Myanmar: human rights ignored as civil war looms

signpost saying 'free people from myanmar'
Kate Bisogno

6th May 2021


The current unrest in Myanmar is not solely a threat to the possibility of future democracy, it is an infringement of the fundamental human rights of citizens. Ever since the country gained independence from British rule in 1948, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has experienced both the violence of military rule and the controversy of a quasi-democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, received an outright majority in the 2020 elections. The military responded with voter fraud allegations and viewed the result as a vote on the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the election commission rejected these allegations, on 1 February 2021 the military announced a state of emergency and a year long coup d’etat. Since the coup began, hundreds of innocent lives have been lost and thousands have been injured, detained, or both. With military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in power, a ruthless approach has been used to terminate protests (many of which remain peaceful) and strict measures have been put in place, such as curfews and a nationwide internet shutdown. The events of the coup are seen on a global scale as a violation of international human rights. Numerous countries have condemned the actions of Myanmar’s military and imposed sanctions, but is this enough to put an end to the brutality?


Violence has consumed the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), almost 600 deaths have occurred as a result of the unrest since the 1st of February. Of those, more than 40 were children. On 27 March, the deadliest day since the coup began, more than 100 people were killed. The military’s response to protestors has been brutal. Security forces have used water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition in an attempt to disperse protesters. There have been reports of security forces opening fire at protesters and demolishing barricades. An opposition group, the Karen National Unions (KNU), stated that the “inhumane actions against unarmed civilians have caused the death of many people including children and students.” They continued, stating “these terrorist acts are clearly a flagrant violation of local and international laws.”


Not only have civilians been injured and killed, but thousands have been detained, many of whom’s whereabouts are unknown. It has been reported that approximately 2,751 people have been detained or sentenced, the vast majority without charge. Among those detained are the leaders of the NLD, along with President U Win Myint. The nation’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested when the coup began and has recently been charged with violating a colonial-era official secrets law. Cabinet ministers, politicians, journalists, protesters, activists and even children have been taken into custody. More than 60 warrants have been issued against cultural celebrities in an effort to silence any opposition to the coup.


“Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the Myanmar military, often referred to as the junta, has “forcibly disappeared hundreds of people” since the coup began. Brad Adams, the HRW Asia director said “the junta’s widespread use of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances appears designed to strike fear in the hearts of anti-coup protesters.” Innocent citizens have been taken from their homes and their whereabouts have not been disclosed to loved ones.”

These actions are an evident violation of fundamental human rights. Under international human rights law, an enforced disappearance occurs when authorities detain an individual while concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person. They are placed outside the protection of the law. Forcibly disappeared people are commonly subjected to torture or extrajudicial execution. “Enforced disappearances are grave violations of international law, and when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, are crimes against humanity.”


In an attempt to contain the protests, the military has imposed a range of restrictions, including the implementation of curfews and limits to gatherings. In what looks like an attempt to disrupt any flow of communication, not only have the military taken control of media outlets and detained journalists, they have recently cut all wireless internet services. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications instructed telecoms companies to cease wireless broadband internet services, making any opposition to the coup significantly weaker.


The actions of the Myanmar military have been condemned at a global level. Some 300 Myanmar MPs have urged the United Nations to investigate “gross human rights violations” that they claim have been carried out by the military. The European Union, the UK and the US have responded to the events by imposing sanctions on the junta. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has accused the security forces of a “reign of terror”. Although sanctions have been imposed by the UN and Western governments, they have little to no authority over the actions of the junta. Both the military and the protestors are determined not to surrender, meaning internal conflict and human rights violations will undoubtedly increase. A political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote that instead of the hope of a stable democracy, the country faces “the imminent threat of economic collapse” … “perhaps even a full-fledged civil war.” Western governments may have the ability to save the people of Myanmar by redirecting development aid from the military toward civil society. It is necessary for individual countries and international NGOs to reorganise their aid programmes. A new approach must be adopted which recognises the inevitable instability that occurs when countries such as Myanmar are in the midst of transitioning from military rule to democracy.





Featured photo by Gayatri Malhorta on Unsplash



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