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International Condemnations of Myanmar’s Junta Must Translate into Actions to End Military Impunity

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International Condemnations of Myanmar’s Junta Must Translate into Actions to End Military Impunity

Many U.N. and foreign government statements about recent atrocities have avoided naming the party responsible. That needs to change.

International Condemnations of Myanmar’s Junta Must Translate into Actions to End Military Impunity

A man looks on at homes destroyed after air and artillery strikes in Mung Lai Hkyet displacement camp, in Laiza, Myanmar, Tuesday Oct. 10, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo

Debris and decay are all that remains of the Mung Lai Hkyet camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Laiza, Kachin State, after an attack that left dozens of people dead on October 9. Just before midnight, the Myanmar military bombed the temporary shelter where survivors of violence in their villages had sought temporary relief.

As refugees slept, artillery shells were fired into the camp, killing 17 women and 12 men. At least 11 children – five boys and six girls from infancy to 18 years old – were reported among the casualties. Witnesses said the assault came at a time when there was no fighting. Unprovoked, after the first blast, at least four more bombings followed. Human Rights Watch declared the incident an “apparent war crime.”

While the international community quickly condemned the bombing in Kachin State, with countries including Canada,  France, and the United Kingdom expressing concern and sympathy for the victims and their families, they remained hesitant to name the perpetrator of the attack. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also condemned the attack and called for the implementation of its Five-Point Consensus peace plan, despite the fact that the junta has repeatedly made a mockery of it.

Two days after the attack, The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked: “Those responsible must be held to account.”

And indeed, the perpetrators must be held responsible – not only for the attacks on Kachin State but for the dozens of other attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent people across the country, including the more than 4,154 civilians killed since the attempted coup. Much of this violence has come from the air.  The military has carried out at least 1,400 airstrikes since the February 2021 coup, deliberately targeting civilian populations.

Various local and international rights groups have documented these repeated attacks from the sky. On September 16, 2022, a brutal airstrike attack targeted a school in Lat Yet Kone Village, in Sagaing Region in the country’s northeast, which killed 13 people, including 11 children.

Then, on October 23, at least 62 people were massacred in A Nang Pa village, Hpakant Township, when military jets bombarded a Kachin music festival. Medical assistance was also repeatedly denied as the junta blocked key routes to hospitals. Earlier this year, on April 11, the Myanmar military perpetrated another deadly airstrike at Pazigyi Village in Kanbalu Township in Sagaing Region. It has been reported that this aerial massacre killed more than 175 civilians: 100 men, 33 women, and 42 children, with at least 30 additional people injured.

According to estimates by the U.N., these airstrikes have contributed to the mass displacement that has taken place since the coup; there are now more than 2 million internally displaced persons in the country. However, local documentation groups working on the ground have presented significantly higher findings. This latest air strike has only worsened the humanitarian crisis in Kachin State, where at least 14,000 civilians have been displaced over the last 15 months, according to the Kachin Women’s Association-Thailand.

There is no doubt who is carrying out these attacks. So why do so many members of the international community fail to name the obvious perpetrators? The answer to this question, it seems, is their desire to remain politically neutral. But this neutrality comes with a harrowing human cost.

When the international community fails to name the junta as the perpetrator of repeated attacks on civilians, it inadvertently encourages the junta to continue its assaults on civilians. In short, this failure to call out the military opens the door for further impunity.

The international community, especially ASEAN, has reasoned their neutrality by framing what is happening in Myanmar as an internal conflict or civil war. This perception is problematic because it allows them to justify their lack of action. The junta has repeatedly targeted civilians to undermine the democratic resistance and various pro-democracy movements, resulting in war crimes and other atrocities.

One of the core values of ASEAN is to safeguard civilian welfare, human rights, and human security of the region’s people while promoting peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia. However, ASEAN’s lack of strong actions and pressure on the Myanmar military has eroded the credibility and reliability of the association. Holding fast to traditional notions of national security and mutual “non-interference” is undermining Myanmar’s human security.

For example, the ASEAN Coordination Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Center) typically follows its established procedure to deliver aid, collaborating with the National Disaster Management Organization at the national level in each member country. In the case of Myanmar, the channel for this collaboration is the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement, which is currently under junta control.

Even though working through this junta-controlled ministry may hinder the delivery of aid to those genuinely in need, the AHA Center continues to provide humanitarian assistance through this channel, lacking alternative multilateral approaches.

Myanmar’s immediate ASEAN neighbor, Thailand, is still adopting a “business as usual” approach while maintaining deep military-to-military relations with the Tatmadaw and turning a blind eye to the atrocities along its borders. The cases of the influx of atrocity-affected refugees into Thailand and security concerns following the violation of the Myanmar military’s fighter jets into Thai air space highlight that Thailand is facing spill-over effects due to the junta’s crimes.

While bombs are being dropped on civilians’ homes, the junta is attempting to deceive the international community into believing its commitment to achieving peace and stability, such as by commemorating the eight-year anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with an elaborate ceremony, which various diplomats and NGOs attended. On October 13, the junta promoted a number of tourist destinations, posting beautiful images of Kachin’s mountains on social media to attract tourists. But at the same, it also issued orders to increase airstrikes around the country to compensate for the military ground it is losing.

Furthermore, as long as the international community, namely the U.N., fails to acknowledge who is truly responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations in Myanmar, the junta will continue its campaign of death. For over 70 years, the regime has targeted the people, primarily ethnic communities.

And despite evidence that the junta is the main culprit of these horrifying attacks, it has denied any involvement, diverting blame to the ethnic revolutionary organizations and other opposition forces. The military has historically denied and dismissed accusations that describe them as criminals, including at the International Court of Justice, where they refuted allegations of genocide against the Rohingya minority of Rakhine State.

Global actors must not contribute to the junta’s quest for legitimacy by refusing to name their crimes. Unfortunately, the international community has also neglected to seek reliable pathways to ensure justice for Myanmar’s people. Civil society organizations in Myanmar have repeatedly made calls for foreign governments to sanction aviation fuel, which would stop the regime’s jets from being able to attack from the sky. In addition, over 400 CSOs urged the U.N. General Assembly to ensure that arms and aviation fuel sanctions are coordinated and cohesive.

The people of Myanmar deserve more than words of condemnation of the junta. At the very least, they deserve to have the primary oppressors of their lives named in the routinely issued statements. Although countless conflicts require urgent attention and responses worldwide, the international community must not ignore what’s happening in Myanmar. Further, they must recognize the irrefutable resilience of the people and stand with them and their calls for democracy in the country.

As stated by the Chin Human Rights Organization: “Habitually refusing to name the perpetrator of a crime in the face of irrefutable evidence for your well-being and survival is depriving the victims’ of their right to fundamental justice, if not an outright obstruction of justice.”

Guest Author

Mabel Thwe

Mabel Thwe is a young human rights activist and researcher working at a local advocacy organization for cross-border migration issues and federalism building in Myanmar.

Guest Author

Maggi Quadrini

Maggi Quadrini works with a regional human rights organization and has worked on various local media and research projects along the Thai-Myanmar border, focusing on gender equality.