27 Sep Symposium on the Current Crisis in Myanmar: This Is What Impunity Looks Like – Myanmar’s Coup Built on Years of Failed Accountability
[Shayna Bauchner is a researcher in the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.]
On August 1, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, dressed in civilian clothes, made a televised speech six months to the day after leading a coup that thrust the country back under brutal military rule. Amid claims of establishing a multiparty democracy, the junta leader announced that his manufactured state of emergency, which has given rise to massive human rights abuses, would be extended until August 2023.
Later that day, Min Aung Hlaing appointed himself prime minister of the State Administration Council (SAC) junta’s “caretaker government.”
“We have to try to bring them back to a stable condition,” he said of the junta’s use of force against the millions of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets since February 1. “We must apply our collective strengths.”
The past eight months have offered a stark demonstration of the military’s application of its “collective strengths.” Since the coup, security forces have carried out a bloody crackdown on nationwide protests with the same callous disregard for life that has driven their scorched-earth strategy in ethnic regions for decades. Police and soldiers have killed over 1,000 people, including about 75 children, arrested more than 6,000 protesters, journalists, and others, and tortured and raped detainees.
Human Rights Watch determined that the military’s post-coup abuses—vast, methodical, and systematic—amount to crimes against humanity. The broad-based and consistent nature of the crackdown reflects not the individual actions of security officers, but a countrywide policy of the junta.
Crimes against humanity committed since February 1 include murder, enforced disappearance, torture, rape and other sexual violence, severe deprivation of liberty, and other inhumane acts causing great suffering. Across the country, security forces have repeatedly used lethal force, including live ammunition, mortar shells, and grenades, while using so-called less-lethal weapons indiscriminately and excessively. Video footage has captured soldiers shooting down children on motorbikes, brutally beating medical aid workers, and firing shotguns into crowds of peacefully protesting doctors.
These displays are tragic but not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention to the human rights situation in the country. In 2017, Min Aung Hlaing orchestrated crimes against humanity in which the military committed genocidal acts and other horrific abuses against ethnic Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, killing thousands and forcing over 730,000 to flee to Bangladesh. The same notorious military units implicated in the 2017 atrocities—since sanctioned by the US and UK—have been deployed in the streets of Yangon, Mandalay, and other cities and towns since the coup, terrorizing protesters calling for civilian democratic rule.
The throughline of these two grave crises—the 2021 coup and the 2017 atrocities against the Rohingya—lies in the decades-long impunity enjoyed by Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw.
The Tatmadaw is an institution driven by brutality. It sows disunity and fear with the sole aim of propping up the supremacy of its leadership. It seeks to create an oppressive atmosphere of terror, in ways both overt and subtle. It knows no other way of exercising power. And has done so unchecked for decades.
The coup has made clear that the bloodshed happening today on the streets is a direct corollary of a military that for years has faced few to no consequences for its crimes.
In the four years since the military’s atrocities in northern Rakhine State, the situation for Rohingya in Myanmar and abroad offers a dismal reflection of justice delayed. In Rakhine State, 600,000 Rohingya remain trapped under a system of discriminatory laws and policies that amount to apartheid under international law.
In Bangladesh, nearly a million Rohingya refugees live in sprawling, overcrowded camps, their prospects of voluntarily returning to a Myanmar where they could live safely and securely more distant than ever. The commander-in-chief who orchestrated the ethnic cleansing campaign that led to the massacres of their families and neighbors has now not only evaded justice, but installed himself as leader of the country.
There have been some flashes of progress toward accountability. Gambia, one of the smallest countries in Africa, has brought Myanmar before the International Court of Justice for violating the 1948 Genocide Convention in its atrocities against the Rohingya. The International Criminal Court is conducting a limited investigation into alleged crimes against humanity which were completed in Bangladesh that will identify individuals for prosecution.
But as a whole, the international response to the Tatmadaw’s cycles of ethnic cleansing and forced deportation of the Rohingya has been fragmented and halting. The UN Security Council, the body with the authority to respond with binding resolutions on states, has remained paralyzed. At the time of coup, the Council had not produced a formal document on Myanmar in over three years.
Diplomats meanwhile have favored the closed-room tactics of quiet diplomacy and “dialogue” over strong measures for accountability—a futile approach compounded by an enduring and misguided faith in the former de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s imagined democratic credibility.
A clear and consistent multilateral strategy for accountability and justice never emerged in the wake of the 2017 violence. Instead, the military maintained its grasp on Myanmar’s levers of political and economic power, with Min Aung Hlaing remaining untouched at the helm.
When armored vehicles rolled through the streets of the capital, Naypyidaw, before dawn on February 1, with the military detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders, foreign governments were quick to voice concern. Their condemnation grew louder as the death toll of protesters rose in March and April.
Some consequences followed. The US, UK, EU, and Canada sanctioned junta leaders and major military enterprises, including its two main conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). But the sanctions’ toll on the military’s cash flow has not been enough.
France and other governments have skirted the global call for sanctions on the massive foreign oil and gas revenues that bankroll the junta and its weapon purchases. Japan and Australia have done even less, issuing no sanctions on military leaders or entities since February, despite condemning the coup.
Meanwhile, the Security Council’s historical inaction on Myanmar endures, with permanent members Russia and China—long serving as Myanmar’s protectors at the Council—resisting substantive action, and Western members too timid to push the limits. As a result, the Council has done little beyond issuing statements calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to the violence.
“What are we waiting for?” a US diplomat asked in a speech at a July council meeting. “The longer we delay, the more people die. This Council is failing in our collective responsibility to safeguard international peace and security. And it is failing the people of Burma.”
The UK, the Security Council’s designated penholder for resolutions on Myanmar, has for years taken a hyper-cautious approach to the country. Since the coup, it has bound its own hands under the banner of maintaining consensus among council members, focusing on anodyne statements over substantive action. This strategy already failed to achieve an ounce of justice for the Rohingya, only emboldening the military with a sense of reprieve.
The unwillingness of the UK, US, and France to press for a resolution in fear of vetoes by China and Russia has ultimately betrayed the Council’s mandate to ensure international peace and security as well as the millions of people risking their lives in Myanmar by opposing the coup.
“We will do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said days after the coup. Eight months on, that momentum has waned. The Security Council failed to capitalize on the international outcry triggered by the coup and the window it offered for real, swift impact.
The people of Myanmar continue protesting, but they do so with a sense of having been abandoned. “There is nobody coming to help them to stop this violence,” said activist Khin Ohmar.
The dangerous narrative persists that there is a way forward with the Tatmadaw seated at the table. Calls for “all parties to engage in dialogue,” as the UK ambassador to Myanmar recently tweeted, ring hollow in the face of the military’s depravity and stark repression of any opposition. The UK and other governments’ delayed action under the pretense of waiting for effective leadership from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is similarly empty. The regional bloc has a track record of neglecting its responsibility to act to protect the people of Southeast Asia. Since releasing its five-point consensus in April, ASEAN has taken no meaningful steps to press the junta to end its abuses. Min Aung Hlaing, meanwhile, has been unwilling to meet even ASEAN’s low bar.
In June, faced with Security Council inertia, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on member states to prevent the flow of weapons into Myanmar. Lamentably, the Security Council has yet to follow the General Assembly’s lead with a binding global arms embargo.
The Human Rights Council held a Special Session following the coup but adopted a watered-down resolution in the interest of consensus. Subsequent resolutions have been stronger, but the crisis has received reduced attention from the Council in recent months.
Over the next months, UN member states will be drafting a Myanmar resolution for the Third Committee of the 76th General Assembly session now underway. Drafters should ensure the resolution expressly condemns Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw as orchestrators of the crisis, identifies the abuses committed since February 1 as crimes against humanity, and calls for the Security Council to advance international accountability.
The resolution should recognize the coup and the atrocities against the Rohingya as intersecting crises with shared perpetrators that demand a cohesive response. This could reinvigorate pressure on the Security Council to pass a resolution instituting a global arms embargo and referring the Tatmadaw’s grave crimes across Myanmar since at least 2011 to the International Criminal Court. The Council should also impose targeted sanctions including global travel bans and asset freezes on the leadership of the junta and military-owned conglomerates.
To cut off the military from the revenue funding its ongoing crimes against humanity, the US, UK, EU, and other governments should work together to strengthen international sanctions. Governments should target the junta’s gas revenues, its largest source of foreign income, totaling about US$1 billion annually in duties, taxes, royalties, fees, and other profits. Broad coordination and enforcement are crucial for these to have an effective influence on the military’s calculations.
Myanmar’s crisis may have faded from the front pages of world news, but its urgency still pulses across the country, a hum both daily and catastrophic.
“They are attempting for the disintegration of the Tatmadaw,” said Min Aung Hlaing, denouncing the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement in his August 1 speech. In fact, what the protesters are risking their lives for is nothing more than respect for their rights and freedoms, and justice for their suffering. But concerned governments supporting the fight for civilian democratic rule in Myanmar also need to recognize that achieving such aims will require excising the Tatmadaw from the vast control it wields in every layer of Myanmar life.