(Bangkok) – Since the military coup on February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s junta has carried out a brutal nationwide crackdown aimed at suppressing widespread public opposition to its rule, Human Rights Watch said today. Concerned governments, including the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and Japan, should together block the junta’s access to foreign revenues from oil, gas, and other extractives that are funding its abusive rule.
Under the leadership of Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, junta security forces have carried out mass killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses against protesters, journalists, lawyers, health workers, and political opposition members amounting to crimes against humanity. Military attacks in the country’s northwest and southeast have resulted in numerous war crimes. The nature of the security force crackdown – methodical, widespread, and systematic – reflects the junta’s countrywide policy of suppressing the opposition.
“How many more people does Myanmar’s military have to detain, torture, and shoot before influential governments act to cut off the junta from its flow of money and arms?” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Myanmar’s people, who have not given up their fight for democracy in the face of daily atrocities, need to know they have the global community’s support.”
On February 1, 2021, the military arrested the country’s elected civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, in early morning raids in the capital, Naypyidaw. In the ensuing weeks, millions of people across the country joined the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), peacefully protesting the junta through mass demonstrations and general strikes.
Security forces responded with increasingly excessive and lethal force, including live ammunition, grenades, and so-called less-lethal weapons. Police and soldiers massacred protesters in cities and towns across the country. The security forces have killed nearly 1,500 people since the coup, including at least 100 children. “When they came at us, we had nothing,” said a protester attacked on March 3 in Yangon. “We didn’t have a stick. We didn’t have a knife. All we had was our chants and our three-finger salute.”
On March 26, the junta’s MRTV channel warned protesters to “learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back,” and urged parents to deter their children from demonstrating: “Let’s not waste lives for nothing.” Security forces killed 160 people the next day.
To contest the junta, in April, civilian members of parliament, ethnic minority representatives, and civil society activists formed a National Unity Government (NUG). In August, Min Aung Hlaing extended the one-year state of emergency, which the junta had declared on February 1, until 2023.
The junta has arbitrarily detained over 11,000 activists, politicians, journalists, and others, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, and forcibly disappeared hundreds. Military tribunals have sentenced 84 people to death in summary proceedings that do not meet international fair trial standards. Detainees are frequently kept incommunicado, unable to contact relatives or legal counsel.
Security forces have subjected many detainees to torture and other ill-treatment, including routine beatings, burning with lit cigarettes, prolonged stress positions, and gender-based violence. At least 150 people have died in custody, in many cases at military-run detention centers. “There was so much blood,” said a former detainee who was beaten during his eight-month detention. “I couldn’t even remember what I was there for. I couldn’t sit or stand. I kept wanting to faint. Maybe I did keep fainting.”
The junta has arrested over 120 journalists, about 50 of whom remain in detention awaiting charges or sentencing. At least 15 journalists have been convicted, the majority under section 505A of the penal code, a new provision that criminalizes publishing or circulating comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” The junta stripped the media licenses of seven local outlets and banned satellite television. “I’ve had to get my whole family out,” one journalist said. “Myanmar is not a safe place for anyone with a moral compass.”
Security force crackdowns spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas as resistance to the junta grew countrywide. The military continues to launch targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including airstrikes and heavy artillery barrages, the United Nations has reported. Accounts from displaced people and aid workers suggest that the junta has continued to use the military’s longstanding “four cuts” strategy, in which the armed forces maintain control of an area by isolating and terrorizing the civilian population.
In some areas, recently formed People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other anti-junta armed groups fought alongside long-established ethnic armies against the junta’s military forces. In November, clashes were reported in every state and region in the country.
On December 24, security forces summarily executed at least 39 people in Hpruso township, Karenni (Kayah) State, including four children and two staff members from the international aid organization Save the Children. Many of the victims were bound, gagged, and showed signs of torture, and some may have been burned alive. “It is one of the most shocking and depressing things I have ever experienced,” said a doctor responsible for performing autopsies on the victims.
Since the coup, over 400,000 people have been internally displaced by fighting and unrest, primarily in the northwest and southeast, with an estimated 32,000 refugees fleeing to India and Thailand. The junta has deliberately blocked humanitarian aid from reaching millions at risk, in violation of international humanitarian law. Troops have attacked aid workers, destroyed supplies, and blocked access roads and aid convoys, seemingly as a form of collective punishment against civilians in areas where junta rule is contested.
According to the UN, the number of people needing assistance in the country has grown from 1 million before the coup to 14.4 million, including more than 5 million children. About 25 million people, or half the population, are estimated to be living below the national poverty line.
The Myanmar healthcare system has effectively collapsed since the coup. With the junta cracking down on medical professionals for their role in the Civil Disobedience Movement, Myanmar has become one of the deadliest countries in the world to work in health care, according to data from the World Health Organization and Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. “We have to fight and overcome this, otherwise our futures are lost,” said one young doctor.
From February 1 to November 30, security forces allegedly killed at least 31 health workers and arrested 284. Security forces have beaten and shot medical staff providing care to injured protesters and forced clinics operated by nongovernmental groups to close, driving medics and volunteers to work underground in poorly resourced makeshift mobile clinics.
While the US, Canada, UK, and EU member states have imposed targeted sanctions on junta leaders and military-controlled companies over the past year, the junta’s foreign currency revenue remains largely untouched, in particular from natural gas sales, its greatest source of funds. Governments should immediately impose sanctions to block the junta from accessing the US$1 billion in foreign revenue that gas projects generate annually, and tighten sanctions enforcement on other sources of foreign revenue from mining, timber, and transportation facilities.
The UN Security Council should end its inaction borne of political gridlock, and urgently pass a resolution that institutes a global arms embargo on Myanmar, refers the military’s grave crimes before and since the coup to the International Criminal Court, and imposes targeted sanctions on the junta leadership and military-owned conglomerates. If China and Russia continue to oppose council action on Myanmar, they should face concerted global pressure for upholding the junta’s indefensible rights abuses.
“The one-year anniversary of Myanmar’s military coup serves as a signpost of a deepening descent into crimes against humanity and humanitarian catastrophe that the US, EU, and others need to address,” Adams said. “These countries should at long last impose costs on the junta that are too great for the generals to bear.”