Myanmar: civilian death toll rises amid calls to end ‘state of terror’

Yola VerbruggenFriday 9 April 2021

Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day – 27 March – was the deadliest day since February’s coup, with over 90 civilians reported dead, including children. As the military continues to bend the law for its own use, people are wondering when the killings will end, and what the world is doing to stop them.

In late March, while Min Aung Hlaing – Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military – spoke about protecting democracy, his forces launched airstrikes against areas mostly occupied by the ethnic Karen people. The airstrikes followed reports that members of the Karen National Liberation Army – which has announced support for the anti-coup protestors – had seized a military base.

The military continues to commit atrocities with an aim to ‘provoke a state of terror’, according to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an independent group of international experts including Yanghee Lee, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

The human rights framework has as its mission protecting civilians from overreach and abuse by state actors, including militaries

Alexa Koenig
Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

Lee compares the killings, the reported burning of a dead man, and other acts of terror to the military’s actions as it violently expelled hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya people from the country in 2017.

The Council has called for a ‘three-cuts’ strategy against the Myanmar military, which would involve targeted sanctions against senior military officials and military-owned companies, an arms embargo and a referral to the International Criminal Court.

The non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) in Myanmar says hundreds have now been killed on the streets and thousands imprisoned. The Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar (ILAM), established with support from the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, has meanwhile offered help free of charge to those unlawfully detained.

‘Under the current circumstances, even under pressure and danger of personal safety, we are able to provide legal aid to hundreds of people who are on trial for various allegations, and [are] giving legal advice to the families of the detained demonstrators and Civil Disobedience Movement activists throughout the country’, an ILAM representative tells Global Insight.

The representative emphasises that their work is ‘difficult and dangerous’, with lawyers facing threats, arrests and persecution under what he calls a ‘reign of terror’.

The AAPP says that by late March, less than 40 political prisoners had been sentenced. Most are arbitrarily detained, held in undisclosed locations.

‘Some detainees have been able to access lawyers but there is systematic abuse of the rule of law and legal rights,’ the organisation tells Global Insight. ‘In many cases, lawyers of detainees have not been able to visit their clients, access court-rooms, or even find out when a court date is set. It is a similar story for families, who cannot contact their relatives who are violently rounded up in night-time raids.’

In mid-March, the military imposed martial law in several townships in Yangon, allowing for civilians to be tried in military tribunals for certain offences. These include the offences of criticising the coup or the military, and of inciting others to support the anti-coup movement – both offences were recently added to the country’s Penal Code.

Repressive legislation has also been used against State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who remain under arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of owning unlicensed walkie-talkies and violating Covid-19 restrictions. She also faces corruption charges, following the airing of a video on state TV of a Myanmar businessman who says he gave her $550,000 over a period of several years, allegations her lawyer says are baseless.

The military has said that the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in November 2020 was fraudulent and forced the military to take control.

For authoritarian regimes, it’s not uncommon to invoke the rule of law as a veil of legitimacy for their actions, says Federica D’Alessandra, Member of the IBA War Crimes Committee Advisory Board.

‘The fact that these domestic laws often themselves violate international law and standards allow the international community to see these attempts to legitimize their actions by invoking the law for what they are: tools of domestic propaganda’, says D’Alessandra, who is also the Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security at the Blavatnik School of Government's Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict.

A court hearing Aung San Suu Kyi was scheduled to attend in mid-March was delayed until April, reportedly because of internet issues, at a time when the military began a country-wide mobile internet shutdown.

Since then, mobile data has been disabled, according to London-based NetBlocks, which monitors internet disruptions. The internet shutdown limits access to news online, while licences of independent print media have been revoked. The only newspapers now available are those that function as a mouthpiece for the military.

In the absence of the rule of law, people on occasion have themselves detained those suspected of acting as regime informants. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a government in exile formed by elected members of parliament – has begun negotiations with ethnic minority groups about the creation of a federal army, as they look to protect civilians against the military.

A coordinated international response to the military’s actions is lacking, says Alexa Koenig, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley. ‘Regardless of next steps, it’s critical that civilian wellbeing is prioritized. The human rights framework has as its mission protecting civilians from overreach and abuse by state actors, including militaries.’

Koenig says that both domestic and international actors need to be listening to what civilians are saying they need and helping to ensure those needs are met. ‘That includes making sure that they’re not caught in the crosshairs of two warring military groups,’ she says.

Header pic: Shutterstock.com / Ayush Chopra Delhi