The Myanmar military has murdered civilians, and used them as human shields, in a series of atrocities in eastern Karenni State that may amount to war crimes, prominent human rights group Fortify Rights said in a new report published on Tuesday.
The group says it documented attacks on churches, residential homes, camps for displaced people and other non-military targets that took place in the state, also known as Kayah State, between May 2021 and January 2022.
At least 61 civilians were killed during that time, it said.
The report comes as foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepare to meet in Cambodia with no progress in a five-point consensus agreed with the military last April that was supposed to end the violence.
Fortify Rights said it was time ASEAN gave its support to a global arms embargo.
“The Myanmar junta is murdering people with weapons procured on the global market, and that must stop,” Ismail Wolff, Regional Director at Fortify Rights said in a statement. “Clear and definitive action is needed to compel the Myanmar junta to rethink its attacks on civilians. The UN 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.”
The Fortify Rights report is based on testimony from 31 eye-witnesses and survivors, as well as verified photo and video evidence.
It includes new details on the Christmas Eve killings in Hpruso Township, in which at least 40 civilians, including a child and two Save the Children staff, were killed.
A doctor who worked on the autopsies of those killed told the group that some of the bodies were so badly burned they were impossible to autopsy, but that his team was able to confirm that five of the bodies were women and one a girl under the age of 15.
“Some had their mouths stuffed with cloth, so we were pretty sure these people were gagged,” the doctor told Fortify Rights. “Almost every skull was fractured and badly cracked . . . [In some bodies], we could gather enough evidence to say they were burned to death alive.”
In another case, Fortify Rights said the Myanmar army used an 18-year-old man, his uncle, and two other men as human shields during clashes with fighters from the Karenni People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Moe Bye Township on the border with Shan state.
“The soldiers put their guns on our shoulders and shot PDFs, staying behind us,” the man told Fortify Rights. “We were kept tied up and blindfolded. We were tortured a lot, in so many ways. They kicked our bodies, hit our heads with gun handles, and more.” Fortify Rights said three of the men eventually escaped, but it was unable to confirm what had happened to the fourth.
The generals have resorted to force in an attempt to put down public opposition to its rule, cracking down on protests and stepping up attacks on anti-coup civilian militias and in ethnic minority areas where it has been embroiled in decades-long conflict with numerous armed groups.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been monitoring the situation, says at least 1,549 people had been killed across the country as of February 14, and more than 12,000 arrested.
“Coup-leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his forces claim to be fighting ‘terrorists’,” Fortify Rights said in its report. “Instead, his forces are carrying out these and other mass-atrocity crimes against the civilian population with complete impunity.”
Fortify Rights said a United Nations-led global arms embargo to prohibit the sale of weapons and dual-use technology to the security forces was essential and that the UN should impose additional sanctions to deny the military access to its most significant source of funds, income from the sale of natural gas.
The situation in Myanmar should also be referred to the International Criminal Court, it added.
An estimated 170,000 civilians in Karenni State, or more than half of the state’s estimated population of 300,000, have been forced from their homes as a result of the military’s continuing attacks, according to the Karenni Civil Society Network.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Myanmar crisis have made little progress. The UN Security Council has issued five press statements expressing concern at the situation in Myanmar and a single presidential statement – on March 10, 2021.
ASEAN, which Myanmar joined under a previous military regime in 1997, has sought to take the initiative but with little success.
The military’s foreign minister has not been invited to this week’s meeting, with an invitation sent to a “non-political representative” instead.
Fortify Rights said it was time for ASEAN to take a firmer stance against the coup leaders, urging the organisation to engage with the National Unity Government established by elected politicians who were removed from office by the military as well as representatives from ethnic groups.
“The junta is not a government; it’s a criminal enterprise and doesn’t belong at the ASEAN table,” Wolff said. “It would be dangerous for ASEAN to give Min Aung Hlaing and his junta any political legitimacy.”