The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar has called on the military to refrain from using violence and to fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. In a statement given on 16 February, Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener, cautioned the military that the world is watching closely, and heavy-handed responses or excessive violence will likely have severe consequences.
What’s happening in Myanmar?
On 1 February, the military (also referred to as the Tatmadaw) launched a coup and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar and leader of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Since then, the country has plunged into unrest. She was initially charged under the country’s import and export law for allegedly possessing unlawful communication devices by having walkie-talkies in her home. Today (16 February) the military added another charge under the natural disaster management law. Suu Kyi has been confined to her home for her safety, but her lawyers have assured that she is comfortable and healthy. Other officials from the NLD party have also been detained. Suu Kyi’s lawyer announced that Suu Kyi will be held for the further two days, and then tried via video conferencing at the court in Nay Pyi Taw on 17 February. Both Suu Kyi and President Win Myint are expected to undergo questioning.
The military has denied that the arrest of Suu Kyi was a coup, instead claiming it’s actions were justified because the recent election in November 2020, which saw Suu Kyi’s NLD party win by a landslide, was fraudulent. The military backed the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who contested the result back in November. There is no concrete evidence to back these claims, but the military stated that it will deliver a new “free and fair” election regardless. It is acknowledged that the election did have some flaws, for example those in conflict zones were not able to vote, and many ethnic minority groups such as the persecuted Rohingya were excluded from voting. However, the NLD party received over 80% of the vote, and the electoral bodies accepted this result with no evidence of widespread fraud.
General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s leader, has assumed power since the coup. In his first public statement since, he justified the takeover by saying the military is on the people’s side, attempting to form a “true and disciplined democracy”. A military spokesperson said that they would hand over power to the winning party following the new election, but a date has not yet been announced. Brigadier General General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, spoke at a news conference which the military broadcast from Nay Pyi Taw live over Facebook, despite the fact that it had banned the social networking platform. He said he “guarantees” that an election will be held. He also said that Myanmar’s foreign policy would not change, it remains open for business and deals would be upheld.
Human rights abuses against protesters
Mass protests against the military have been ongoing for the last two weeks, the largest the country has seen in the last decade. The military has employed measures to suppress them, using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters and implementing curfews and restrictions to limit gatherings. There is a large military presence on the streets with armoured vehicles and officers to crackdown on demonstrations and disperse crowds. One protester, 19-year old Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, is in critical condition after being shot in the head, and whilst it is unclear what exactly hit her, human rights groups say that her wound is consistent with one from live ammunition. With many violent clashes with the armed forces, “night-watch” groups in several cities have been set up to deter mobs reportedly dispatched by the military to cause unrest.
According to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an estimated 400 people have been arrested since the coup and 375 of them remain in detention, including civil society members, journalists and social media activists. On 15 February, the military posted a statement online warning that anyone preventing the security forces from “carrying out their duties” could face 20 years in prison and heavy fines, and those who are found to “stir up fear or unrest in public” could be imprisoned for three to seven years. This follows the military granting itself the power to make arrests, carry out searches, and hold people for more than 24 hours without a court ruling.
The military also imposed internet shutdowns for two days running, from 1am to 9am. According to UK-based monitoring group NetBlocks, connectivity dropped to 15% of ordinary levels. Internet shutdowns are often imposed to deter media reports of what’s happening internally to reach international media outlets, but also to block people organising protesters and communicating with one another. The internet was restored on the morning of 16 February, but the military may continue to block the web as demonstrations continue and social media documents abuses against protesters.
Governments and international organisations have condemned the coup and the use of violence and arbitrary arrests of protesters. The US, UK and many EU leaders have denounced the military takeover. UN Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews called on the Human Rights Council to urge the Security Council to consider sanctions, embargos and travel bans, plus called for judicial action at the International Criminal Court. Russia and China, who have relations with the Myanmar military, blocked a UN resolution condemning the coup.
In the statement released earlier this week, UN Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener “reinforced that the right of peaceful assembly must fully be respected and that demonstrators are not subject to reprisals.”
On 12 February, the UN Human Rights Council held a Special Session on the Human Rights Implications of the Crisis in Myanmar, led by Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif. In her statement, she calls the military coup a “profound setback” for the country after a decade of “hard won gains in its democratic transition”. The military’s orders are “draconian”, preventing peaceful assembly and free speech. The statement clearly condemns the use of lethal or less-than-lethal weapons against protestors, warning that more violence will only “compound the illegitimacy of the coup, and the culpability of its leaders.”
In support of the protesters, the statement read: “The High Commissioner and I greatly admire the conviction of the demonstrators – many of them young people and women, from diverse ethnic backgrounds – who have peacefully marched and participated in other activities to oppose the coup and the crackdown. It is they who represent Myanmar’s future: a future of shared justice and equitably shared national wealth, amid harmonious relationships between peoples and communities.”
When addressing why such a crisis has taken place, the Deputy High Commissioner says it was “born out of impunity”, with the military’s disproportionate influence in Myanmar’s political and economic structures. The Deputy High Commissioner’s statement called the Tatmadaw the “greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation”, and called for Min Aung Hlaing and his officials to be replaced alongside a restructuring to place the military under full civilian control. The statement also warned sanctions may be imposed, but should be placed upon individuals responsible for violating human rights, and leaders of the coup are the focus of any action.
Why does the military have so much power?
The military junta ruled the country from 1962 – 2011, and throughout that time there were many uprisings and clashes between the military and different ethnic or political groups. The biggest protests against the military until this year were in 2007, known as the Saffron Revolution, led by thousands of monks and pro-democracy activists. The military cracked down heavily on protesters, with an estimated 200 people killed during the unrest. Following this, a new constitution was drafted in 2008, beginning what is called Myanmar’s “democratic experiment.” The first election for twenty years held in 2010 saw power given to the USDP. The election was claimed to be fraudulent by opponents and many Western countries. After the military transferred most of its power, the country went under many reforms, and the 2015 election saw a sweeping victory for Suu Kyi and the NLD party.
However, under the 2008 constitution, 25% of the vote in Myanmar’s elections is reserved for military seats, and Defence, Foreign Affairs and other departments are administered by the Tatmadaw, which remains a thorn in the attempts to fully democratise the country. The military also made two business conglomerates made up of local and foreign companies, giving them a strong economic holding and influence. Suu Kyi’s power as leader of the elected party was limited, but she is still seen as a popular leader in the country. Before her accession to power, she spent almost 15 years detained and on house-arrest, and following her release she rejoined her political party in 2011. She is forbidden by the constitution from assuming presidency as her children are foreign-born, hence creating the role of State Counsellor.
A Nobel Peace Prize winner and internationally acclaimed figure, Suu Kyi’s standing as a democratic leader has faltered because of her response to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. In 2017, the military began persecuting the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that mostly reside in Rakhine state. The military claim it was a counter terrorism offense, but the UN, government leaders, and human rights bodies have all said that it is a genocide. Gross human rights abuses and crimes of genocide, such as burning homes, raping women and killing children, forced 800,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh. Many of whom are left in camps, the main being Cox Bazaar which holds around 725,000 Rohingya refugees, have been abandoned by the Suu Kyi’s government and given little hope to return. Suu Kyi did not condemn the military’s actions, instead attempting to provide some sort of plausible justification. Myanmar faces prosecution for genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), whilst the International Criminal Court (ICC) is invesitgating individuals for crimes against humanity. At the IJC hearing in the Hague, she defended the army, arguing that “genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis”.
What happens now?
The real reasons for the military coup are contested, with nothing confirmed as the military is closed off and secretive. Some reports claim that the military felt threatened at possible attempts for constitutional reform by Suu Kyi’s party, but others claim it is a power grab by Tatmadaw leader General Min Aung Hlaing who is nearing retirement. Whilst this is still speculation, it is unclear what action the military will take next to implement their plans for a new election. Protests are likely to continue as the country awaits the video conference questioning of Suu Kyi and the president.
The military says it will be in power for a year before handing power to the winner of their new election, but the majority of the international community has called for a return to power sharing with civilians and a democratic process. The possibility of sanctions may push military leaders to end their power holding earlier than a year, and release NLD party leaders from detention. A year of military rule could see a return to widespread conflict across Myanmar, a reduction of civil and political rights, and leaves even less hope for a human-rights based solution to the Rohingya crisis.
IOHR supports the international community’s call for a return to democratic processes and for the military to cease its use of force against protesters.