Police officers Yangon

Myanmar’s Military Coup and the “Age of Impunity”

Police officers advance towards the protesters during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. A massive crowd took to the streets to protest against the military coup and demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. (Santosh Krl/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The military coup that took place in Myanmar on February 1 was met with shock and condemnation. It has led to the largest protests in the country for decades. And yet there is a sense that history is repeating itself in Myanmar, as the military has regularly thwarted democracy and violated human rights and been able to get away with it.

The international community has appeared almost powerless, with the military junta able to crackdown on dissent with impunity. The familiar playbook has been rolled out including statements, resolutions, and sanctions, but with limited impact on the unfolding events. Those actors able to influence events, such as China, have been unwilling to act, which has likely been part of the military’s calculus.

There is an urgent need to rethink how to hold to account those responsible for human rights violations not only in Myanmar, but also in other countries where either electorally defeated leaders or the military ignore democratic norms.

The “Age of Impunity”

The current situation in Myanmar—and indeed what has come before—epitomize what David Miliband has called the “age of impunity,” when support for the multilateral system has diminished and human rights norms are under assault.

Whereas Western countries used to act by example, in some cases they are now the ones leading the race to the bottom. It is not hard to conceive of Myanmar’s military leaders taking inspiration from former United States president Donald Trump’s bogus claims of electoral fraud when they made the same protestations to justify their coup.

As Nada al-Nashif, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, remarked to the Human Rights Council on February 12, that “this crisis was born on impunity.” According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 630 people have, as of 22 February,  been detained since the coup, including political and state officials, activists and civil society members, journalists, monks, and students. The country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has herself been detained on dubious charges of illegally importing walkie talkies and breaching COVID-19 regulations.

There has been widespread condemnation of the excessive and lethal use of force by state security forces against peaceful anti-coup protesters involving water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition—with three people killed already, including a child. The military has become increasingly active on the streets to quell dissent with an expected showdown with protestors imminent.

The military junta has also suspended laws constraining the security forces from detaining suspects or searching private property without court approval and ordered the arrest of organizers of the protests. A change to the penal code has meant protestors could face 20 years in prison, while a new cyber security law has been introduced to provide sweeping powers to access user data, block websites, and order internet shutdowns, which have become a daily occurrence. As part of an amnesty, 23,000 mostly pro-military prisoners have been released as a tactic to create chaos and fear in communities.

These actions are all part of a systematic strategy of threats and intimidation to suppress popular protests that are seeking to reverse the removal from power of the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) that won last November’s national elections by a landslide. They cannot be seen in isolation from Myanmar’s past.

It is the same army generals—including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing—presiding over the coup today that the 2018 report of the independent international fact-finding mission concluded must be removed from power and investigated for genocide in Rakhine state and crimes against humanity in other parts of the country. In 2017, thousands of Rohingya died and more than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh during the army’s crackdown.

International and Multilateral Responses

In early 2020, the International Court of Justice ordered measures to prevent the genocide of Rohingya Muslims, however, like the demands of the fact-finding mission, few have been heeded by the armed forces in Myanmar, who continue to act with almost complete impunity.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made prevention a priority and launched a Call to Action for Human Rights last year to galvanize action to address human rights crises like those that are unfolding in Myanmar today. However, the UN’s toolkit is lacking, and its response thus far has been impotent in the face of the military junta’s action.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, who has been particularly outspoken, appealed to the Human Rights Council during its special session this month that “all options should be on the table” to hold those responsible to account. However, most accountability tools have already been used with little effect.

The Security Council only managed to adopt a press statement for fear of veto by China and Russia. The US has announced sanctions along with a handful of other countries, but these will have limited consequences on the ruling generals and risk causing further suffering to the general population. The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling on Myanmar to release detainees and refrain from using violence against protesters, but it has already used most of the accountability mechanisms at its disposal such as the fact-finding mission that it mandated.

The so-called Rosenthal report of the independent inquiry into the UN’s failure to act during the Rohingya crisis of 2017 noted the “systemic and structural shortcomings” of the organization to address human rights in Myanmar. There has been limited follow-up. The UN country team adopted a human rights strategy in 2020, but it is unclear how it is being implemented during the current crisis. There are no UN human rights officers in the country because they were prohibited from entering by the government.

Regional powers might have some influence, for example Indonesia making proposals to other countries, but these have fallen short of the protesters’ demands and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has only managed a four-line statement registering its concern about the coup—preferring stable markets over democracy and human rights—while China has shown little appetite to intervene.

Pushes for Change

Increased international pressure must be exerted to hold the military junta to account with the UN acting in concert with ASEAN, which must step away from its policy of “non-interference” Indonesia’s proposal for a summit on the situation in Myanmar deserves support. But the fight against impunity cannot only be about political pressure and the threat of legal measures and must use other points of leverage. This needs to be local and bottom-up, rather than global and top-down.

The greatest push for change is currently coming from the hundreds of thousands of people engaged in protests and civil disobedience within the country. They demonstrated in 1988 and 2007, however things are very different this time round. Myanmar’s youth have experienced freedoms unlike the previous generation that protested.

They are also technologically savvy and, like uprisings in other counties in recent years, are engaged in crowd-sourced human rights activism using social media to report on human rights abuses as they occur. While facing extraordinary threats and intimidation, recording the military’s atrocities has never been easier. Making digital information available in real-time is much more effective than belated after-the-fact-finding missions. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other human rights organizations should provide an accredited platform to publicize this information.

In many towns in the country residents have banded together to patrol streets, banging on pots and pans to sound the alarm, to prevent night raids that the security forces have launched against the protesters. Civilians are taking their protection into their own hands. Aid agencies in Myanmar should provide support to these courageous actions to make sure that the military knows the world is watching.

The UN country team is currently reassessing its humanitarian, development, and peace assistance, given that they are now dealing with illegitimate authorities that many believe should not be recognized. Programs should be rapidly reassessed based on the impact on human rights and how they can contribute to a broader accountability framework. The Japanese brewery Kirin has at last cut its ties with the Myanmar military and the private sector as a whole should be urged to reconsider their investments in Myanmar to live up to their human rights obligations.

Given the long struggle for justice and democracy in Myanmar, the international community needs to rethink how it can help bring about change and address the impunity that lies at the heart of the crisis.

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant working on human rights and humanitarian issues after having worked with the UN in several countries. Richard Bennett is a former OHCHR and Amnesty International staff member who worked in Myanmar in 2019-20.