Myanmar coup: growing evidence of ‘crimes against humanity’, says UN envoy

Demonstrators run from the military firing tear gas. (Credit: EPA / Kaung Zaw Hein)

The UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar has said there is growing evidence that the country’s military “is now engaging in crimes against humanity” as the brutal crackdown on anti-coup demonstrators and civilians continues to escalate.

Addressing the Human Rights Council on Thursday, Thomas Andrews said crimes perpetrated by the military since the coup on 1 February included “the acts of murder, enforced disappearance, persecution, torture, and imprisonment in violation of fundamental rules of international law.”

In his statement to the body, Andrews reported that the number of people “murdered” by security forces has now reached at least 70, with over half of those people under the age of 25. He said that, as of last night, the total number of arbitrary arrests and detentions since 1 February had risen beyond 2000.

“It is a horrible truth that as soon as I issue a report, the number of murders and arbitrary detentions in Myanmar become outdated,” he said. “The junta is detaining dozens, sometimes hundreds, every day.”

He also warned that violence against peaceful protesters and civilians calling for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a reversal of the coup was intensifying, citing extensive video evidence of security forces beating demonstrators, medics and bystanders. He said there was also video evidence of soldiers and police systematically destroying property, looting shops and firing indiscriminately into people’s homes.

“There is shocking video of the aftermath of attacks, including fatal gunshot wounds to the heads of protesters, and video of soldiers dragging or carrying away the dead bodies of their victims,” he said.

Crimes against humanity. The special envoy said there was a “growing body of reporting” that made it “increasingly clear that these murders, imprisonments, enforced disappearances, and other acts against the people of Myanmar” are part of a coordinated campaign directed against civilians. The reports show these were “widespread” and “well organised”, and were being carried out “with the knowledge of senior leadership”.

“I implore all of you to look at the facts currently available, in light of international legal precedent finding crimes against humanity,” he said. “Crimes against humanity require one or more prohibited criminal acts ‘committed as a part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.’”

“If we accept that there is a strong likelihood that the Myanmar junta is engaged in atrocity crimes against its own people right now, as we sit here, what do we do about it?,” he asked the council. “Knowing, as we do, the price of international inaction, what action must be taken immediately?”

At least seven more peaceful protesters were killed on Thursday by security forces who have been accused of going on a “killing spree” by rights group Amnesty International.

“These are not the actions of overwhelmed, individual officers making poor decisions," said Amnesty's Joanne Mariner in a statement. "These are unrepentant commanders already implicated in crimes against humanity, deploying their troops and murderous methods in the open."

Crackdown on protests. The civil disobedience movement, which has been growing since the coup, is spearheaded by young people and has wide support from groups of all ages throughout society, including civil servants, railway workers, healthcare workers and Buddhist monks. The security forces have responded to the peaceful protests through mass arrests and increasingly brutal force. However, the protests have continued despite the crackdowns.

Andrews also warned that the military junta has “systematically destroyed legal protections, from freedom of expression, assembly and association, to the right to privacy” and has given itself the power to invade people’s homes. Authorities have moved to shut down independent reporting through mass arrests of journalists, the closure of media outlets and nightly internet outages.

The special envoy accused authorities of enabling “sweeping surveillance authorities” and removing habeas corpus - the right to appear before a judge to determine whether an arrest is lawful. Since the coup, Myanmar’s military rulers have levelled multiple accusations at Suu Kyi who has been detained since 1 February. Most recently, the junta accused the deposed State Counsellor of illegally accepting $600,000 and 11kg of gold - the strongest allegation yet, with no evidence presented.

Security Council statement. The report was presented after the 15 countries of the UN Security Council unanimously backed a statement condemning the military’s violent crackdown against anti-coup demonstrators on Wednesday and calling for “utmost restraint”.

A presidential statement is a step below a resolution but becomes part of the official record of the UN body. Newly appointed US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the current council president, announced the statement had been formally adopted after a very brief virtual meeting on Wednesday. Thomas-Greenfield stressed that all council members “spoke with one voice to condemn the ongoing violence against peaceful protesters.”

“We commend their courage and determination in the face of continued, brutal attacks by military and security forces,” she said in a statement. “The United States will continue to work with a broad coalition of international partners to promote accountability for the coup and those responsible for violence, and will work to restore the democratically-elected government.”

However, the statement was met with anger from many who criticised it for falling short of condemning the military’s action as a “coup”. The statement adopted is reportedly weaker than the initial draft circulated by the UK which would have condemned the military coup in Myanmar and threatened possible sanctions, “should the situation deteriorate further.”

Neighbour and ally of Myanmar China, along with Russia, India and Vietnam, which is a member of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) together with Myanmar, allegedly opposed stronger earlier drafts and pushed for language explicitly condemning the coup to be watered down. However, some have said the fact that China and Russia agreed the statement at all was a success.

"The mere fact that there is a statement at all is a minor miracle," Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group's UN liaison, told CNN . "A few days ago, some council members thought it would be impossible for the West to find common ground with China on this."

Although special envoy Andrews welcomed the Security Council's statement during the Human Rights Council meeting, he said it was “wholly insufficient”.

“The people of Myanmar need not only words of support but supportive action. They need the help of the international community, and they need it now. ”

Concern for the Rohingya. Both Andrews and the Security Council statement addressed the 2017 military crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State involving mass rape, murders and torching of villages that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

“The country of Myanmar is being controlled by a murderous, illegal regime. Its current leadership perpetrated the atrocity crimes that are the focus of the charge of genocide before the International Court of Justice,” said Andrews, whose report documents continued crimes against the Rohingya in 2020 including torture, murder and enforced disappearances.

Andrews called on member states to take coordinated action as “an emergency coalition for the people of Myanmar”. He suggested multilateral sanctions, both on senior junta leaders and their sources of revenue and outlawing arms exports to the military - with 41 countries having already imposed some form of arms embargo. He also called for the halting of humanitarian and development aid through the junta, and for member states to refuse to recognise the junta as the legitimate government.

“Despite the widespread and systematic atrocities that the Myanmar military and Police Force are committing daily, the people of Myanmar continue to rise up from every corner of the nation as a diverse yet powerfully unified whole,” said Andrews. “Myanmar has never appeared to be more unified. But, they need our help and they need it now. ”