The webinar explored the post-coup context of Myanmar which has left many communities in dire need of basic social services and humanitarian assistance. The webinar also addressed contemporary human rights issues in Myanmar highlighting patterns or trends by comparing present and past patterns of abuse.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, 25 July 2022 – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar under Chatham House Rule inviting Mr Matthew Bugher, the Research Director for the Myanmar Human Rights Project at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School. Mr Bugher also provided contextual analysis on understanding the current crisis in Myanmar while explaining the military’s role in it and policy implications for ASEAN and the United Nations. The webinar, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, attracted the interest of 79 attendees. The discussion explored patterns and emerging trends in human rights violations specific to gender-based violence, political detainees, the deteriorating situation of economic, social and cultural rights, and policy considerations for the regional and international policymakers.
Key discussion points included the following:
- Myanmar’s military institution, also known as the Tatmadaw, is violent unreformed and unaccountable. The institution is used to violence at its core. Tatmadaw officers strongly believe in their centrality in Myanmar’s political landscape.
- The international community should treat the State Administration Council (SAC) junta as a perpetrator of violent acts rather than a political actor. Otherwise, the approach from the international community is doomed to fail. Human rights violations should be given more weight.
- The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is apparent just on the basis of the numbers. There are 1.1 million internally displaced people, more than 20,000 homes have been burnt down by the military, over 2000 civilians have been killed, and over 15,000 people have been arbitrarily arrested. Communities across the country have reported much higher numbers of violent acts, so the numbers reported in the news is highly likely to be underestimated.
- The human rights violations of the military junta are mostly targeted at the civilian population as if the junta is at war with the people of Myanmar. The Principle of Distinction which is to distinguish between civilian and military targets has been abandoned by the Tatmadaw since the Tatmadaw is facing asymmetric attacks from all sides.
- In retaliation, the Tatmadaw has been engaging in crimes against humanity such as burning down homes and massacring civilians, including the elderly and children. The Tatmadaw’s use of landmines in civilian locations such as inside the villages, outside of churches and in farmland is abhorrent, and now such practice is extended to the Burman heartlands from the ethnic minority areas.
- Aerial bombings are also wreaking havoc on civilian populations. Aerial attacks do not serve any legitimate aims because the resistance forces can easily disperse while civilians face the full brunt of aerial bombings.
- Gender-based violence on the part of the junta’s forces is under-reported. There is a massive undercounting of cases, and research has been solely relying on anecdotes and media monitoring.
- Women’s rights organisations have been remarkably effective in supporting survivors of sexual violence. Still, there is social stigma concerning rape. And Internet cut-offs and other logistical challenges must be overcome in order to carry out research properly. Fear of retaliation from the perpetrators is a serious concern among victims of sexual violence and their communities. The speaker concluded that sexual violence is happening on a massive scale and this matter should be taken more seriously.
- At the end of the previous military regime under now retired Senior General Than Shwe, the number of political prisoners was roughly 2,000. However, the current SAC regime has detained over 12,000 individuals as prisoners of conscience. Not only is this jump in the number of political prisoners significant, but it also speaks volumes about the breadth of support for the opposition movement.
- Under the SAC regime, human rights violations against political prisoners have been appalling. They have included the ill treatment of detained LGBTQ persons, lack of access to family members and enforced disappearance of detained persons. The SAC regime would stoop to the point of arresting the elderly and underaged children not because of their opposition to the coup but because their family members managed to evade arrests. According to known statistics, 61 children have been detained as hostages, and sometimes parents do not know where their children are. The SAC supporters took pride in the hostage tactics when some parents turn themselves in.
- The current situation of economic, social and cultural rights is not receiving enough attention in the international media. The right to food, the right to education and the right to shelter are being violated on an unprecedented scale. The impact on nutrition and education will be greater than that of aerial bombings. The speaker mentioned that 7.8 million children are estimated to be out of school because of the activities of the Tatmadaw and other armed groups. Some of these rights violations are not only due to the conflict but also due to the military junta’s policies.
- The speaker traced patterns of human rights violations across the years to the last few decades starting from the 2000s. Even though there were some departures from longstanding patterns during the past decade of quasi-civilian administrations, human rights violations by the Tatmadaw have been consistent through the years. The speaker concluded that the Tatmadaw was not capable of reform and in its current form cannot coexist with a democratic system.
- The speaker had conducted research on understanding the Tatmadaw’s typical military battlefield conduct in order to promote reforms to protect the civilian populations. The Tatmadaw has a colour-coded system for categorising geographic areas in Myanmar into three, namely black, brown and white areas. Code black is for areas that the Tatmadaw has little or no control over, and the general rule of thumb is to treat everyone in the code black areas as enemies; commanders have the authority to shoot anyone in sight. Code brown is for contested areas where neither anti-junta forces nor the Tatmadaw has control. Code white is Tatmadaw-controlled areas. Troop commanders tend to have maps that illustrate the colour-coded areas, and they are obligated to tell the civilians which areas are restricted.
- The Tatmadaw has been accused of continuing to use the ‘four cuts strategy’ where cutting access to resistance forces’ funding, food, intelligence and recruits is prioritised. However, the speaker has not found explicit evidence suggesting that the four cuts strategy remains an official policy. The patterns of abuse by the Tatmadaw soldiers have been consistent as far as observed, from the conflicts in Kachin State in 2011 to the recent Rakhine crisis. The abuse is the same as that directed towards Rohingya people, but the involvement of civilian mobs was an additional concern in the Rohingya crisis. The use of aerial attacks has been more frequent since the 2021 coup, since the Tatmadaw has to expand its activities to more battlefronts.
- We now have greater access to military defectors than in the past. In a recent BBC interview, six soldiers who had defected admitted to receiving instruction to shoot anyone in sight, to set fire to any decent house in the villages in which they conducted operations and even to commit rape. They thereby confirmed the sexual violence happening on the battlefronts. The speaker concluded that the orders given to the rank-and-file soldiers are identical to the orders from a decade ago on different battlefronts.
- The pattern of displacement in civilian communities is another area where we see continuity in the Tatmadaw’s violent acts. Reports of Tatmadaw soldiers destroying crops, livestock and even cooking instruments have been common in conflict zones across the years. Even under the NLD administration, these violent crimes were reported since the military controlled the entire security sector. The consistency in committing such violent acts is proof that the Tatmadaw is a violent, uncontrolled, and unreformed institution at its core.
- There was no significant turnover of the military leadership in the past few decades. Former Senior General Than Shwe’s retirement was a managed transition, with power handed to his protégé. Western governments had thought about engaging with Tatmadaw to promote a new class of leadership to be part of a democratic transition. Yet there is no evidence of success so far. There was some success in terms of reducing the number of child soldiers, but now things are going back to the way they were before 2011.
- The chief architect of the Rohingya genocide is now acting as the head of government, and that underscores the impunity that the Tatmadaw has enjoyed. There was no accountability in civil-military relationship in the NLD administration. When pressured, the military leaders would use rank-and-file soldiers as scapegoats and punish a very small number of soldiers to appease the international community. The commander-in-chief has final authority over military justice, and there is no provision for civilian oversight of the military because of the terms of the 2008 Constitution.
- For policymakers in the international community, the speaker reaffirmed the geopolitical and economic interests tied up in Myanmar’s crisis. Myanmar is an important bridge between South and Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding these interests, Myanmar’s political crisis cannot be unlocked without first tackling the Tatmadaw’s nature as a violent, unreformed and unaccountable institution. The 2008 Constitution is neither a viable mechanism for building Myanmar’s future nor a good exit strategy out of the current crisis.
- The international community must step up the efforts to promote the accountability of the military junta. It will be a long process but a necessary one. The approach of engaging the Tatmadaw as a political actor rather than the perpetrator of the violence is doomed to fail. ASEAN has failed to address the current Myanmar crisis, with its human rights violations, and downplayed the situation to the internal affairs of Myanmar.
The discussion that followed the speaker’s remarks further probed questions of the role of state-dominated telecommunications and surveillance as a factor in human rights violations in Myanmar, refugee crises due to conflicts in Myanmar, the effectiveness of the international community in helping the Myanmar people, the Myanmar military’s rationale in dealing with political detainees, the steps necessary for security sector reform, the possibility of internal strife in the military leadership, the condition of human trafficking in Myanmar and China’s role in supporting the military.