Daw Aye Am, 35, closed the door to her house in Pain Hwe village, northern Shan State. The guns firing that morning of June 26 had gone silent, and she needed to go to the local clinic to receive treatment for a worsening illness. Then another boom sounded.
Nearly two years after an historic election ushered in a quasi-civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s borderlands are on fire, from Rakhine State in the west to Kachin and Shan States in the north. For many, that election signalled a major step in Myanmar’s transition from a pariah state, following decades of military rule. But the military still controls key levers of power, and has shown scant interest in ending its legacy of systematic human rights violations. That same military is implicated today in large-scale abuses in Rakhine State and in northern Myanmar, which makes it an odd time for European Union governments and the United States to consider increasing their military engagement.
The boom that sounded was a mortar the Myanmar Army fired from a position in Kutkai town, witnesses and human rights defenders told us. The military had fought nearby with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of several ethnic armed groups operating in northern Shan State, but the witnesses said none of those fighters—or any other military objective—was in Pain Hwe, a village comprised mostly of ethnic Palaung farmers.
The mortar exploded outside Daw Aye Am’s house, hurling metal and earth into her and her husband, U Aik Dat. Both were killed, leaving behind five children and Daw Aye Am’s 70-year-old mother. A 57-year-old neighbour, U Aik San, survived shrapnel to the back of his head. A month later, he showed us where the married couple stood when they were killed. The concrete wall to their house was still riddled with holes large and small, as if the mortar couldn’t decide whether to use a sledgehammer or a chisel.
Indiscriminate mortar fire has been a hallmark of the Myanmar military’s operations in Kachin and northern Shan States, as we detailed in a report released in June. Civilians from ethnic minorities have been subjected to a range of other violations that often amount to war crimes, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture. Many of these occur as collective punishment for civilians’ perceived loyalty to armed groups.
Our most recent research in northern Shan State, undertaken in late July, indicates such crimes are increasing in regularity. Two days before the shelling of Pain Hwe, soldiers from several Myanmar Army infantry battalions entered Loi Pyat village and forced six ethnic Palaung men to serve as porters. On the way, fighting broke out between the Army and TNLA. Five of the porters took advantage of the chaos to flee, but Army soldiers captured 24-year-old Aung Than, a tea leaf farmer who cared for his 62-year-old mother.
Aung Than’s body was found several days later, according to witnesses we interviewed, with a bullet hole in his head and bruises that suggested torture.
Escalation in Rakhine State
The conflicts in northern Myanmar have received little attention, in part because the military has suppressed independent media coverage, most notably through the arrest and two-month detention of three journalists reporting there, before announcing on September 1 the charges would be dropped. But similar patterns of abuse have been widely reported in Rakhine State, where Amnesty International and others documented a scorched earth campaign by Myanmar’s security forces in 2016. Those attacks likely amount to crimes against humanity.
The situation in northern Rakhine State is again deteriorating rapidly. On August 25, Rohingya militants launched coordinated attacks on several dozen Myanmar security force outposts and checkpoints. The attacks marked a dangerous escalation after weeks of increasing communal tension and the deployment of hundreds of Army troops to the area.
In response, the Myanmar military appears to have fallen back on its worst practices, launching a major security operation that targets the Rohingya on a collective basis. Credible reports indicate that soldiers opened fire on women, men, and children attempting to flee. Satellite imagery that Human Rights Watch and we have assessed independently shows widespread burning of homes and villages; during previous operations in the region, Myanmar’s forces have been implicated in deliberate burning. Within two weeks, 270,000 Rohingya had fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to the UN.
To make matters worse, the country’s civilian leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, is inflaming the situation through derogatory statements about the Rohingya and deeply irresponsible accusationsagainst international aid organizations operating in Rakhine State. Demonizing aid agencies will compound the suffering of people there, as have humanitarian access restrictions in areas of northern Myanmar controlled by armed groups.
Rewards without Reform
Although the European Union renewed in April its “arms embargo and the embargo on equipment which might be used for internal repression” in Myanmar, several EU countries appear to be testing the waters about increasing their military engagement. The same month, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, General Min Aung Hlaing, visited Austria and Germany, meeting with military leaders to discuss the provision of trainings and touring an aircraft manufacturer’s facility. He undertook a similar visit to Italy in late 2016.
US law likewise prohibits arms transfers to Myanmar, though one of several bases for the restrictions ended in July, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overruled his department’s experts and removed Myanmar from a list of countries that use child soldiers or support militias that do. The UN reported concurrently that it had verified cases of recruitment and use of children by the Myanmar military and by various armed groups.
The draft version of the US Senate National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), likely up for debate this month, calls for expanding military-to-military engagement, primarily, for now, through workshops and trainings.
All these moves appear blind to the realities on the ground, where, in addition to its ongoing violations, the Myanmar military has refused reforms that would bring it under civilian oversight. The military, for example, still controls its own judicial processes—and the police more generally. The result has been an utter lack of accountability for security force officials implicated in human rights violations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The EU and US should instead demand meaningful change before giving the Myanmar military the stamp of approval that would come from increased engagement. They should start by calling forcefully on the military to end its violations across the country. They should also insist that Myanmar’s military and civilian leadership allow unfettered access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission, mandated to investigate human rights violations and abuses by the security forces and by armed groups. To date, the government has denied the Fact-Finding Mission’s legitimacy and said it will refuse to issue visas to its members.
In addition, the EU and US should demand tangible progress in combating the impunity with which the military operates, in particular by the establishment of independent accountability mechanisms. For any trainings that do go forward, the E.U. and U.S. must ensure the trainings do not contribute to the commission of rights violations and also carefully vet all recipients for past involvement in such crimes.
After the 2015 elections, many civilians from ethnic minorities expressed hope that the country’s decades-long cycle of conflict and abuse would end. However, the civilian leadership’s failure to take action against or even to denounce the military’s ongoing crimes has fuelled growing mistrust and resentment.
As mortar shells rain down on Pain Hwe and other villages in northern Myanmar and as soldiers open fire on people fleeing in Rakhine State, increased EU and US military support would risk sending a message of abandonment to the country’s embattled ethnic minorities. It would also risk complicity in future violations, with a military that has shown no signs it will abandon the brutal tactics that continue to destroy so many people’s lives.