UN rights chief urges effective pressure on Myanmar’s military
By Robin Gomes
As Myanmar nears the first anniversary of the military coup that toppled the legitimate government of the country, the United Nations rights chief is calling on the international community to intensify pressure on the junta to stop its campaign of violence against the people and to insist on the prompt restoration of civilian rule.
Call for robust measures
“One year after the military seized power, the people of Myanmar – who have paid a high cost in both lives and freedoms lost – continue to advocate relentlessly for their democracy,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday. She said that during the week she had “a chance to speak in person with determined, courageous human rights defenders who are pleading to the international community not to abandon them, but to take robust, effective measures to ensure their rights are protected and the military is held accountable.”
“I urge governments – in the region and beyond – as well as businesses, to listen to this plea. It is time for an urgent, renewed effort to restore human rights and democracy in Myanmar and ensure that perpetrators of systemic human rights violations and abuses are held to account.”
Myanmar's military, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, deposed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy on 1 February 2021, imprisoning her and other elected leaders. The coup triggered widespread protests and strikes, calling for her release and the restoration of the nation’s democratic process. A year on, the bloody crackdown by the junta has not been able to quash the dissent.
Rather, the offensive has broadened into a wider crisis, reigniting the military’s old conflicts with some of the armed ethnic organizations backing the protesters. Numerous independent civil resistance groups have sprung up to defend their people against the military’s atrocities.
The UN Human Rights Office has documented gross human rights violations on a daily basis, the vast majority committed by security forces. It has documented village burnings, including places of worship and medical clinics, mass arrests, summary executions and the use of torture.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a group that documents and compiles fatalities and arrests, Myanmar’s security forces have killed some 1,500 people so far and are currently holding around 8,800 in prison. At least 11,800 have been arbitrarily detained for voicing their opposition to the military either in peaceful protests or through their online activities, of whom 8,792 remain in custody. At least 290 have died in detention, many likely due to the use of torture.
However, the actual figures could be much higher as many deaths and casualties in the military’s onslaught against armed groups in the regions inhabited by the Kachin, Chin, Karen, and Kayah ethnic groups go unreported.
Bachelet said she had heard chilling accounts of journalists being tortured; factory workers being intimidated, silenced and exploited; intensified persecution of ethnic and religious minorities – including the Rohingya; arbitrary arrests, detentions and sham trials of political opponents; “clearance operations” targeting villagers; and indiscriminate attacks including through airstrikes and the use of heavy weaponry in populated areas, showing gross disregard for human life.
A shattered lives
“And yet,” the UN’s rights chief noted, “courageous human rights defenders and trade unionists continue to protest, to advocate, to document and accumulate the mounting evidence of violations.”
The crisis has been exacerbated by the combined forces of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of the banking, transportation, education and other sectors, leaving the economy on the brink of collapse. The daily lives of people have been severely impacted, with devastating effects on their enjoyment of economic and social rights. There are projections that nearly half of the population of 54 million may be driven into poverty this year.
According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on Friday, Myanmar lost 1.6 in 2021, with the military coup battering an already weakened labour market due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Toothless international action
Despite the impact of the coup and the pandemic on the lives of families and communities, Bachelet said, “The people have shown extraordinary courage and resilience in standing up for their basic human rights and supporting each other.” Now the international community must show its resolve to support them through concrete actions to end this crisis.”
She noted that despite a near-universal condemnation of the coup and the ensuing violence, the international response to the crisis has been “ineffectual”. Actions especially by the UN Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been inadequate to convince Myanmar's de facto rulers.
The UN rights high commissioner also pointed out that the current human rights crisis is built upon the impunity with which the military leadership committed gross human rights against minorities for decades. “As long as impunity prevails, stability in Myanmar will be a fiction. Accountability of the military remains crucial to any solution going forward – the people overwhelmingly demand this,” Bachelet said.