Myanmar is trapped in a cycle of displacement and widespread rights abuse

From mass arrests to killings of 2,000 dissidents, the military regime is accused of triggering displacement, bringing political divisions and pushing the country to the verge of civil war

June 27, 2022 by Umer Beigh
Myanmar update
(Photo: Radio Free Asia)

June 16 marked 500 days since the military coup in Myanmar. On June 14, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet updated the Human Rights Council on the situation in the country, saying that its people continue to remain trapped in a “cycle of displacement, human rights violations and abuses.”

Since February 2021, the political situation in Myanmar has been simmering in tensions. The former State Counselor, 76-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, is inside prison following a five-year-imprisonment verdict on corruption charges. On June 23, military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun confirmed that Suu Kyi, leader of National League for Democracy, was transferred from a secret detention location to solitary confinement in a prison in capital Naypyidaw.

Meanwhile, months-long agitations that swept the south-east Asian country, challenging the legitimacy of the military coup have resulted in at least 2,000 people being killed by the junta forces. The anti-coup uprising was harshly suppressed by the military that came down heavily against its dissidents and opponents. The political turmoil throughout these 16 months has kept Myanmar on the edge. The counter-insurgency campaign adopted by the military against protesters includes “militarized police, mass surveillance, and scorched earth tactics,” according to Yun Sun, non-resident fellow at the Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative. 

More recently, while the junta government may appear to be battling to garner grassroots legitimacy, it is strategically moving its attention to silencing those voices that may pose a potential challenge to its control in the future. Many regional activists have blamed the regime for the ongoing instability that is bringing the country to the verge of civil war. 

At present, armed opposition comes mainly from the People’s Defense Forces (the armed wing of the National Unity Government that declared a defensive war against the junta in May 2021) and from different Ethnic Armed Organizations such as Kachin Independence Army, United Wa State Army Karen National, Karenni National Progessive and Chin National Front. 

Mass displacement and rights abuse

Besides the blatant use of direct violence against peaceful protesters, structurally, more than a million people have been forcibly displaced after their houses, schools, health facilities and places of worship were destroyed in military attacks.

On June 14, the UNHCR noted that one million individuals have been registered as internally displaced while some 14 million remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The military regime has violently suppressed the mass demonstrations taking place against its rule, leading to the arrest of over 13,280 activists, unionists, journalists and other members of civil society. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) confirmed that the military led by General Min Aung Hlaing has barred independent access to areas under its control, which is making aid efforts extremely difficult.  

UN figures note that over 12,000 civilian properties have been intentionally burned or destroyed during the military attacks. Around 40,200 people have fled to neighboring countries since the takeover of the government by the military, the UN estimates

Children have been especially affected in the ongoing turmoil in the country. According to estimates by rights groups, as many as 142 children were killed and 250,000 were displaced since the military took charge of the country. UN experts claimed that “children were deprived of health, education and development, with an estimated 7.8 million children out of school.”

Amnesty International stated in its latest report that Myanmar’s military has returned to “using the decades-old playbook of collective punishment as a part of its deliberate military strategy.” 

Almost 6.2 million in Myanmar are reportedly in immediate need of assistance but only 2.6 million people were offered assistance in the first quarter of this year. “The impact on civilians is worsening daily with frequent indiscriminate attacks and incidents involving explosive hazards including landmines and explosive remnants of war,” the UN reported.

Plight of political prisoners

The crackdown on popular resistance has been intense, structural and overt. Since the junta takeover in February, at least 890 people have been convicted and sentenced. As many as 52 individuals have been sentenced to death, rights groups state. Around 9,100 are still awaiting trial, with many of them having already spent over a year inside prison.

The military regime has taken in a large number of political prisoners. “The total number of political prisoners detained was as many as throughout the country’s past five decades of military rule that ended in 2010,” U Aung Myo Kyaw, spokesperson of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), claimed.

Rights groups like the AAPP estimate that among those imprisoned, at least 103 have died in custody. There have been multiple reports of prisoners being severely beaten inside the Insen jail in Yangon. On June 14, Irrawaddy reported that prison authorities were involved in beating up 10 prisoners. In May, more than 60 political prisoners in the Hpan-an prison were brutally beaten for singing the anti-regime song (Tway Thit Sar).

On June 8, some prisoners went on a hunger strike against the junta’s decision to execute four dissidents, including two prominent activists. The decision amounted to “war crimes”, as per the UN, which called the decision of enforcing death sentences “a vile attempt at instilling fear amongst the people of Myanmar.”

“The world must not lose sight of the fact that these death sentences are being meted out in the context of the military murdering civilians nearly every day in its widespread and systematic attack on the people of Myanmar. The military has killed civilians during massacres, crackdowns on protestors, and airstrikes against civilian locations, and has tortured detainees to death,” the UN experts stated.