A prominent human rights group says Myanmar’s military may have committed war crimes in the eastern Karenni state by arresting humanitarian workers and destroying food stocks meant for conflict displaced people.
In a new report on Wednesday, Fortify Rights said the Myanmar military has arrested at least 14 aid workers in Karenni state, also known as Kayah, since it seized power in a coup on February 1.
Drawing on more than 20 interviews with displaced people, humanitarian workers and members of armed groups, Fortify Rights said the military has also carried out arson attacks, looted civilian property and destroyed food, medicine and other aid supplies.
“Blocking aid and targeting humanitarian workers in the context of armed conflict are war crimes,” said Ismail Wolff, Regional Director of Fortify Rights.
“The Myanmar junta poses a threat to regional peace and security. UN and ASEAN member states should urgently support emergency cross-border aid for the displaced and ensure accountability for the junta’s heinous crimes.”
The alleged blocking of aid comes amid intense fighting in Karenni state between the military and armed groups, including militias founded by civilians in the aftermath of coup, known as the People’s Defence Forces.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced in the eastern state in the ongoing fighting. But rather than facilitating lifesaving aid to the conflict-displaced, the military has taken “concrete steps” to deny civilians access to it, according to Fortify Rights.
For instance, it said, the military arrested three aid workers – two women and one man – near Pan Kan Village in the Loikaw Township in May. They remain in detention, five months on.
“We are all afraid to work under these conditions, but we do as much as we can,” one local aid worker with knowledge of the arrests told Fortify Rights.
In another incident in June, soldiers also destroyed and burned stockpiles of rice stored at a school in Loi Yin Taung Chae village on the borders between Karenni and Shan states.
According to Fortify Rights, aid workers had been using the stock of rice to feed some 3,000 displaced people.
Additionally, the rights group said the military has been delaying travel authorisation for international aid workers and setting up roadblocks, stopping vehicles at checkpoints and confiscating aid supplies.
All of this has resulted in a lack of basic resources, including potable water and healthcare at displacement sites.
One Karenni man told Fortify Rights: “Despite having a hideout, we still don’t have water… We only have enough food available for one or two weeks. We’re feeling insecure and scared, and we don’t know when the next attack will happen.”
Fortify Rights said similar accounts have been reported in other conflict-racked areas of the country, especially in Chin state and the Sagaing region.
“Lives are at stake and the entire population of Myanmar is under threat,” said Wolff.
Calling for “bold action”, he said the governments of Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh must immediately authorise humanitarian agencies to provide cross-border aid to Myanmar civilians.
Governments must also outlaw weapons sales to Myanmar, impose targeted sanctions on members of the military and deny their access to finances, he said.