GENEVA (23 September 2021) – Urgent action is needed to prevent the situation in Myanmar from spiraling into a full-blown conflict, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday. Her warning came in a new report* from the UN Human Rights Office detailing widespread violations by the military – the Tatmadaw – against Myanmar’s people, some of which may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes.
Released for the 48th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council, the report describes the situation in Myanmar, which is also facing an economy in freefall and the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – as “a human rights catastrophe that shows no signs of abating.”
Relying heavily on the use of lethal force and mass arrests, military authorities have perpetrated the vast majority of human rights violations documented since the 1 February coup. Serious violations have been committed – of the rights to life, liberty and security of person, the prohibition against torture, the right to a fair trial, as well as the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. In recent weeks, there has been further intensification of military activity, as well as resistance by armed groups.
“There is no sign of any efforts by the military authorities to stop these violations nor implement previous recommendations to tackle impunity and security sector reform,” High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said. “This underscores the urgent need for strong accountability measures. It also runs in the face of commitments made to ASEAN leaders to cease the violence and begin a constructive dialogue among all parties,” she added, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The report, which covers the period ranging from the coup until mid-July, is based on interviews with over 70 victims and witnesses to human rights violations, as well as remote monitoring, credible open sources, and meetings with a range of stakeholders.
When peaceful protests began nationwide in February, military authorities initially used less-lethal weapons in an unnecessary and disproportionate manner and conducted neighbourhood raids, creating an atmosphere of terror. But the tactics swiftly evolved into systematic, targeted killings and relying on lethal force – including semi-automatic rifles and snipers against protesters. More than 1,120 people have been killed since the coup.
In multiple incidents on 27 March, for example, as the nation marked Armed Forces Day, the military attacked peaceful protesters in 12 of Myanmar’s 15 states, regions and union territory, killing at least 130 people in the single bloodiest day since the coup. Opening fire without warning, security forces shot people as they were running away or helping the injured. Among the dead were at least 17 children.
Victims of attacks carried out by security forces have often sustained wounds to their heads and torsos, indicating that they were targeted for maximum harm. Security forces have attacked medical equipment and facilities and health workers.
The military has also used, against protesters, weapons that are designed to be employed in military confrontations. On 9 April, security forces in the central town of Bago fired grenade launchers and artillery shells into residential areas where demonstrators had erected roadblocks, reportedly killing at least 82 people.
Military authorities have also arrested over 8,000 people, including elected officials, protesters and journalists during arrests and raids. At least 120 people have reportedly died in custody, and some have been denied access to medical treatment.
Credible reports indicate that security forces have consistently used interrogation techniques that may amount to torture or ill-treatment, among them beating detainees, depriving them of food, water and sleep for days at a time.
The military’s use of lethal force against protesters has prompted some opponents of the coup to take up arms, leading to clashes across the country.
Fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups has also increased exponentially since the coup, displacing thousands, particularly in Kayin, Shan and Kachin State, where the military has carried out indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery barrages, killing civilians.
“The national consequences are terrible and tragic – the regional consequences could also be profound,” Bachelet said. “The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late.”