Given the enduring and violent nature of the Tatmadaw’s crimes, it is left to international bodies like the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly to challenge and prosecute them.
In late August of 2017, Rohima Kadu’s idyllic village of Chin Khali, in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, was visited by Myanmar’s dreaded military, the Tatmadaw, and its local Buddhist militia associates. A helpless Rohingya widow aged 50, Rohima was at a loss as to what to do. Her eldest daughter, with whom she was living at that time, was bedridden with malaria and too weak to run. So, Rohima grabbed her grandchildren and fled to the nearby forest. She returned when the pillaging of her village was over, but there was no home to return to. All that remained was the charred skull of her daughter on the ground.
Four years later, in 2021, the stage for the Tatmadaw’s horror show is set once again, this time in the city of Bago in south-central Myanmar. On the tense evening of 9 April, a 19-year-old man riding a small motorcycle was stopped at a military checkpoint. He was arrested immediately for having pictures on his phone of him participating in a protest. The following days were marked by merciless beatings with cable wires, glass bottles and the butts of guns. Scissors were used to cut his ears, throat and the tip of the nose. He survived the ordeal by sheer will power to let the world know his story.
Between those two incidents lie four years of impunity, complacency and injustice. The Tatmadaw’s involvement in crimes against humanity is as old as Myanmar itself. Never has the brunt of the horrific violence that it enacts been so all-encompassing, however, as it is now in the wake of the February coup. Human Rights Watch, in its latest statement, alleged that the Tatmadaw-perpetrated violence and abuses in the months since the coup amount to ‘crimes against humanity’ as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court because they are widespread, systematic, knowingly committed against civilian population and reflect the official position of a state institution rather than the actions of individual soldiers. The list of atrocities includes murder, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, rape, other sexual and gender-based violence, torture and severe deprivation of liberty.
The ongoing crisis in Myanmar stems from a history of impunity. From the 1962 military takeover of the country to the latest one in February, and all the savagery against ethnic minorities and dissidents in between, the Tatmadaw was never held accountable. The global response to Myanmar’s human rights situation was never adequate. The 2008 Constitution and much-lauded “democratic” reforms also ensured total impunity for the country’s security forces from domestic legal accountability. Impunity from the deeds of the past has almost inevitably paved the way for current and future crimes.
A crisis that is rooted in impunity can only be solved by ensuring total accountability. The upcoming 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly can offer a fresh opportunity for global action to ensure accountability in Myanmar. On 18 June 2021, the Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the coup and calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar. While the resolution is non-binding in nature, the language and the robust support (119 countries voted in its favour) that it received stand in stark contrast to the diluted responses from the Council. There have been calls to the General Assembly to hold emergency special sessions in accordance with the “Uniting for Peace” resolution which, in 1950, succeeded in circumventing persistent Soviet vetoes during the Korean War. The 76th UNGA will be the first Session since the latest military takeover in Myanmar. Moreover, August 2021 marks the ongoing Rohingya crisis’s fifth year in, which could be a crucial impetus for firm action.
The legal proceedings against Myanmar initiated by the Gambia at the International Court of Justice in 2019 are probably the closest that the Tatmadaw leadership has ever been to being held to accountability. The sheer brutality with which it handled numerous ethnic groups for over sixty years is now on full display to peaceful protestors all over Myanmar. Unlike previous crackdowns, the ongoing suppression has coincided with mass access to technology and social media. The growing trove of photos, live videos and surveillance footage could be used to build an international criminal case against the junta. Such evidence is easily preserved, making the prosecution of perpetrators possible even after many years.
Non-recognition can be another potential tool in this regard. The Human Rights Council has “inadvertently” lent legitimacy to the junta by allowing its representatives to explain and justify the emergency decree on two separate occasions. The UNGA Credentials Committee is supposed to meet before the 76th session to address the representation issue. However, the junta had its own plan to solve the issue as is evident in the recent foiled assassination attempt of the NLD-appointed Permanent Representative. Since Myanmar is facing a third wave of Covid-19, the world should be extra cautious so that the global aid does not lead to legitimisation of the junta, another affliction that threatens lives in Myanmar.