An illustration showing prisoners of conscience in Myanmar. Amnesty International

Myanmar: New government must prioritize human rights reforms, rein in military abuses

Read in Burmese here.

Myanmar’s newly elected government must prioritize human rights reforms after failing to do so in its first term, said Amnesty International today.

Amnesty International is presenting the newly elected government with an 11-point Human Rights Agenda, urging all Members of Parliament to make a public commitment to promote respect for the human rights of everyone. The full Human Rights Agenda is available here.

“The National League for Democracy (NLD) now has an important opportunity to pursue vital reforms in its second term,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

“Having paid such a high price for their activism in the past – indeed, many party members are former prisoners of conscience themselves – it is high time the NLD used their new mandate to pursue critical reforms in favour of human rights.”

On 15 November 2020, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) confirmed Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) victory in the general elections held on 8 November, taking 396 of the 498 seats up for election in both chambers of parliament. The new government will be officially sworn in when the new parliament sits in early 2021.

Under the military-drafted Constitution, a further 166 seats – a quarter of the 664 parliamentary seats – are reserved for military appointees. The 8 November elections excluded the Rohingya population from voting. Furthermore, voting was cancelled in several areas, including conflict-hit ethnic minority areas such as in Rakhine State, where 1.5 million Rakhine people were unable to vote.

In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD came to power after a landslide victory in November 2015.

“In her first term as Myanmar’s de facto head of state, it was shocking to see how little Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was willing to do to improve the human rights situation. While constrained by the Constitution that gives the military entrenched powers, the NLD nevertheless has the majority needed to review and repeal or amend repressive laws,” said Yamini Mishra.

“These laws, often from the military era, underpin Myanmar’s shocking human rights record and should be consigned to the history books.”

Time to reform repressive laws

Amnesty International’s Human Rights Agenda highlights key legal reforms the government must undertake, including reforming or repealing the range of repressive laws used to arrest, prosecute and imprison individuals simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Vital legal reforms are also needed to ensure women’s rights and gender equality, protect the rights of LGBTI people, and abolish the death penalty.

“From arbitrary arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment of activists to legally-sanctioned discrimination against minority groups, there is a pressing need for human rights reforms,” said Yamini Mishra.

“Besides legal reforms, there are executive decisions the new government can take in favour of human rights, including the immediate and unconditional release of all people jailed solely for peacefully exercising their human rights.”

Amnesty International’s 2020 briefing “I Will Not Surrender”: The Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders and Activists in Myanmar, highlighted 16 recent cases of arbitrary and politically-motivated arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment, involving 58 people.

Local civil society organization Athan estimates that at least 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019 alone.

Military accountability

Amnesty International has documented a litany of serious human rights crimes in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and northern Shan States in recent years, including  attacks killing or injuring civilians, extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced labour, looting and confiscation of property.

Furthermore, crimes under international law committed by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017 as part of its brutal persecution of the Rohingya, including killings, rape, torture, burning hundreds of villages and forcing hundreds to thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh, are now the subject of International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings. A UN Fact-Finding Mission has called for senior military officials to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide. Moreover, Rohingya people in Myanmar are still forced to live in a state of apartheid. Their freedom of movement and access to education, livelihood opportunities and healthcare are severely restricted. 

The authorities have denied access to UN investigators and instead touted domestic accountability efforts, but these fall short of international standards – especially as the Myanmar military is not under civilian oversight and offers no transparency on its internal investigations.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself has dismissed and downplayed allegations of serious human rights violations, including when she represented the Government of Myanmar at the ICJ, at The Hague in December 2019. 

“The military clearly bears the primary responsibility for atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State as well as against civilians in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and northern Shan States,” said Yamini Mishra.

“However, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD must stop downplaying these allegations, obstructing efforts towards justice and shielding senior generals from accountability. It is appalling that UN investigators including the Fact Finding Mission and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar were prevented from doing their work in the past – the new government must allow them in at the earliest opportunity.”

Humanitarian emergencies

The Myanmar military continues to inflict extreme suffering on civilians as multiple conflicts in Rakhine, Chin, and Northern Shan States rage. There are some 300,000 individuals displaced in those areas and Kachin State due to armed conflict.

The Myanmar authorities, including the civilian government, have imposed restrictions on humanitarian access to at-risk populations affected by armed conflict inside Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and northern Shan States. A government-ordered mobile internet blackout in some conflict-affected parts of Rakhine and Chin States has kept a large share of the population in the dark over the progression of the conflict, as well as the spread of COVID-19.

Humanitarian actors in recent years have faced significant impediments to their ability to conduct activities in Myanmar, which include providing health services, clean water and food aid to internally displaced persons and others.

“Despite coming to power on an unprecedented wave of hope, the NLD have presided over some of the darkest chapters in Myanmar’s history,” said Yamini Mishra.

“While Myanmar’s deadly and often long-running internal conflicts cannot be solved overnight, it is clear the government can do much more to enable the work of humanitarian groups on the ground. It is imperative that the new government allows full and unfettered humanitarian access and lift the harmful internet shutdown.

“After their landslide victory, the new government has a historic mandate to rein in military abuses and dismantle the legal architecture of repression. They can do more to press the military to stop committing egregious human rights violations and end the attacks that maim or kill civilians, including children. They must not squander this opportunity.”