Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
21 March 2022
Thirteen months after the military coup of 1 February 2021, the human rights of the people of Myanmar are in profound crisis. Pre-existing armed conflicts in multiple ethnic states have been inflamed by the systematic use of brutal methods by security forces.
Hundreds of localized armed resistance groups have formed across the country, and there is now widespread violence in many areas that were previously stable.
As a result, the country's humanitarian crisis continues to expand. The economy is on the brink of collapse. Over 14.4 million individuals are now assessed as being in humanitarian need.
UN partners indicate that food scarcity will sharply increase over the coming months, and UNDP has forecast that the combined impact of the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic could force nearly half of Myanmar’s population into poverty this year.
Harsh repression of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and information– including Internet access – have not quelled the country's rejection of the coup. Most protests have been expressed peacefully, such as the Silent Strike organised by trade unions and others on Human Rights Day in December 2021, as well as many other forms of protest and boycotts.
Regardless, the military has met all dissent - both acts of civil disobedience and acts of violence - in the same manner: with the use of lethal force, mass arbitrary arrests, and the use of torture. Credible sources have recorded the deaths of over 1,600 individuals, many engaged in peaceful protest. At least 350 of those killed died in military custody, over 21% of the total deaths.
Since February 2021, over half a million people have been forced to flee their homes, with at least 15,000 recorded as fleeing the country. They add to the nearly 340,000 people internally displaced before February 2021 and over one million refugees, most of them Rohingya.
Disproportionate military responses to armed resistance have taken place with particular ferocity in Sagaing and Magway Regions, as well as in Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, and Shan States. Tatmadaw have targeted both armed resistance groups and civilians with helicopter gunships, airstrikes, and the use of indiscriminate force. Across the country, the military has employed a so-called “four-cuts” strategy to punish local communities for their assumed support to armed elements.
These attacks have occurred alongside mass arrests, summary executions and torture.
Such operations resemble those employed in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017. Over 400 Tatmadaw attacks on populated areas involved property destruction, destroying thousands of houses and other buildings including churches and food stores and laying of landmines. The World Health Organization has also recorded at least 286 attacks on health-care facilities and personnel since February 2021.
Across Sagaing Region, the military’s attempt to crush all opposition to it has intensified with heightened attacks against civilians. In Pale Township alone, Tatmadaw troops burned up to 2,000 houses, food stores and other buildings across eight villages in late January and February this year. Over 171,000 people are now displaced, many sheltering in the jungle with unmet basic needs and no homes to return to.
Military operations increasingly rely on indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes in Kayah State, including on populated areas in Loikaw and Demoso Townships. This has killed and injured civilians including displaced people, children and a humanitarian worker, and has destroyed homes and other property including churches. On 24 December 2021, in Hsupro Township, military forces allegedly killed and burned up to 40 civilians – including four children and two humanitarian workers. Since then, continuing conflict has displaced more than half the population of the state capital Loikaw.
Such operations clearly violate international human rights and humanitarian law.
Myanmar is increasingly at risk of state collapse, with shattered economic, education, health, and social protection systems. Collapse of the health system has had devastating consequences for Myanmar’s COVID-19 response. The country's precious development gains have been destroyed by conflict and the military’s abuse of power.
I remain acutely concerned for the safety and rights of human rights defenders and other civil society actors. There is virtually no civic space left across the country. Intense surveillance, including by digital means, amplifies the danger to activists in all military-controlled areas.
Military authorities systematically use arrests and detentions as a tool to target and intimidate people who oppose them. Credible sources indicate that security forces have detained over 12,500 individuals, of whom 9,500 remain in detention including at least 240 children. Many of these individuals have been reportedly subjected to ill-treatment amounting to torture. This has reportedly included suspension from the ceiling without food or water; being forced to stand in solitary confinement for extended periods; electrocution, sometimes alongside injection of unidentified drugs; sexual violence, including rape; and forcing Muslim detainees to ingest pork.
The plight of the Rohingya people – a population persecuted for decades - remains dire, with no solution in sight. Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar are denied freedom of movement and access to services. There are still no durable solutions for internally displaced people, nor are their conditions conducive to secure, sustainable, dignified and voluntary returns in Rakhine State.
Accountability remains crucial to any solution to this crisis. Human rights violations and crimes being committed today by Myanmar's military forces are built upon the impunity with which they perpetrated the slaughter of the Rohingya four years ago – and other, similar, operations against ethnic minorities over many previous decades.
Clearly, there will need to be a political pathway to restore democracy and civilian rule.
But such dialogue cannot, and does not, displace the urgent need to hold to account those responsible for severe human rights violations.
The people of Myanmar deserve, and overwhelmingly demand, justice.
I urge stronger efforts to advance tangible results from the five-point consensus achieved by ASEAN in April 2021. So far, there has been little progress. In particular, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has failed to stop the violence or to allow adequate humanitarian access.