With Myanmar’s elections taking place on November 8th, let’s look at where things stand

By: Nancy Galib, Myanmar Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Five years ago, the world watched with great hope when the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections. That hope turned to horror when three years ago the world watched as the Myanmar military unleashed a campaign of violence against the Rohingya. Amnesty International has documented in detail how the campaign was marked by crimes against humanity, and gathered recent evidence of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Rakhine State that continue today, and supports calls for the investigation and prosecution of atrocity crimes — that is, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. With parliamentary elections taking place on November 8, we wanted to take a moment to look at where things stand.

A Campaign of Terror Against the Rohingya

On August 25, 2017, an armed group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched coordinated attacks on security force posts in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, reportedly killing members of the Myanmar security forces. In the months that followed, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) attacked the entire Rohingya population in villages across northern Rakhine State. In the ten months after August 25, the Tatmadaw drove more than 740,000 women, men, and children — more than 80% of the Rohingya who lived in northern Rakhine State at the outset of this crisis — into neighboring Bangladesh. During the Tatmadaw’s relentless and systematic campaign, it unlawfully killed thousands of Rohingya, including young children; raped and committed other sexual violence against hundreds of Rohingya women and girls; tortured Rohingya men and boys in detention sites; pushed Rohingya communities toward starvation by burning markets and blocking access to farmland; and burned hundreds of Rohingya villages in a targeted and deliberate manner.

Considering these atrocities, many in the international community sought judicial intervention. On November 11, 2019, the Gambia led the way by filing suit against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violating the provisions of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). In January 2020, the ICJ found that the record “establish[ed] prima facie the existence of a dispute between the Parties relating to the interpretation, application or fulfilment of the Genocide Convention.” The ICJ has ordered Myanmar to take measures to prevent certain acts, including killing members of the Rohingya group and deliberately inflicting conditions which are calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. That ICJ decision should have sent a clear message to Myanmar’s senior officials: the world will not tolerate their atrocities and will not blindly accept their empty rhetoric on the reality in Rakhine State today.

Unfortunately, Amnesty International has gathered new evidence of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Rakhine State, amid serious escalations in the ongoing armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. This evidence is based on firsthand testimony, photographs and video obtained from inside Rakhine State, and analysis of satellite imagery as well as media reports and civil society sources. Amnesty International is also concerned at recent reports of an increased presence of Myanmar military troops along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Further, an Amnesty International investigation released in September 2020 exposed how international businesses are linked to the financing of Myanmar’s military, including many units directly responsible for crimes under international law and other human rights violations. Amnesty International has called on the Myanmar government to intervene to break the link between the armed forces and the economy.

While the ICJ order remains in place, the Rohingya living in Myanmar and those who have fled to Bangladesh remain at risk, especially given the added complications presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly one million Rohingya have fled waves of violent attacks in the country since 1978 and sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. For the foreseeable future, Rohingya refugees will remain in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. Some Rohingya refugees, including women, have been victims of harassment and coercive quarantine measures — which have stigmatized people in the community with health conditions. This has created fear among the Rohingya about reporting any illness or symptoms.

Mobile internet coverage has also been restricted in Myanmar. The Myanmar government imposed an internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States in June 2019 citing security reasons amid escalating armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, a Rakhine ethnic armed group. The shutdown was partially lifted in September 2019 but was then re-imposed in February 2020. In August 2020, the government did ease some restrictions and allowed 2G services to resume however 2G speed is drastically slower and does not allow services such as videocalls, emails, or access to webpages with photos or videos.

The lack of access to information is especially critical in the camps considering the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an escalating armed conflict in the case of Myanmar. Such restrictions have a negative impact on people’s human rights and ability to access information about the pandemic. Their living conditions make it nearly impossible to comply with social distancing, hygiene, and other recommended preventative measures. And with no internet to allow them to receive lifesaving information, they are less likely to know the reach of the pandemic and what actions they should be taking to protect themselves. Concerningly, activists who have called for lifting of the internet restrictions have been charged, imprisoned, and had their rights restricted.

Human Rights Continually At Risk In Myanmar

While the world has focused attention on the plight of the Rohingya, other human rights violations persist in Myanmar. Despite the hope generated after 2010 with a move towards a civilian government, and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party following the 2015 parliamentary election, the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly remain routinely violated. Vaguely written laws — laws that restrict and criminalize the peaceful exercise of these rights — remain on the books and are often used to target human rights defenders, journalists, and peaceful activists.

Meaningful reform cannot happen without respect for these rights. In the report, “I Will Not Surrender,” Amnesty International highlights 16 cases of politically-motivated arrests and prosecutions of human rights defenders and peaceful activists.

In April 2019, Kyee Myint, Saw Wai, and Nay Myo Zin attended a rally and made speeches calling for an end to the military’s role in politics. They were charged under section 505(a) of the Penal Code, which prohibits statements with “intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.”

In January 2020, Moe Kyaw Thu, was convicted of defamation under section 500 of the Penal Code after giving a speech at a peaceful rally calling for reforming Myanmar’s Constitution, which enhances the military’s power in the country.

In April and May 2019, six members of the “Peacock Generation,” a satirical poetry troupe, were arrested and later sentenced to prison between two to six years after a series of peaceful satirical performances, some of which were shared online, criticizing the military. They were charged under section 505(a) of the Penal Code for “incitement” and section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for “online defamation”.

In March, a criminal complaint was filed against environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe after helping a community raise concerns about the environmental impact of a cement factory in Kayin State (also known as Raren State). He is charged with “incitement” under section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

Students who peacefully protested the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States were sentenced to prison under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for “protesting without permission”.

These cases illustrate the types of laws that can be wielded against people who peacefully express their views on the political structure of the government, or raise concerns about the actions of the military, or raise awareness of environmental or labor issues, or a plethora of other views that the government disagrees with or doesn’t want publicized. And they can be used to intimidate others into silence.

In the final days leading up to the November 8 elections, the Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those who are detained or imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their rights; drop pending charges against them; and expunge these criminal records. These laws should be repealed or amended to ensure their compliance with international human rights standards; and ensure that human rights defenders and activists are not harassed, intimidated, or otherwise hindered from exercising their human rights. And, no matter what happens this weekend, the international community must ensure that Myanmar takes immediate action to cease ongoing violations against the Rohingya community and prevents the destruction of evidence of those violations.

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