of inaction on this issue.
It is now clear that recent attempts at a transition from direct military rule are incapable of stemming the abuses of the military, or bringing sustainable peace to the country, due to the military’s continued control over the country. Thus, impunity must be stopped through criminal accountability. However, it is very clear that Myanmar is not willing and able to bring these crimes to justice on its own. Domestic efforts to investigate and hold perpetrators for serious crimes and human rights violations have been ineffective and served to defend the military’s actions instead of seeking justice for victims. The most recent example, an investigation into the Inn Din massacre, was a military trial held in complete secrecy that allegedly led to the conviction of ten soldiers who have not been named – and who may not even have been imprisoned at all. Other investigations have completely cleared the military of any responsibility, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s national human rights institution lacks the political will and independence to investigate human rights violations committed by the military.
While the Prosecutor of the ICC recently requested a judge to decide whether the ICC has jurisdiction over deportation of Rohingya to Bangladesh, the Myanmar Army has been accused of a number of other serious international crimes that do not fall under that request. The UNSC is the only option for the vast majority of crimes committed by the Myanmar Army to be brought to the ICC over Myanmar’s objections. The ICC is the most effective current option for prosecuting these crimes in a comprehensive manner, tackling impunity and bringing justice to victims.
As the UNSC visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, it was met with the refugees’ demands for accountability for the horrific atrocities they, their families and their community have endured. These demands join the voices of many other ethnic communities seeking international accountability and justice for the abuses they are suffering and have suffered for decades without redress. The Women’s League of Burma recently welcomed the UN blacklisting of the military for sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, and called on “action to be taken under international law against the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] for their crimes.” Dozens of Kachin civil society organizations from inside and outside of Myanmar also called on the UNSC to refer Myanmar to the ICC, noting that past inaction by the international community towards accountability has emboldened the Myanmar Army to escalate attacks against ethnic nationalities. As fighting, along with displacement and violence against civilians increases in Karen State, the largest Karen civil society network – Karen Peace Support Network – also called for an ICC referral in face of decades of crimes against Karen civilians, and the recent return to active conflict following the Myanmar Army’s breach of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which has led to the displacement of over 2,500 people in Mutraw District.
Demands for international accountability are not new – rather, many of these organizations are repeating the same calls they made almost a decade ago. At that time, many international diplomats worried that accountability, particularly a referral to the ICC, would threaten the possibility of Myanmar’s nascent transition to democracy – something that is still argued today by supporters of the military. International diplomats counseled patience and advocated allowing the military to slowly step back from power on its own terms. They assumed elections and peace talks would bring an end to atrocities without the need for accountability.
Yet, the experience of the growing number of displaced ethnic communities since the so-called democratic reforms have taken place give a different account, one that severely undermines their hopes for peace and justice and their aspirations for rights and equality. Since the transition from direct military rule, Kachin State has seen some of the heaviest fighting during the world’s longest running civil war. Tens of thousands of civilians remain displaced as a result of conflict since 2011, with an increase of more than 5,000 internally displaced persons in April 2018. As the UNSC makes its visit in Myanmar this week, thousands of displaced civilians remain trapped in the jungle between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army, leading to public protests in Myitkyina demanding their protection and safe extraction. The Legal Aid Network, a civil society organization composed of lawyers, recently published a legal analysis of a number of incidents of war crimes committed by the Myanmar Army in recent clashes in Kachin and Shan States, and called for international action to be taken in response to those and other crimes.
Myanmar Army offensives have also taken place in Karen State, in breach of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), including along the planned location for a road expansion and hydropower project that had been a priority for the military before the NCA was signed in 2015, and that had already faced protest from local communities. In a move that echoes the past military governments’ tactics, the Myanmar military successfully prevented the launch in Thailand of a civil society report on renewed fighting in Karen State and its impact on civilians and on the peace process, demonstrating its desire to suppress the spread of information about the situation on the ground in conflict areas.
What is derailing the peace process and democratic transition is not international accountability but increasingly-bold military abuses and the militant ultra-nationalism that supports those abuses. Without consequences in the form of accountability, the military will continue to commit international crimes intractably. After having failed to act when called upon before, the UNSC must ensure that its visit is not used by the Myanmar Government to delay international action toward accountability, but take special efforts to act now, including referring the situation in Myanmar to the ICC. The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission must also be supported and follow-up mechanisms established to further the goals of international accountability. Recent UN blacklisting, and action from the EU including a strengthened arms embargo and a framework to increase targeted sanctions are steps in the right direction, but eventually criminal accountability for those most responsible for those heinous crimes will be essential to put an end to the nightmare of military atrocities in Myanmar.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Joint Media Statement by H.E. Associate Prof. Dinna Wisnu and H.E. Mr. Edmund Bon Tai Soon, Representatives to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)
By ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
ASEAN MPs Urge Leaders to Strengthen Regional Rights Responses, at Upcoming Singapore Summit
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Myanmar/Burma: EU extends and strengthens its arms embargo, and adopts a framework for targeted measures against officials responsible for serious human rights violations
By Council of the European Union
The Nightmare Returns: Karen Hopes for Peace and Stability Dashed by Burma Army’s Actions
By Karen Peace Support Network
Karen Human Rights Report Launch Blocked
By Karen Peace Support Network
UN Security Council Must Take Action during Rohingya Visits
By Refugee International
The Women’s League of Burma Welcomes UN Blacklisting of Burmese Tatmadaw for Sexual Violence
By Women’s League of Burma
SYCB: အစိုးရတပ္မေတာ္မွ ကခ်င္ျပည္နယ္အတြင္း ထိုးစစ္ဆင္တိုက္ခိုက္မႈမ်ားအေပၚ ထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Students and Youth Congress of Burma
Kachin Communities Worldwide Demand United Nations Security Council Urgently Refers Burma to the International Criminal Court
By 32 Kachin Communities Worldwide
ႏုုိင္ငံေတာ္သမၼတထံ အရပ္ဘက္အဖြဲ ့အစည္းမ်ား၏ အိတ္ဖြင့္ေပးစာ
By 163 Myanmar Civil Society Organizations
Analysis of War Crimes: Seeking Accountability for Ending Impunity in Burma
By Legal Aid Network
The Nightmare Returns: Karen hopes for peace and stability dashed by Burma Army’s actions
By Karen Peace Support Network
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: 2018 Annual Report – Burma Chapter
By United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”