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. Over the past 17 months, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in peaceful protests and strikes against the reimposition of military rule, while numerous civilian militias – known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) – have also formed as part of an armed resistance. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1,800 people have been killed by the security forces since February 2021 and over 10,400 people remain detained for resisting the coup. At least 110 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals.
The Tatmadaw has increasingly targeted civilian areas with airstrikes, scorched earth campaigns and other attacks, particularly in Magway and Sagaing regions and Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Karen states, resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement. By the end of April 2022 the military had torched over 11,400 civilian homes across the country since the coup, with approximately 7,500 in Sagaing alone, according to the research group Data for Myanmar. Communal violence is also escalating in Myanmar with the formation of the pro-junta “Blood Comrades” militia.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, have indicated that abuses committed by the military since the coup may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), the “security forces have carried out a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population,” and “the reports of murders, sexual assaults, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and persecution collected by the Mechanism, if substantiated, would amount to crimes against humanity.”
On 16 April 2021 a coalition of democratic opponents to military rule formed the National Unity Government (NUG), which includes members of parliament ousted by the military. The military has charged their members with high treason and pronounced that the NUG and PDFs are terrorist organizations.
An estimated 14.4 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 700,000 people have been displaced since the coup, bringing the estimated total number of internally displaced persons to over 1 million.
In 2018 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-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. In 2019 the FFM also asserted that Myanmar “continues to harbor genocidal intent” toward the Rohingya.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya population were forced to flee the country after the military launched “clearance operations” in Rakhine State in August 2017, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to over 900,000 people. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State face severe violations of their universal human rights. The 1982 Citizenship Law rendered most Rohingya stateless.
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 risk of further atrocities remains extremely high as the Tatmadaw continues to target civilians and the armed resistance in what appears to be a widespread and systematic scorched earth campaign.
The coup also complicates the prospects for the safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Given its history, the military regime is unlikely to address the denial of citizenship for the Rohingya or accountability for past atrocities.
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 mechanisms have been created to investigate and potentially hold accountable perpetrators of crimes against the Rohingya. This includes the IIMM, an investigation launched by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in November 2019 into crimes against humanity that may have resulted in the forced deportation of the Rohingya across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, and a lawsuit filed by The Gambia in November 2019 at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Myanmar of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention. On 26 November 2021 Argentina’s judiciary also 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 11 times on Myanmar and adopted nine statements, but has taken no substantial action.
A number of governments have imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup, including Canada, United Kingdom (UK), US and the European Union (EU). The EU, UK and US have also sanctioned several military-run conglomerates. The EU also suspended development funds. Oil conglomerates TotalEnergies and Chevron announced in January 2022 their withdrawal over the human rights crisis. In February the EU sanctioned the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). The Republic of Korea restricted military exports and suspended defense exchanges.
On 24 April 2021 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to a “Five-Point Consensus,” but it has not been effectively implemented. The Tatmadaw was blocked from sending representatives to the US-ASEAN summit, held 12-13 May 2022, during which the US met with NUG representatives.
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.
The UNSC should impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar and refer the situation to the ICC. China, Russia, Serbia and India must halt their 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 MOGE. ASEAN member states should condemn the Tatmadaw and increasingly engage with the NUG.
The military junta should not be diplomatically recognized as the legitimate representatives of Myanmar. Foreign companies should immediately divest and sever ties with all businesses linked to Myanmar’s military. The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, should promptly travel to Myanmar and engage with the junta, the NUG and civil society.
General Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders who bear responsibility for atrocity crimes should face international justice.