As fighting between the military and rebel forces in western Myanmar escalates, Amnesty International published a report claiming airstrikes by the state’s armed forces constitute war crimes. Here’s how the media covered the story.
Fighting between Myanmar’s military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine and Chin states has been ongoing since 2018, but a recent escalation in the conflict has proved deadly for residents.
Amnesty International published a report earlier this week in which it detailed a campaign of indiscriminate airstrikes by Myanmar’s army—also known as the Tatmadaw—which it says killed civilians. “While Myanmar authorities were urging people to stay at home to help stop COVID-19, in Rakhine and Chin states its military was burning down homes and killing civilians in indiscriminate attacks that amount to war crimes,” stated Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.
While the report gained traction on social media, there was initially relatively little coverage or reaction from within Southeast Asia besides news agency reports. However, some in the wider region did cover the story.
Al Jazeera carried quotes from bereaved family members of those killed in the fighting, including one person who had lost an uncle, a brother and a close family friend. “Our family is destroyed,” he said. The report also noted how Amnesty has called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into Myanmar’s actions.
Turkish media outlet The Daily Sabah made the death of a seven-year-old boy the focus of its piece. “The boy died along with at least 11 other people in air raids in mid-March in Paletwa, Chin state, according to witnesses’ testimonies collected by the rights group,” it reported.
Both sides issued denials of wrongdoing
Radio Free Asia, one of the few regional publications to offer significant analysis and further detail, published reactions from both the military and the rebels. “When we conduct military operations, we need to use appropriate force and airstrikes, but we have been trying to identify those who are civilians and those who are insurgents,” said Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, adding that the government tries not to harm civilians.
The AA also stands accused of committing human rights abuses although this report could not offer any new evidence due to a lack of access amid COVID-19 and military restrictions. “If an AA member does something like this, then we are ready to conduct an inquiry and take action against him,” AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA.
Writing for The Thaiger, Jack Burton reported that “The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that in recent days an additional 10,000 people fled their homes as a result of heavy fighting and warnings of advancing military operations.”
Others focused on the bigger picture and related incidents
Arakan News, a website run by a think tank comprising activists, lawyers and journalists in Asia, America and Europe, echoed Amnesty’s calls to refer the allegations to the ICC. Arakanese communities issued a joint statement to that end on July 7. It highlighted the impact of the conflict since the beginning of 2019: 270 civilians killed, 552 residents injured, 574 villagers arrested and others unaccounted for.
It also said that 233,541 people have been displaced by the conflict, saying: “The violence and atrocities will never end in Rakhine State as long as the military is unpunished and the perpetrators are not held accountable to international law.”
Furthermore, the article praised the British government for placing travel and financial restrictions on high-ranking Myanmar military officials, urging other nations to follow suit. The piece concluded with further allegations of abuse carried out by the Tatmadaw, including gang rape.
The situation in western and northern Myanmar is complicated and does not appear to be stabilising. Furthermore, those involved are not limited to Myanmar. Just one day before Amnesty published its report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Japanese drinks company Kirin to stop funding Myanmar’s military and indirectly causing more harm to ethnic minorities in the region.
“Kirin should promptly end its business partnerships with the military-owned conglomerate and disclose the details of the independent review when it is completed,” HRW concluded. “Only by taking bold and concrete action in a fully transparent manner can Kirin redeem its tarnished reputation.”
What could happen next?
There is no sign the conflict will ease any time soon, despite the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. These are challenging times for Myanmar: the publication of Amnesty’s report came less than a week after another deadly jade mine disaster. All the while, the country gears up for a general election in November.
Myanmar has already faced scrutiny for atrocities committed in Rakhine. In November, The Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice alleging the Myanmar military has committed genocide against the Rohingya. The ICC has also approved an investigation. Myanmar denied wrongdoing and would likely do so again if questioned over its activity during the conflict with the AA in Rakhine and Chin states.
But that will not stop the calls for justice from growing louder. “The atrocities have not stopped—in fact, the Myanmar military’s cruelty is only getting more sophisticated,” Bequelin said at the end of Amnesty’s statement. “This relentless pattern of violations is clearly a matter for the ICC. The Security Council must act.”