One year after the military coup in Myanmar, calls for international action are growing, especially from the Government of National Unity (NUG), made up of elected politicians who have been ousted by generals.
“The world is doing nothing but just sitting and watching,” NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung told Al Jazeera.
“In the last year, we have seen extreme brutality and atrocities against the population. We also saw a clear determination from the younger generation, a new generation that says it will not accept the regime. “
Attacks on civilians, protesters and political activists have escalated in recent months.
What began as tear gas and beatings has now turned into airstrikes, village fires and targeted shootings across the country.
The very victim of political repression by the military, Zin Mar Aung in 1998, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for political activism. She spent nine of those years in solitary confinement and was released after 11 years.
But Zin Mar Aung says violence today is worse than the dark decades of previous military regimes of the 1980s and 1990s.
“It’s much worse than we’ve seen before. “Many people died in prison and were tortured,” she said. “The atrocity has not diminished. Now they are escalating – they are doing it behind closed doors, and now they are doing it in public. Without pragmatic and effective intervention by the international community, this will continue. “
More than 1,500 people have been killed since the coup, according to the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, which has been monitoring the violence from the start.
Human Rights Watch says the military’s actions are crimes against humanity and include the open shooting of 65 protesters and passers-by in the Yangon city of Hlaying Tariar, the deliberate car crash of protesters in Yangon and a Christmas Eve attack on civilians in eastern Myanmar. left dozens dead, including women and children and two employees of the non-profit Save the Children.
Attacks on villagers continue in ethnic border regions, escalating decades of fighting and culminating in the brutal repression against the Rohingya in 2017, which is now the subject of an international genocide investigation.
After avoiding reprimands for so long, observers say the military is confident they will continue to do so.
“Decades of impunity for the most heinous crimes have created an attitude that soldiers can brazenly commit such atrocities without fear of being held accountable,” Human Rights Watch researcher Manny Maung wrote recently.
Witnesses of atrocities
But the brutality is increasingly being documented – thanks to the predominance of mobile phones.
Myanmar Witness is a non-profit organization that aims to gather such evidence in an anonymous and secure open source database.
The team uses a variety of verification techniques – such as the use of Google Earth satellite imagery, weather forecasts and online image search – to verify the accuracy of footage they receive from witnesses and activists.
Having previously used digital technology to document abuses in Syria and elsewhere, Investigative Director Ben Strick says secure and anonymous reporting platforms like Myanmar Witness are vital to archiving human rights abuses.
“It’s a little scary right now because people don’t report out of fear,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So, we’re able to really use a lot of these digital techniques to pick a lot more stories than what we actually hear from Myanmar.”
Despite efforts to ensure digital security for those who present evidence, Strick is concerned about the risks associated with those on the ground.
“We are able to take a picture and find out exactly where it came from. But other people can do the same, “Strick told Al Jazeera.” If someone takes pictures from their apartment and takes pictures of the military on the street, it can be found by both civilians who support the government and the government itself. “
Since the coup on February 1, Myanmar Witness has collected more than 4,000 records, of which 740 have been accurately checked.
The group hopes the evidence gathered will be used by the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice in the end.
“I think there is a huge amount of digital that the international community can and is doing, but there is still a lot more that can be done to cut the marble stone that is a human rights issue in Myanmar,” Strick said. .
Despite the growing evidence base, it remains unclear whether the international community has the political will or the means to intervene in Myanmar.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the coup, UN human rights chief Michel Bachelet called the international response “ineffective”, saying it lacked “a sense of urgency commensurate with the scale of the crisis”.
Bachelet said it was time for a more stable response.
“It is time for urgent, renewed efforts to restore human rights and democracy in Myanmar and ensure that perpetrators of systemic human rights violations and abuses are held accountable,” she said.
Meanwhile, UNICEF Regional Director Deborah Comini said the agency was “seriously concerned” by the escalating conflict and condemned the reported use of airstrikes and heavy weapons in civilian areas, particularly attacks on children and NGOs such as Save the Children.
“We are particularly outraged by the attacks on children that took place during this escalation of fighting across the country.
Coordinated action is needed
Fortify Rights, which has been working in Myanmar since 2013, is calling on the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo.
But Ismail Wolf, the group’s regional director, says there are no signs of concerted action needed for such a move, with veto members China and Russia showing reluctance to act.
Wolfe told Al Jazeera that while there were isolated responses from UN member states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia, “they were not enough to have enough impact on the Myanmar military to change their minds. to think or try to pressure them to rethink this coup and whether it is in their best interest or not.
“The United Kingdom can propose a resolution, but so far we have seen China and Russia in particular – the other permanent members of the Security Council – they would veto any resolution calling for a global arms embargo, which is essential to ending oppression. Myanmar from this rather disgusting regime. “
In the absence of concerted UN action, the diplomatic initiative fell to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997 under a previous military regime.
Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing has so far shown no commitment to implementing a plan to end the violence he negotiated with ASEAN in April last year.
“Everyone should be aware of the limitations of ASEAN,” Wolf said. “It works by consensus [and as such] you will not see strong, principled decisions on the situation in Myanmar that would have enough impact on Tatmadau – the dictatorship of Myanmar – to turn the tide.
In the absence of UN action, some foreign investors, including oil companies Total, Chevron and Woodside Petroleum, have shut down business in Myanmar, cutting a major source of revenue for the military, which has long run an extensive network of businesses.
In Myanmar Witness, Ben Strick says moves like these can have an immediate effect. His organization recently documented arms shipments from Russia.
Wolff of Fortify Rights agrees that documenting the evidence is vital, adding that NUG is currently applying to the UN Security Council to accede to the Rome Statute, which will give jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court in Myanmar. The United Nations has continued to recognize Kyau Mo Tun as Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, although the military has said he was fired for supporting the anti-coup movement.
There are also laws of universal jurisdiction – according to which a state can prosecute a person for crimes against humanity, regardless of where the crimes were committed – is also an option, as is currently being considered for Syria.
“There are options,” Wolf said. “The importance here is the documentation and evidence of these crimes. Because in the end they have to be proven. [The Myanmar military] will be held accountable one day for these crimes. “
Against the background of the lack of international action, the situation in Myanmar seems to be deteriorating.
“When we launched Myanmar Witness, we documented violence against protesters,” Strick said. “Scroll fast now and we are watching a lot of what looks like a civil war environment,” he said.
In addition to ethnically armed groups, NUG has created a People’s Defense Force for those who want to take more direct action – albeit sometimes with basic weapons and equipment. The state media described those who took up arms as “terrorists”.
“People have the right to defend themselves,” said NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung.
“We will not go out to kill the military, but if they attack us, we will protect ourselves, our lives, our families and our property. We know that the UN will not come. We appreciate the words, but the words alone will not stop the bullets. “