By Nayd Riham*
In the late August of 2017, Rohima Kadu’s idyllic village of Chin Khali in Rakhine was visited by Myanmar’s much dreaded military, the Tatmadaw and its local Buddhist militia associates. A helpless Rohingya widow of 50, Rohima was at a loss. Her eldest daughter with whom she was living at that time was bedridden with malaria and too weak to run. So, Rohima grabbed her grandchildren and fled to nearby forest. She returned when the pillaging of her village was over, but there was no home to return to. All that remained was a charred skull of her daughter lying on the ground.
Four years later in 2021, the stage for Tatmadaw-directed horror show is set in the city of Bago of south-central Myanmar. In the utterly tense evening of April 9, 2021 (the day that saw more than 80 killed by security forces in Bago), a 19-year-old teen rising a small motorcycle was stopped at a military checkpoint. During the search, soldiers found images of him at an anti-coup protest. He was immediately arrested and taken to the military compound. The following few days were marked by merciless beating with cable wires. Small scissors were used to cut skins of his ears, throat, and tip of the nose. With indomitable will power, he survived the ordeal to let the world know this story.
Crimes Against Humanity
Between the realities of Rohima Kadu and the ill-fated teen lies four years of impunity, complacency and injustice. Myanmar military’s involvement in crimes against humanity is as old as Myanmar itself. However, never had the brunt of horrific violence been so all-encompassing as it is now following the coup on February 1. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its latest statement on July 31, 2021 said that the Tatmadaw perpetrated violence and abuses in the months since the coup amount to ‘crimes against humanity’ as per the Rome Statue of International Criminal Court (ICC) because these attacks are widespread, systematic, knowingly committed against civilian population and reflect the official position of a state institution rather than actions of individual soldiers. Tatmadaw’s list of crimes against humanity committed following the February coup include murders, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, rape, other sexual and gender-based violence, torture and severe deprivation of liberty.
HRW’s statement complements an earlier research by Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab which, through an analysis of 50 video footages, has found out that Myanmar’s security forces have been implementing premeditated and systematic strategies, often used in battlefields, against peaceful protests. In a separate investigation, jointly conducted by the University of California, Berkeley and the Associated Press, it was revealed that security forces of Myanmar have been using corpses and wounded bodies to spread fear, anxiety and uncertainty among communities.
The ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has stemmed from a history of impunity. From 1962 military takeover to the latest one in February, and all the atrocities committed against ethnic minority groups and voices of dissents in between, Tatmadaw was never held accountable. The international community first started to address Tatmadaw’s grave violations of human rights after the massive crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1988. The global response was, however, never adequate. The first United Nations General Assembly resolution on the human right situation in Myanmar was adopted in 1991. The mandate for a UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar was created the following year. Since then, Special Rapporteurs repeatedly expressed grave concern over the governments’ (military or pseudo-democratic) handling of ethnic groups and political dissents, with little to no concrete response from the international community. The 2008 constitution and much lauded democratic reforms that took place subsequently also ensured total impunity of the country’s security forces from domestic legal accountability. Impunity from the deeds of the past has naturally paved the way to crimes of the future.
Road to Accountability
A crisis that is rooted in impunity can only be solved by ensuring total accountability. The global community has, so far, appeared helpless in responding to human rights crisis. Geo-political calculation triumphed over voice of sanity. However, a Myanmar steeped in endless civil war and military brutality and creating one after another exodus of refugees, is a threat to the aspirations of the whole South and Southeast Asian region.
The upcoming 76th Session of United Nations General Assembly can offer a fresh opportunity for global action to ensure accountability in Myanmar. On June 18, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the coup and calling for arms embargo on Myanmar. While the resolution is non-binding in nature, the language and the robust support for such measure (119 countries in favor) stand in stark contrast with the diluted responses (two press statements and one presidential statement) from the United Nations Security Council. Historically, the General Assembly had taken matters into own hands in the absence of concerted action from Security Council. On Myanmar, there have been calls addressed to General Assembly to hold emergency special sessions under the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution, which in 1950 succeeded in circumventing persistent Soviet vetoes during Korean war. The 76th UNGA will be the first Session since the latest military takeover in Myanmar. Moreover, the ongoing Rohingya crisis has entered its fifth year in August 2021, which can be another crucial impetus for firm action.
The legal proceedings against Myanmar initiated by the Gambia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2019 is probably the closest Myanmar’s military leadership has ever been to accountability. The sheer brutality with which Tatmadaw handled numerous ethnic groups (armed or civilians) for more than sixty years, is now on full display on the peaceful pro-democracy protestors in the Bamar-majority region. Unlike previous crackdowns, the ongoing suppression by Myanmar military in 2021 has coincided with mass access to technology, internet and social media. The growing trove of photos, live videos, surveillance footages can eventually be used in building an international criminal case against the military government. Technology provides immense opportunity to preserve these evidences, making prosecution of perpetrators possible even after many years from now.
Non-recognition and non-legitimacy
Non recognition can be another potential tool to isolate the junta and seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The Human Rights Council has ‘inadvertently’ lent legitimacy to the Junta by allowing its representatives to explain and justify the emergency decree and military takeover on two separate occasions. Junta also got the opportunity to represent Myanmar at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. All these took place while the Permanent Representative to the UN position is being held by a representative of the deposed NLD government. Later in May, the World Health Organization (WHO) excluded Myanmar from participation in World Health Assembly over the representation row. The UN General Assembly’s Credentials Committee credential committee is supposed to meet before the 76th UNGA session to assess the credentials of representatives. However, the junta had its own plan to solve the credential issue as it was revealed in the recently foiled assassination attempt of the Permanent Representative to the UN Kyaw Moe Tun.
Since Myanmar is grasping for air amid a third wave of Covid-19, the international community should be extra cautious so that the global aid does not lead to legitimization of the junta, another affliction threatening innocent lives in Myanmar.
*Nayd Riham is a Dhaka-based journalist and independent researcher. His areas of interest and expertise include Rohingya crisis, ethno-politics in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. He can be reached in [email protected]