By Volker Turk
Each day, the people of Myanmar are enduring horrifying attacks, flagrant human rights violations and the crumbling of their livelihoods and hopes.
Since my last report in July, the overall human rights situation in Myanmar has deteriorated even further.
Widespread campaigns of violence perpetrated by the military continue, in full disregard for the fundamental principles of humanity and repeated demands of the UN Security Council for an immediate cessation of the hostilities and calls for unhindered humanitarian access.
The report before the council today, which covers the period from 1 April 2022 and 31 July 2023, unveils how the military has further expanded its assault against the civilian population. Its findings describe a range of incidents – many of particular brutality, emblematic of a systematic negation of human rights, human life and human dignity.
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We are faced here with a system of ruthless repression designed to coerce and subjugate its people and to erode a society so that the predatory interests of the military are preserved.
Senseless military attacks are exacerbating the human rights crisis with interconnected humanitarian, political and economic impacts, imposing an unbearable toll on the people in Myanmar.
The restriction on humanitarian access following the destruction caused by Cyclone Mocha in May this year is a clear example of how the military is prioritising its own political interests over the wellbeing of a population in dire need of life-saving assistance.
People in Rakhine state, including members of the Rohingya community, continue to be deprived of food, medicine and the necessary materials to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Credible sources have verified as of yesterday a minimum of 4,108 deaths at the hands of the military and its affiliates.
Three specific military tactics have been systematically directed against the civilian population: air strikes, mass killings and burning of villages.
During the reporting period, the military undertook 687 air strikes, more than double the number carried out in the 14 months following the coup.
My office’s report corroborates data confirming that this increasing use of air power, along with heavy weaponry and other material, can only be purchased from foreign sources. The military is relying on access to foreign currency to purchase military hardware, support services and aviation fuel. In this context, I welcome recent measures imposed specifically to limit purchase of jet fuel, which serves military purposes.
Ground operations have resulted in 22 documented incidents of mass killings of 10 or more individuals. Testimonies indicate that in many of these operations, soldiers entered villages, rounded up those who had not fled and executed them. They used appalling methods to inflict unimaginable pain on their victims, including burning them alive, dismembering, raping, beheading, bludgeoning and using abducted villagers to shield themselves against attacks and landmines.
This is inhumanity in its vilest form.
The burning of entire villages and civilian infrastructure continues to terrorise the population, especially – but not only – in the central region of Sagaing. Over 75,000 structures, including homes, food storage facilities, seed banks and livestock have been destroyed, driving the ongoing displacement crisis, and dramatically increasing humanitarian and protection needs, including for those particularly at risk, such as women, children, older people and people with disabilities.
Violence by anti-military armed groups, including targeted killings and bombings of public places, also persists.
While the scale of these violations is not comparable to those perpetrated by the military, it remains crucial that groups opposing the military respect, in full, international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as principles of civilian protection.
Civilian rule of law in Myanmar has vanished, with the military deliberately eroding the foundations of governance and justice in the country.
Credible sources have reported that 24,836 people have been arrested, 19,264 are still detained and 150 have been sentenced to death by military-controlled courts that lack any independence or adherence to due process or fair trial rights. Over 7,368 individuals have been convicted in ad-hoc trials, most lasting mere minutes and without defence counsel. Only one instance is known, thus far, of an accused being acquitted and that decision resulted in the removal of the judge who ruled in favor of the defendant.
Denial of humanitarian access throughout the whole country is having dramatic consequences on the right to food. Rice especially – a staple for Myanmar people – is becoming extremely limited in many regions.
This denial of access has been acutely felt in Rakhine state, where the human rights situation of the Rohingya community continues to be of the utmost concern, particularly for women, children and young people.
Since Cyclone Mocha made landfall in May, the military has systematically prevented the provision of life-saving medical care, shelter materials, food and clean water. Rohingya families and members of other displaced communities have reported not being able to provide food to their children. And widowed Rohingya women have reportedly been forced to resort to begging for food, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The military has also continued to threaten legal action against anyone reporting different figures to their own official Cyclone Mocha death toll of 116. On 6 September a military court sentenced a photojournalist to 20 years’ imprisonment for his coverage of the post-cyclone situation in Rakhine, the highest sentence handed down to a journalist since the coup.
Despite this, since March, the military has been proposing to carry out the return of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Rakhine state by the end of the year, despite the clear absence of conditions for safe, dignified and sustainable returns.
Notably, no action has been taken to address the root causes of severe discrimination and other violations, to address the issue of citizenship, to ensure provision of services, or to guarantee free movement or other critical factors.
Asean’s five-point consensus – aimed at returning Myanmar to stability – has been ignored by the military, despite their having agreed to its terms. Similarly, the military has failed to respect Security Council resolution 2669 (December 2022) and its demand for an immediate end of violence and unhindered humanitarian access to all people in need.
New thinking on Myanmar is needed – urgently – to bring this unspeakable tragedy to an end.
I welcome the recent decision of Asean to try a new approach, introducing a Troika mechanism to support the chair and special envoy of the organisation beginning next year, and I urge other states to reinforce this initiative.
I reiterate my call to all states and other actors with influence to support efforts to de-escalate this crisis and ensure that all vulnerable people in Myanmar can exercise their fundamental rights and receive all necessary assistance.
I urge all actors to ensure that allegations of human rights abuses against the civilian population are promptly and transparently investigated and that perpetrators are held to account, and for the international community to redouble international accountability initiatives.
Given the continuing gravity of the situation and impunity on the ground, I reiterate my call for the UN Security Council to refer this situation to the International Criminal Court.
People in Myanmar have long suffered with insufficient attention being paid by the international community to their plight. That must change. This council has now received eight reports from my office on this horrific situation and updates at every session since the February 2021 coup.
We have no reason to believe that the military will radically change and break the cycle of impunity that has characterised its operations for decades.
The responsibility of protecting civilians and restoring conditions conducive to peace and stability therefore also rests with the international community, whom I urge to act now.
There is no time to lose.
Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, delivered this address at the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council, interactive dialogue on Myanmar, in Geneva on 26 September