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Current Mass Atrocities Facing Civilians in Burma: Key Takeaways from Experts

By Madeleine MacLean

—US Holocaust Memorial Museum

On June 21, 2023, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide brought together Burmese civil society leaders to discuss the mass atrocities being committed against civilian populations by the Burmese military and what the United States can do to mitigate these threats and prevent future atrocities. 

Speakers included Myra Dahgaypaw, Senior Partnership Officer for International Justice and Accountability for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; Wai Wai Nu, Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Peace Network; Gum San Nsang, President of the Kachin Alliance; and Rosalinn Zahau, Advocacy Team Member for the Chin Human Rights Organization. Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, gave opening remarks. 

The following is a summary of the key points made by the speakers.

Overview of Current Atrocities Facing Civilians in Burma

The Burmese military is responsible for mass atrocities across Burma, including killings, arbitrary detention, the burning of villages, and the restricting of humanitarian aid and essential services. Different regions and minority groups have experienced unique harm.

Kachin State had suffered mass atrocities at the hands of the military for a decade before the coup, including frequent burning of homes, airstrikes, and bombings. According to the Kachin Alliance, over 150,000 people have been displaced in the past ten years. The military is also responsible for the mass exploitation of natural resources and large-scale land grabs. The coup has exacerbated these dynamics and has increased the levels of violence against civilians. 

The human rights situation in southeastern Burma has also deteriorated drastically. Civilians live in a state of fear of being targeted by military attacks or arrested arbitrarily. About 4,000 civilians have been arrested and detained in the southern region alone, while about 1,000 civilians have been injured and over 300 have been killed. There are approximately 500,000 internally displaced people in Karen State alone. The military has blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching internally displaced people under the suspicion that the provisions are being taken to the resistance. 

Civilians in Chin State also suffered human rights abuses by the military prior to the coup that have only intensified since the military’s takeover. The military engaged in state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities, including requiring non-Buddhists to apply for permission to practice their religion and taking children into the custody of state-run schools where they were forced to convert to Buddhism. According to Rosalinn Zahau, over 40,000 people were displaced even before the coup. After the coup, the civilians of Chin State were among the first to take up arms in resistance, and the military responded by sending large numbers of reinforcements. Fighting between the military and the resistance movement has intensified since then, and most of the state is currently under the control of resistance forces. Due to its lack of success on the ground, the military has resorted to airstrikes, from which civilians in Chin State do not have the capacity to protect themselves. Zahau reported that over 25 percent of the population has been displaced into neighboring countries, including India. 

The military also continues its history of violence and discrimination against the Rohingya people in Burma’s Rakhine State. Since the coup it has continued its policy of targeting Rohingya, including restricting their movement both within the state and across the country, issuing discriminatory “National Verification Cards,” engaging in abusive family check-in measures, and detaining Rohingya arbitrarily. The military is also systematically restricting Rohingyas’ access to food, water, and basic services. They have escalated the harm against civilians by denying humanitarian assistance to Rakhine State following Cyclone Mocha, which killed a disproportionate number of internally displaced Rohingya. Ms. Nu warned that the situation of the Rohingya people in Burma has not improved since the genocidal attacks six years ago, and she fears we will see future genocidal violence if the international community does not take action.

Next Steps 

The speakers recommended a range of measures that the US can implement to support the protection of civilians experiencing mass atrocities:

  • The US should accelerate the implementation of the Burma Act to provide comprehensive assistance to survivors of atrocities, and it should ensure that this assistance reaches Rohingya genocide victims and survivors. 

  • The US should provide assistance aimed at strengthening the capacity of communities in Burma to protect themselves. 

  • The US should convene a coalition of nations to increase the strategic coordination of actions to support human rights in Burma and stop the flow of money and resources to the junta. These nations should also enforce current sanctions against the military.  

  • UN member states should increase their contributions to the Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan and the Rohingya Joint Response Plan, which Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews noted are currently only 14 percent and 22 percent funded, respectively. 

  • The US should provide an early warning system for airstrikes, as well as more communication and jamming devices. 

Challenges and Recommendations

Many humanitarian organizations have had to leave Burma for neighboring countries in order to continue their operations, and as a result they may not have official registrations or access to bank accounts at the moment. This has created difficulty for the organizations to comply with USAID’s standard procedures. Ms. Zahau recommended that USAID employ an intermediate agency to handle these administrative steps, as it has done in the past.  

The panelists also emphasized the need for more comprehensive and coordinated sanctions. This includes sanctioning Burmese oil and gas, which is one of the military’s biggest sources of revenue, and sanctioning companies that provide military supplies like jet fuel. The panelists recommended that the US implement individual sanctions against not just the top military officials but lower level officials as well. Local communities have not seen regional commanders be held accountable, and sanctions against them would help provide a sense of justice. 

The US should also take on a greater leadership role in advancing justice through the international legal system. While the US has provided funding to the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, it should also provide and enhance support to the local organizations who are documenting the military’s atrocities. The US government can take action to hold military officials accountable by setting up an international criminal tribunal or building international support for referring Burma to the International Criminal Court, as well as helping develop a comprehensive justice process for addressing crimes by lower ranking officials.

The US can also provide more diplomatic, political, and financial support to the current legal cases against the Burmese military, such as assisting with investigations and offering witness protection. 

Watch the event:

Madeleine MacLean is an intern with the Simon-Skjodt Center.