Since the February 1st 2021 military coup, the human rights situation in Myanmar has seriously deteriorated. The State Administration Council (SAC) headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has engaged in systematic violence against civilians and stripped away the few key civil and political protections that the already problematic 2008 Constitution was supposed to guarantee, further opening the door for widespread human rights violations. The SAC’s treatment of citizens as enemies of the state and its unrelenting efforts to crush all opposition have resulted in widespread violence and the loss of lives during this first six months of the coup. The SAC has shot and killed peaceful protesters, bombed rural villages forcing thousands to flee, deprived people of access to health services and information, and turned the law against the people of Myanmar to arrest, detain, and torture at will.
As future returnees could potentially face similar In highlighting the human rights violations that have occurred since the February 1st coup, this report presents the degrading security situation and humanitarian crisis that civilians in Southeast Myanmar are currently facing. It also presents the hopes and struggles of rural villagers and civilians, to show how, despite the increased insecurity that they face, they continue to seek out ways to counter a military regime they know to be both illegal and unjust. Most importantly, this report seeks to ensure that the experiences and concerns of rural ethnic villagers are not just heard but addressed.
Interviews conducted by KHRG reveal the level of violence that the SAC undertook against protesters, and the ways in which protesters have continued to voice their opposition to the coup in the face of increasing brutality and repression by the state military. Protesters recounted stories of fear and insecurity as they encountered the ruthless response of the SAC to civilian opposition, yet equally expressed a strong sense of hope and an unwavering commitment to upholding the fight for democracy and freedom from oppression through to the very end. These interviews also highlight the efforts of civilians to support and sustain each other as protesters and those engaged in civil disobedience sought refuge and protection.
This report also presents the escalation of insecurity in rural ethnic areas, where the Myanmar military has long used violence against civilian villagers as a key strategy in waging war against ethnic armed actors. Although conflict and attacks had been ongoing in certain parts of Southeast Myanmar even prior to the coup, the shifts currently taking place reflect a complete disregard for human rights and signal a return to a “four cuts” approach that, as independent researcher Kim Joliffe has highlighted, “treats civilians not just as ‘collateral damage’ but as a central resource in the battlefield”. Although some areas in Southeast Myanmar have experienced little to no fighting, others have endured an ongoing onslaught of attacks and fighting since the coup. It is estimated that, as of June 23rd, close to 177,000 villagers in Southeast Myanmar, including 50,000 in Kayin State, have been displaced since the February 1st coup (with over 140,000 still experiencing displacement as of August 23rd). KHRG also received a growing number of reports of direct attacks on civilians, including targeted killings, forced labour, looting and confiscation. That, combined with the SAC’s use of the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional weapon of war, has left rural villagers at-risk from multiple forms of attack.
What is evident in both rural and urban areas is not just the increase in acts of violence since the coup, but that the SAC has sought to legitimise its own abusive actions and inscribe in law the deprivation of fundamental human rights. The Myanmar military, in ousting the newly elected civilian government, not only illegally seized power by making unsubstantiated claims about election fraud, but also set about instituting legislative changes that would effectively legalize state-based repression and its own use of excessive force against civilians.
Similarly, the SAC is using the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and calls for ceasefire to then give itself permission to undertake whatever measures it deems necessary to “keep the peace”. Although the SAC announced a unilateral ceasefire on its part since April 2021, it also stipulated that it would continue to respond to “actions that disrupt government security and administration”, thus authorizing its own military offensives. Since the coup, it has repeatedly accused other armed actors of failing to honor peace commitments, and to label any groups that oppose the SAC as terrorists.
From the outset, it has also used the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the Natural Disaster Management Law, to justify arrests. It has limited access to information about the health crisis, and more recently to vital medical care, using the pandemic as a political weapon against the public as well as ethnic armed groups.
With ongoing displacements, a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, and the SAC blocking national and international aid organisations’ access to critical areas, the humanitarian crisis has become dire, placing many in life-threatening situations.
This report is based on interviews conducted with rural villagers as well as with participants in the protests and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) who fled to KNU-controlled areas for their safety. KHRG began conducting interviews shortly after the February 1st coup, through the first week of June 2021. A total of 133 interviews were conducted, covering a wide range of topics related to the coup. Forty-nine of those interviews were with people who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, many of whom had either fled to their home village in Southeast Myanmar or been provided refuge in a KNU-controlled area.
This report also draws on raw data reports prepared by KHRG researchers working in local communities within KHRG’s operational area. The raw data for this report covers the period from the beginning of February through the end of July, thus the first six months of the coup. Over 100 raw data submissions were used for this report.
Chapter 1: Protests
After the February 1st coup, protests erupted throughout Myanmar in both urban and rural areas, often drawing tens of thousands of people in large cities, and/or uniting hundreds of villages in rural areas, all voicing their opposition to the coup and military dictatorship. Although peacefully engaging in the right to freedom of expression, civilian protesters became the target of repression and violence at the hands of the military regime.
“In joining the protests in Yangon and Mandalay, it is like we pick straws over who will die in the street [joining the protests is like a deadly game of chance]. They [police] can shoot people at any time if they want. In fact, they shot people. Many people have already died. They [police] never gave a warning to people before cracking down on the protests.” –Maung E—, a university student in Yangon
“When there was a protest in Hledan, Yangon we would break up the mass gathering. There was a total of 50 of us. Six of us had real guns [machine guns] including me. We had to fire live rounds [against protesters]. Our bullets are not meant for shooting innocent civilians.” –A police officer based in Bilin Township, Doo Tha Htoo District
“Laws are from their mouth [decided solely by the SAC] because whatever they say is considered law [toward the civilians]; they can kill, they can arrest, they can detain and they can do whatever they want [by the order of SAC authorities]. There is no rule of law. Every action they have been practicing is against the civilians.” –A young teacher from Hpa-an Town
Chapter 2: The Civil Disobedience Movement
On February 2nd 2021, healthcare workers across Myanmar walked off their jobs to express their opposition to the military coup. This form of protest quickly spread to other branches of public service, eventually turning into a nationwide, large-scale Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
“I also worry for my family’s security because of the actions that the Burmese military has done. If they cannot arrest me, they will target my family. I heard that they will threaten my wife. I heard that they will harm my family.” –A CSO worker from Ayeyarwady Region
“Ordinary people like us do not need to participate in the CDM. We just have to support those who do participate in the CDM. The situation happening now is not right, so we have to support them. We have to care for them and we have to give them food, and support them in what they need. They are working for us as well.” –Saw Y— from Ta Naw Th’Ree Township, Mergui-Tavoy District
Chapter 3: Militarisation and a return to violence
The security situation in rural areas of Southeast Myanmar rapidly degraded during the first six months following the military’s seizure of power. Since the military coup, human rights violations have steadily increased, as have displacements and threats of injury and death to civilians in rural areas. Just the news of the military takeover led many villagers to begin preparing for the possibility of fighting, and thus displacement, and for the re-emergence of the kind of human rights abuses that they had suffered in the past.
“Some people dare not to stay at home anymore. They go to stay at their huts. Those who are living close to the road dare not to sleep at their houses. They heard that Tatmadaw soldiers will patrol so they are afraid and go to sleep in other places. Then, they come back to their houses in the morning. Some people hide food in the jungle. If anything happens, they can go and hide there and they will have food.” –A missionary in Dooplaya District
“We will be shot dead so no boats dare to run. We dare not go to send rations for the IDPs. The supplies are accumulating on the Thai side. The boats from the Thai side do not go to the Myanmar side because they are afraid they will be shot by SAC soldiers.” –A boat driver interviewed by KIC
“We only dare to criticise the military coup secretly within our family because there are many junta spies that [report] people who criticise and disagree with the military government to the police.” –An interviewee from Dooplaya District
Chapter 4: COVID-19 since the coup
The lack of testing and reporting by the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS) has not been able to conceal the fact that, as of early July, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed and Myanmar is facing a serious humanitarian crisis.
“Since the military coup, even in our village and at the national level, people didn’t continue thinking about COVID-19 anymore. I myself didn’t continue thinking about it anymore.” –A village secretary in Noh T’Kaw Township, Dooplaya District
“[W]e worry that the Myanmar military will mix something into the vaccine. […] So no one dares to get the vaccine.” –A villager from T’ Nay Hsah Township, Hpa-an District
Chapter 5: Challenges to peace, democracy, and development
The coup has had devastating effects on all aspects of daily life in Myanmar, creating impacts as individualised as lack of access to the internet and as widespread as a downturn in the national economy. By eroding possibilities for peace, democracy and development, these problems have touched the lives of all civilians, but have impacted rural villagers in particular ways.
“Everything depends on the village administrator, because no matter how much you protect your village, if the village administrator works under the military government you can’t do anything. He will simply send information to the SAC.” –A villager from Ta Naw Th’Ree Township, Mergui-Tavoy District
“If people need to go for an operation and they are not allowed to go […] they will just die.” –Naw O— from Moo Township, Kler Lwee Htoo District
Chapter 6: Moving forward
“People from Myanmar have died many times already. Therefore, we must not feel hesitation to die this time [for this cause]. If we are afraid to die this time [for this cause] and just do nothing about it [military dictatorship], our lives will be dead forever.” –An interviewee from Kawkareik Town
“I protested for my country to be free from military dictatorship, for my country to become a real federal democracy and for the ethnic minorities to receive equal rights. If we don’t have equal rights in this country while we are living in this country, there is no reason we could consider ourselves citizens of Myanmar.” –A KECD teacher in Dooplaya District
Information continues to pour in regarding incidents of violence, with increasing stories of torture, forced labour and killings in rural Southeast Myanmar. Fighting and attacks continue and are becoming more widespread. Many facing displacement are still not receiving support, and some have reported having little left to eat. Displacements are ongoing and the possibility of seeking refuge across the border in Thailand remains limited. Reports of illness-related deaths are being submitted, yet villagers are unsure whether this is due to COVID-19 or some other illness, since there is little availability of testing or medical care.
Ethnic minorities want their voices to finally be heard, but also to be supported as they stand up for their own rights and for equality and justice.
“We have had [in the past] to solve whatever we face in our own way and suffer it by ourselves. Therefore, people think no one will stand with or for them when they have any problems or face anything. […] [I]t is critical that civilians feel that they are being supported by others, that they are not alone in this fight. They need others to stand with them and beside them.” –An interviewee in Kawkareik Town
To the State Administration Council (SAC)
To international organisations, NGOs, funding agencies, and foreign governments
To the SAC and EAOs/EAGs
This photo was taken on March 22nd 2021. It shows a demonstration during which 500 villagers from four different village tracts (T’Hkaw Pwa, Way Shweh, Koh Nee, and Noh Nya Lar) gathered and held a protest against the military coup. They started marching at T’Hkaw Pwa village and went around to Aaw Law See, Way Shweh and Kyun Pin Seik villages in Plaw Too area, Moo (Mone) Township, Kler Lwee Htoo District. The protest specifically claimed to be an “all ethnic group” protest. [Photo: KHRG]
KHRG received this photo on March 8th 2021. Around 1,000 local villagers from K’Moh Thway village tract, Ler Doh Soh Township, Mergui-Tavoy District held a protest against the military junta [the date of the protest is unknown]. The protesters were accompanied by KNLA soldiers, who were there to protect them from violence by SAC security forces. [Photo: Local villager]
This photo was taken on March 9th 2021 on the Asia Highway near Kawkareik Town, Aw Hpa Hpa Doh village tract, Kaw T’Ree Township, Dooplaya District. It shows some of the protective gear that protesters began using in order to shield themselves from SAC violence during the protests. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken in April 2021 in Day Bu Noh village, Pay Kay village tract, Lu Thaw Township, Mu Traw District. It shows the destruction of villagers’ houses and belongings as a result of SAC airstrikes on March 27th 2021. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken in April 2021 in Bu Noh village, Pay Kay village tract, Lu Thaw Township, Mu Traw District. It shows an unexploded high explosive (HE) bomb that was dropped during the SAC airstrikes on March 27th 2021. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken on April 28th 2021 in Kw— village tract, Bu Tho Township, Mu Traw District. It shows villagers, including children, who were displaced and hiding in a cave to protect themselves from the SAC military fighter jets that dropped bombs on the area on April 27th 2021. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken on April 11th 2021 on the Thai side of the Salween River. The villager in the photo is one of the IDPs hiding in the forest. This old man is over 100 years old, and is ill. He is covered by a dirty blanket and lying on a thin mat. No one was able to take care of him as his wife was also very old. A few weeks later, he passed away. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken on April 25th 2021 in Ce— village, Ce— village tract, Thandaunggyi Township, Toungoo District. When SAC LIB #730 took security for the road, SAC soldiers entered villagers’ houses and asked them for food. Villagers complied out of fear that the soldiers would do something bad to them. [Photo: KHRG]
This photo was taken on March 1st 2021 in Kt— village, Kheh Kah Hkoh village tract, Ler Doh Township, Kler Lwee Htoo District. It shows the body of one of two victims who died in a landmine explosion on March 1st 2021. [Photo: Local villager]
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