by Lotty Clare

CW: article mentions ethnic cleansing, violence, genocide, torture.

“For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximized civilian suffering; we all know what they did to the Rohingya in 2017. They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area, with people from Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin communities being killed in recent months. Their alleged crimes must be investigated in accordance with international standards, with perpetrators being held accountable” 

These scathing remarks about the Myanmar military are part of Yanghee Lee’s last statement of her tenure in the role as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

In 2017 the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – a Rohingya insurgent group based in Rakhine State, western Myanmar – was declared a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government. Subsequently, the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, carried out a brutal crackdown in the region which lead to the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees; predominantly Muslim Rohingya. 

But fighting in Rakhine State is complex. In addition to state sponsored persecution of Rohingya – who have additionally suffered structural violence for decades – there is also ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army; an armed group seeing greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people. In March, the government also officially labelled the Arakan Army as a terrorist group, serving to further increase and legitimise Tatmadaw violence. 

Military operation in Rakhine state violates both human rights and international humanitarian law, and is continuing to inflict immense suffering on civilians. 

It has been 5 months since Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi defended the Tatmadaw in The Hague during the International Court of Justice hearings between Myanmar and The Gambia; the latter accusing the former of violating the Genocide Convention. The court ordered an injunction, issuing a number of provisional measures to the Myanmar government in order to prevent further genocidal acts committed against the Rohingya, now recognised as a protected group. 

On May 23rd Myanmar submitted its first mandated report to the ICJ outlining its response to the country’s injunction. Although it is unlikely that the report will be made public, inference can be taken from the government’s action, or rather inaction, of the government and military in the past 5 months.

What can we expect the report to detail?

Aung San Suu Kyi has doubled down on her claim that no genocide has been committed in Rakhine State. No meaningful progress has been made in accordance to the provisional measures set out by the ICJ, and we can anticipate that the contents of the report are likely to reinforce the government’s self-serving narrative that the actions of the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State are legal and justified as a counter-terrorism operation

Myanmar’s own Independent Commission of Enquiry admitted that there were some cases of disproportionate force used by security personnel in the killing of civilians and destruction of property, leading them to conclude that war crimes have been committed. This is in fact a calculated attempt to deflect responsibility as war crimes, unlike accusations of genocide, cannot be brought before the ICJ.

carrying out a genocide goes far beyond individualised acts of violence.

The report will likely place emphasis on small tokenistic measures instead, such as the presidential directives issued in April:

  1.  ordering all Ministries and all Regions and States Governments to ensure its staff and others under its control do not commit acts defined in the Genocide Convention; and (2) prohibiting all Ministries and the Rakhine State government from destroying or removing evidence of genocide. 

But carrying out a genocide goes far beyond individualised acts of violence. The UN-backed independent international fact finding mission on Myanmar highlighted the oppressive and systemic restrictions suffered by Rohingya including restricting freedom of movement, access to adequate nutrition, and enforced ethnic segregation facilitated by the imposition of The National Verification Cards.  So far there have been no meaningful efforts to end the systemic marginalisation and persecution of Rohingya.


Children in Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Image credit: European Union (Flickr)

Atrocities committed in recent months

Since mid-March, against the backdrop of the pandemic, there have been increased attacks on ethnic areas by the Tatmadaw. In four states and one region of Myanmar there have been over 165 armed clashes in civilian areas, more than 200 abductions and detentions, more than 50 people tortured, over 1000 homes destroyed and approximately 2200 people displaced from violence. Areas in Rakhine and Chin States have also been subject to frequent shelling and air strikes.

the escalation of conflict has led to a significant rise in the use of child labour

Recently published Satellite photos show 200 burnt buildings on May 16th in a village in Mrauk-U township. Last month, a video released and widely circulated on the internet shows five men detained and tortured on a Myanmar Navy vessel and being forced to say that they were AA soldiers.  At the beginning of May, the Tatmadaw admitted that the soldiers had used improper and unaurthorized interrogation techniques, but despite this, the five men were still charged under the counter terrorism law.

Yanghee Lee has also detailed that the escalation of conflict has led to a significant rise in the use of child labour by the Tatmadaw such as digging trenches, carrying bricks and harvesting fields, breaching international obligations and the domestic 2019 Child Rights Law.

UN programmes, food aid and humanitarian aid are being restricted in Rakhine and Chin States,and there remains a total internet blackout in several townships in Rakhine, with certain Rohingya news sites banned; severely impacting the rights of over one million people. This is of particular concern to public health as the country remains in the grips of an epidemic and access to public health information and health care is more important than ever. 

Myanmar must be held accountable

Whilst Myanmar is in the midst of an epidemic, the Tatmadaw are ignoring calls for a nationwide ceasefire, while ramping-up attacks in ethnic areas across the country and restricting aid. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi recently publicly praised the Tatmadaw for their ‘courage and dedication.’ The human cost of the state sponsored military violence across across the country is incalculable. 

Whilst the contents of Myanmar’s report might not be publicly available, it is uncomfortably clear that the Myanmar government has made no meaningful progress on the provisional measures set out by the ICJ in December. Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have continued to legitimise the actions of the Tatmadaw who continue to act with absolute impunity.

The world must demand justice for the Rohingya people, and all the ethnic people of Myanmar. 

Featured image credit: UN Women/Allison Joyce (Flickr)

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