Military Atrocities and Civilian Resilience: Testimonies of injustice, insecurity and violence in Southeast Myanmar during the 2021 coup [EN/Karen/MY]

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Executive Summary

On July 6th 2021, five months after the Myanmar military unlawfully seized power from the newly elected civilian government, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made a statement to the Human Rights Council announcing that “the situation in Myanmar has evolved from a political crisis to a multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe. […] What began as a coup by the Myanmar military has rapidly morphed into an attack against the civilian population that has become increasingly widespread and systematic.”

Since the February 1st 2021 military coup, the human rights situation in Myanmar has seriously deteriorated. The State Administration Council (SAC) headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has engaged in systematic violence against civilians and stripped away the few key civil and political protections that the already problematic 2008 Constitution was supposed to guarantee, further opening the door for widespread human rights violations. Those who have taken to the streets or posted online to express their disapproval of the coup and the military’s actions have faced violence and threats to life at the hands of security forces. In Southeast Myanmar, rural villagers have faced additional insecurity and human rights violations as armed conflict and attacks in civilian areas have increased. With ongoing displacements, a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, and the SAC blocking national and international aid organisations’ access to critical areas, the humanitarian crisis has become dire, placing many in life-threatening situations.

In this report, KHRG presents the experiences and perspectives of rural villagers in Southeast Myanmar during the first six months of the military coup, as well as that of civilians who fled for safety to areas under Karen National Union (KNU) control. Interviews conducted by KHRG reveal the level of violence that the SAC undertook against protesters, and the ways in which protesters have continued to voice their opposition to the coup in the face of increasing brutality and repression by the state military. Protesters recounted stories of fear and insecurity as they encountered the ruthless response of the SAC to civilian opposition, yet equally expressed a strong sense of hope and an unwavering commitment to upholding the fight for democracy and freedom from oppression through to the very end. These interviews also highlight the efforts of civilians to support and sustain each other as protesters and those engaged in civil disobedience sought refuge and protection.

The situation of rural villagers has also been impacted by an increase in militarization and armed conflict. Although some areas in Southeast Myanmar have experienced little to no fighting, others have endured an ongoing onslaught of attacks and fighting since the coup. It is estimated that, as of June 23rd, close to 177,000 villagers in Southeast Myanmar, including 50,000 in Kayin State, have been displaced since the February 1st coup (with over 140,000 still experiencing displacement as of August 23rd).2 KHRG also received a growing number of reports of direct attacks on civilians, including targeted killings, forced labour, looting and confiscation. That, combined with the SAC’s use of the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional weapon of war, has left rural villagers at-risk from multiple forms of attack.

In documenting the first six months of the coup, this report seeks to ensure that the experiences and concerns of rural ethnic villagers are not just heard but addressed. Although conflict and attacks had been ongoing in certain parts of Southeast Myanmar even prior to the coup, the shifts currently taking place reflect a complete disregard for human rights and signal a return to a “four cuts” approach that, as independent researcher Kim Joliffe has highlighted, “treats civilians not just as ‘collateral damage’ but as a central resource in the battlefield”.