The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should back a U.N. Security Council-mandated arms embargo prohibiting the sale of weapons to Myanmar’s junta, an international human rights group said Tuesday, citing reports of military abuses in Kayah state it warned could amount to war crimes.
A day ahead of a planned annual retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers, watchdog group Fortify Rights published a report entitled “Ongoing War Crimes in Karenni (Kayah) State, Myanmar” which it said documents the murders of at least 61 civilians by military personnel in Kayah between May 2021 and January 2022.
The report includes details on what has become known as the “Christmas Eve Massacre” in Kayah’s Hpruso township, when troops killed at least 40 civilians, including a child and two aid workers with the London-based group Save the Children, on Dec. 24, 2021.
Ismail Wolff, regional director at Fortify Rights, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report that Myanmar’s junta “is murdering people with weapons procured on the global market,” and called on ASEAN to help put an end to the situation.
“Clear and definitive action is needed to compel the Myanmar junta to rethink its attacks on civilians,” he said. “The U.N. Security Council must urgently impose a global arms embargo on the Myanmar military, and it would be strategic and sensible for ASEAN to support it.”
Fortify’s report was based on testimony from 31 people who witnessed abuses by the military in the eight months until January, as well as photographic and video evidence and documentation from humanitarian agencies and armed ethnic groups in Kayah.
It found that as the junta stepped up an offensive in Kayah in December and January, military troops murdered civilians, and used bombs, heavy artillery, and arson in residential areas. The military has tried to justify its actions by saying the areas were a haven for members of armed ethnic groups and anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias formed to protect civilians following the Feb. 1, 2021 coup.
But sources interviewed by Fortify Rights, as well as RFA’s Myanmar Service in earlier reports, described troops using civilians as human shields and forced porters in Kayah state, as well as committing other rights violations including arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual abuse, and even murder.
Fortify cited a doctor in Myanmar who said he was called in to examine the bodies retrieved from the site of the Christmas Eve Massacre but was unable to conduct autopsies on several of them because they were too badly burned.
He described how he had identified at least 31 bodies, including five women and one girl, and said several appeared to have been gagged, hit over the head, and even burned alive.
Tens of thousands displaced
Meanwhile, clashes between the military and anti-junta forces since the coup have forced the displacement of an estimated 170,000 civilians in Kayah state – or more than half of the state’s population of 300,000 – the report said, citing figures from the Karenni Civil Society Network. The number accounts for a substantial portion of what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at the end of last month was a new high of 441,500 people displaced in Myanmar since the military seized power.
“The Myanmar military’s forced displacement of civilians threatens to become protracted given the continued attacks on towns and villages and destruction and damage to civilian homes and properties,” Fortify Rights said Tuesday in a statement accompanying the release of its report.
The group noted in an earlier report that the military had been blocking humanitarian aid in Kayah state by arresting personnel, confiscating supplies, and destroying food.
“The Geneva Conventions primarily define the laws of war, providing fundamental rules to regulate the conduct of armed conflict,” Fortify said.
“The Myanmar military’s murder, forced displacement, and other attacks on civilians in [Kayah] State constitute severe violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and may amount to war crimes.”
On the anniversary of the coup, the EU and foreign ministers of nine U.N. member states called on the international community to end the sale of arms to the junta as part of a bid to hold it accountable for the situation in the country. However, Myanmar has routinely flouted Security Council directives and failed to implement measures jointly agreed upon with fellow ASEAN member nations to end violence in the country.
Fortify said its report recommends that the U.N. Security Council pass a resolution mandating a global arms embargo prohibiting the sale of weapons to the junta and to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to deny the military access to funds.
It also called for ASEAN member states to “play a more significant role in these efforts” by engaging with Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), providing it with support, and supporting the establishment of a global arms embargo.
“The Myanmar military has posed a threat to international peace and security for decades, including by committing genocide with impunity against Rohingya Muslims as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes against other ethnic nationalities,” said Ismail Wolff. “An arms embargo is crucial to help end these atrocities, and it would be strategic for ASEAN on several levels. Urgent action is needed now.”
Fortify’s findings came on the same day that sources in embattled Sagaing region reported active clashes in the area after members of a local branch of the Chin PDF (CDF) attacked military troops stationed in Kale township’s Yangyi Aung village on Monday.
A spokesperson of the Kale-Kabaw-Gangaw Region CDF who spoke on condition of anonymity said his group carried out the attack after troops pressured residents to form a pro-military militia.
“They intimidated local people and fired artillery at a camp for people displaced by fighting, so we carried out a joint attack with fighters from the Hakha CDF and ambushed them around 6 p.m.,” he said.
Junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed the incident and said the attack had prompted junta soldiers to respond with force.
“The PDF are disrupting stability in the region,” he said.
“Some got inside the area and burned structures down. Some took guns and ammunitions.”
Zaw Min Tun claimed that the PDF is “trying to punish people who don’t join them,” without providing further details.
A resident of Kale township told RFA that the military had burned down eight homes in Yangyi Aung village amid the fighting on Monday, while others estimated that more than 1,500 people from four villages in the township had fled the area when troops entered the area.
A resident of Tinthar village said he and others left when the military began firing heavy weaponry.
“The artillery blasts damaged homes and injured people and cattle, so people fled into the mountains and jungles,” he said. “There is an average of five people per household, so at least 1,500 people are now on the run.”
Sources said that at least six armed engagements had taken place between the CDF and junta troops since Monday, while volunteers told RFA that the 1,500 who fled the area on Monday joined an estimated 20,000 who have been displaced by fighting in Kale township since the coup.
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.