“Inhumanity in its vilest form”: There’s no time to lose for crisis-hit Myanmar

Oct 10, 2023
A green anti-personnel mine on the rocks. Mine clearance

Each day the people are enduring horrifying attacks and flagrant human rights violations by a genocidal, criminal regime.

If there is one report on Myanmar that every government in the world should read today, it is the one presented this week to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk.

The report is blunt and true in its language, comprehensive in its assessment and analysis, and robust in its recommendations. It describes, in painful detail, what Turk calls “inhumanity in its vilest form,” including airstrikes against civilians, mass killings and the burning of villages.

“Each day,” Turk told the Human Rights Council in Geneva, “the people of Myanmar are enduring horrifying attacks, flagrant human rights violations and the crumbling of their livelihoods and hopes.”

The remarks are powerful enough. Turk sets out 22 documented incidents of mass killings, burning of entire villages, and over 687 airstrikes against civilians from April 1, 2022, until July 31, 2023.

Credible sources have verified at least 4,108 deaths at the hands of Myanmar’s military regime.

Turk notes that the military’s “increasing use of air power, along with heavy weaponry and other material” can “only be purchased from foreign sources.”

“A seemingly endless spiral of military violence has engulfed all aspects of life in Myanmar”

The military is relying on access to foreign currency, he argues, to purchase military hardware, support services and aviation fuel. These flows of cash from abroad have facilitated the junta’s offensives against the people of Myanmar, leading to “unimaginable pain.”

In Turk’s words, the junta’s crimes include “burning alive, dismembering, raping, beheading, bludgeoning” and “using abducted villagers” as human minesweepers.

When you read the report in detail, and not just the High Commissioner’s speech, you see the intensity of the crisis in even greater depth.

“A seemingly endless spiral of military violence has engulfed all aspects of life in Myanmar,” the report notes. Clear patterns have emerged of “a continuous escalation” of the number, type, intensity and brutality of attacks. Not only is the junta silencing dissent by arresting journalists, activists and human rights defenders, it is systematically killing and massacring its citizens.

Grisly details are given of airstrikes and massacres.

On April 11 this year in Pa Zi Gyi village, Kanbalu Township, in Sagaing region, a peaceful gathering of civilians was repeatedly bombed by the military’s aircraft, causing the deaths of at least 150 people, including 19 women, 21 girls and 14 boys.

One witness told the UN that there were “people lying on the road, with body parts spread everywhere.” Some people, the UN reported, “had no head, no arm, no leg” and “you couldn’t put your feet down without stepping on bodies or blood.”

Even as survivors tried to carry bodies to safety, military helicopters returned for a second round, firing on the rescuers. And then yet again, as “bamboo-frame stretchers were used to transport remains to a field nearby,” preparing for cremation, a fighter jet circled three times, dropping bombs.

The survivors of this massacre could not even bury or cremate or honour their dead in peace.

On June 27, the military conducted similar horrific and repeated airstrikes in Nyaung Kone village, Pale Township, also in the Sagaing region. Among the victims were schoolchildren attending afternoon classes at the local primary school near a Buddhist monastery.

“As many as 15.2 million people are facing food insecurity due to the crisis”

The junta’s ground operations have also led to major offensives involving grave atrocities.

The UN reports soldiers burning civilians alive, and “dismembering, raping, beheading, stabbing, bludgeoning” people and killing “entire families, including elders and toddlers.”

One witness “saw the corpse of a toddler with her head gravely wounded still holding the hand of her dead mother.”

The statistics are staggering.

Over 75,000 houses and other buildings burnt since the coup across 106 townships in 12 states and regions. This year alone, over 24,000 buildings have been burned. At least 1.6 million people — according to the UN — have been internally displaced, though the real figure is believed to be much higher.

As many as 15.2 million people are facing food insecurity due to the crisis. Over 24,000 people have been arrested, and at least 19,733 remain imprisoned. A total of 158 people have been sentenced to death by military courts and four have been executed.

The country’s democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won re-election in November 2020, is now in jail. Her health condition isn’t good but she is denied medical treatment.

The democratically chosen President Win Myint is in jail instead of in government.

Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson, former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, has been sentenced to six years in prison.

Activist Ko Jimmy and elected parliamentarian Phyo Zeya Thaw have been executed.

This raw, human crisis is being played out in horrific ways for people and families across Myanmar.

According to the UN, the use of “thermobaric or fuel-air explosive weapons” is deeply worrying because they violate “the principle of proportionality under international law” and “raise concern as to the origins of such weapons.”

“We need ever-tighter-targeted sanctions against the military regime. Not blanket sanctions against the people of Myanmar”

The international community must face reality.

As the UN report says, Myanmar’s criminal junta is ignoring the demands of the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council, and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to which it belongs.

Volker Turk and his team have done their job. Now it is for the member states, and the UN Secretary-General, to listen and act.

It is time for the world to act.

We need ever-tighter-targeted sanctions against the military regime. Not blanket sanctions against the people of Myanmar, who have suffered enough as it is, but precision-targeted sanctions to cut the flow of funds to the butchers in Naypyidaw.

We need international unity in the implementation of a global arms embargo to restrict aviation fuel, to stop the flow of guns and bombs, and to impede the military’s ability to mount airstrikes against civilians.

We need to cut the lifelines to the military — in terms of the flow of funds and arms — and provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar. Humanitarian aid must flow to those in desperate, urgent need.

We also need accountability — to end impunity and bring the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes to account.

“If ASEAN had any backbone, it should have expelled Myanmar more than two years ago”

Actions are already underway at the International Court of Justice. The Security Council should heed the High Commissioner’s plea, and refer a case to the International Criminal Court.

Western powers — the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia must continue to play their part and step up their efforts.

But the countries in the region — especially democracies like Japan, South Korea and members of ASEAN such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — must step up.

In the forthcoming EU-ASEAN human rights dialogue, the crisis in Myanmar must be front and center. ASEAN must be held to account for its failures and urged to be more robust.

Indeed, if ASEAN had any backbone, it should have expelled Myanmar more than two years ago. It should still consider pushing that button. Perhaps suspension? Is that too much to ask for a genocidal, criminal regime?

Pope Francis has, to his credit, spoken out multiple times. He could perhaps endorse Turk’s calls in his next Sunday Angelus reflections.

As Turk said, Myanmar’s people continue to suffer because of “insufficient attention.” In effect, we have a responsibility to protect them. Let’s heed his call, because “there is no time to lose.”


First published by UCA News September 28, 2023

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