Prominent rights groups in Asia have called for the UN to take action over serious crimes against ethnic minorities
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (aka Forum-Asia), Progressive Voice and the Karen Human Rights Group are calling on member and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council to take concrete action to ensure justice and accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes perpetrated against ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar.
We are deeply concerned regarding the escalation in conflict, particularly in Rakhine and Shan states, and are urging the UNHRC to broaden the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar regularly to document and report violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in that country.
Shan state has observed an escalation in conflict since the factions of the Northern Alliance’s Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) carried out attacks against the Myanmar military’s Defense Service Technological Academy at Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region, as well as a toll gate, customs house and police security outpost on August 15. The military was quick to retaliate, with some of the worst fighting observed in Lashio and Kutkai. In Lashio, the military used Buddhist temples to fire shells into villages, resulting in the death of a 52-year-old farmer. In Kutkai, parents and family grieved the death of three Kachin children due to heavy shelling between the Northern Alliance and the military.
About 7,500 people have been displaced in the past month alone in Shan state and 3,500 remain in temporary shelters. According to the UN, the renewed fighting has led to the killing of 17 civilians, including women and children, and has injured 27. A statement by 346 civil organizations called for an immediate end to hostilities and for all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and protect civilians in conflict. Infrastructure, including bridges, have been destroyed and transportation on the road linking Mandalay, Lashio and Muse has been severely affected by the conflict, leaving hundreds trapped and unable to access humanitarian assistance, causing shortages of food and medicine.
In Rakhine state, where conflict between the AA and the Myanmar military began in January, some 60,000 people – majority Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minorities – have been forced to flee their homes. According to media reports, at least six villages have been turned to ashes by the military in recent weeks, most recently Ooyinthar village in Buthidaung Township, in the state’s west.
The fighting also spread to southern Chin state and as of August, more than 3,600 people had been displaced. Cases of enforced disappearance are also on the rise as at least 10 civilians have disappeared in southern Chin state’s conflict-hit Paletwa Township over the past year. New injuries due to landmines threaten villagers, while also preventing internally displaced people and refugees from a safe, dignified and sustainable return.
As the Myanmar military becomes ever emboldened to act with impunity – deploying the same heinous tactics it has used against the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities for decades – it is no wonder that not a single Rohingya presented himself for a recent attempted repatriation by the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state.
The peace process in Myanmar has failed. In Karen state, the Myanmar military is increasingly reinforcing its troops and supplying ammunition, weaponry and rations to its army camps – directly violating Section 5(c) of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which states that signatories must “avoid troop reinforcements in the ceasefire areas.” This increase in militarization has significant consequences on the civilian population. In addition to causing displacement and preventing internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes, villagers have expressed concerns about their livelihoods and security. They fear the increased militarization in the region may lead to a renewed armed conflict.
For far too long, the Myanmar military has used the alleged “ethnic” threat to national sovereignty and territorial integrity as a reason to wage brutal wars against entire ethnic communities and to ensure that Bamar-Buddhism remains as the status quo in the country. The government’s efforts to co-opt ethnic minorities into the Bamar-Buddhist system, including through the centralized education and health system, is systematically destroying ethnic language, culture, tradition, religion, beliefs and the very social fabric upon which ethnic peoples’ identities are built.
Meanwhile, the valuable land belonging to ethnic minorities that has been passed on from one generation to the next, keeping alive the stories and wisdom that link them with their past, present and future, is being stolen through official policies and laws such as the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law. Requiring those who follow customary land practices to register their land with the government reduces the value of their land to a one-dimensional economic interest that serves the interest of the central government. Such an approach to land management will only lead to further displacement and disfranchisement of ethnic communities.
Arrests and cases brought against ethnic minorities have only increased in recent years. On September 12, Naw Ohn Hla, a Karen woman and longtime human-rights defender, was charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions law for organizing an event to commemorate Karen martyrs. Such arrests – also taking place against Karenni, Rakhine and Kachin rights defenders and activists – are a blatant display of oppression by the authorities and a clear message to all ethnic minorities who dare to celebrate their history and heroes.
At the root of conflict and human-rights violations in Myanmar is the prioritization of the Bamar-Buddhist identity, and the institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of ethnic minorities that has emboldened the Myanmar military to continue to act with impunity. The UNHRC and the international community must take concrete steps to address this problem in order for the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar to be respected and protected.
The extensive documentation and reporting conducted by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar has established significant building blocks toward criminal accountability for serious international crimes committed by the Myanmar military in particular, as it led to the establishment and operationalization of the International Independent Mechanism for Myanmar.
However, the end of the Fact-Finding Mission this month comes at a critical time for rights in Myanmar. As conflict continues to escalate in ethnic areas, it is vital that the UNHRC broaden the mandate of the OHCHR and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar to document and regularly report on ongoing violations and abuses.
As recommended by the Fact-Finding Mission, it is time that the lifeline of the Myanmar military’s operations be cut off by the international community, ending relationships with businesses, enterprises and subsidiaries owned or controlled by the military. Rights violations, particularly systemic and institutionalized oppression and persecution against ethnic and religious minorities, will continue as long as the military is able to enjoy the economic monopoly and receives the necessary funds and resources to carry out its heinous attacks against these communities.
The international community must heed the recommendations of the Fact-Finding Mission and divest from military-owned businesses and companies, particularly those associated with the two military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC). Priority should focus on investing in certain segments of the private sector that have refrained from conducting businesses with the Myanmar military.
Neither the Myanmar government-established Independent Commission of Inquiry nor the inquiry by the Myanmar military into serious international crimes are viable pathways to justice and accountability for victims. Lending legitimacy to commissions that lack impartiality and neutrality with flawed methodology will only delay justice and genuine, concrete steps to address accountability. Domestic mechanisms are unable to address crimes of this magnitude. The impetus for accountability must come from the international community.
The end of the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate is only an end of a chapter. We must remain vigilant in holding perpetrators to account for the crimes they have committed. Now is the time to pursue all possible pathways towards accountability, including a referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or an independent tribunal, exercising universal jurisdiction, as well as divesting from military-owned businesses and companies, imposing targeted sanctions and arms embargoes. Victims of the worst crimes, including genocide, deserve nothing less.
To this end, we urge the following:
We note that the UN secretary general’s brief investigation on Myanmar found systemic failure in preventing the Rohingya genocide. The secretary general must now conduct a full independent inquiry into the UN’s failures, including recommendations for action to ensure individual accountability, and promptly implementing reforms to prevent the recurrence of “systematic” failures and “obvious dysfunctional performance” outlined in the report, and to ensure accountability for those failures; taking practical steps to hold the UN officials responsible accountable for failures before, during, and since the 2017 ethnic-cleansing campaign.
We call on the Myanmar government to: Ensure the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of IDPs and refugees; immediately cease hostilities between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations; immediately stop implementing the national strategy on camp closures, which is against the international standard and norms and is violating the rights of the IDPs; and ensure the unfettered and swift provision of humanitarian aid and support to IDPs.
Khin Ohmar is a Myanmar human rights activist involved in organizing the 8888 pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and founder and chairwoman of Progressive Voice, a research and advocacy body on human rights in Myanmar.