Southeast Myanmar Field Report: Military coup, protests, armed conflict and attacks, human rights abuses, and COVID-19, January to June 2021

Situation Report
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This Field Report analyses information collected by KHRG field researchers during the period between January and June 2021.

The reporting period was most clearly marked by the military coup that took place on February 1st 2021. Claiming election fraud, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's Armed Forces, seized power just prior to the swearing in of members of parliament who had been elected during the 2020 general election. Elected President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi were detained, along with ministers, their deputies and members of parliament. After a state of emergency was proclaimed, Min Aung Hlaing established the State Administration Council (SAC)[1] as the executive governing body, to which he appointed himself chairman.

The military coup immediately led to widespread protests throughout the country, including in KHRG’s operational area. Civilians took to the streets to voice their opposition and thousands of government staff members left their jobs in an act of civil disobedience against the new military regime. Civilian opposition to the coup led to violent crackdowns by the SAC. Although the majority of violent crackdowns took place in urban areas, protesters in rural areas often faced barriers to attending and holding protests, including receiving threats and warnings by SAC soldiers and administrators. Some urban protesters and government staff participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)[2] fled to areas under Karen National Union (KNU)[3] control in order to escape arrest and threats by SAC security forces. KHRG recently published an analytical report detailing the experiences of protesters and participants in the CDM.[4]

Military activity, including fighting and air and ground attacks by SAC forces,[5] increased shortly after the coup, and has led to human rights violations and a highly critical security situation for villagers in Mu Traw (Hpapun), Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin), Doo Tha Htoo (Thaton), and more recently Dooplaya District. Tens of thousands of villagers in Southeast Myanmar have been displaced due to SAC offensives since the beginning of the coup, often fleeing with little food and supplies, and having poor access to shelter and potable water, yet also unable to access humanitarian support. Many have built new makeshift bunkers in which to hide, and remain in constant fear of further attack. Whether they have fled or not, villagers across all Karen districts have expressed concerns about heightened insecurity. Movement is also more difficult as a result of the increased military activity and insecurity. This has brought about livelihood challenges since villagers are often unable to access their lands to harvest or work their farms. Education and healthcare have also been impacted, with schools and clinics damaged or destroyed, or forced to shut down as a result of the conflict and attacks.

There has also been an increase in what appears to be intentional shooting and killing of civilians by SAC forces. Instances of SAC soldiers shooting civilians on sight have been reported by KHRG and other agencies since the coup. Reports of forced labour, primarily portering and navigation, have also begun to emerge. There has been a resurgence in the planting of new landmines by both the SAC military and ethnic armed groups, which has in turn led to an increase in landmine incidents. Landmine clearance and warnings have remained insufficient in preventing injury and loss of life.

The military coup has also had wider impacts on education, healthcare and livelihoods. Teachers and medical staff have refused to work for the military government, making them targets of arrest and violence by SAC security forces. Schools have been unable to open for the start of the school year, and medical facilities are understaffed and, in some cases, have shut down. Unemployment is widespread, and the downturn in the economy is creating problems for farmers to sell their goods. It has also led to a rise in prices for basic necessities like rice and diesel fuel, placing further strains on the already fragile livelihood situation of villagers.

KHRG received few updates on the COVID-19 situation during the reporting period, with villagers stating that they thought COVID-19 was no longer a problem. This shift in understanding about the current state of the pandemic was tied to the SAC’s lack of testing and reporting. The rise of a third wave of the pandemic in July can be attributed to the SAC’s poor handling of the crisis since ousting the elected civilian government.