Skip to content

Myanmar coup raises stakes for investigations

A military coup toppling Myanmar's democratically elected government adds urgency to human rights investigations into generals' long history of brutal rule.

Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist stupa in Myanmar
Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist stupa in Myanmar (AN/J. Heilprin)

For years, Myanmar's generals have run the country, sometimes openly and at other times opaquely. For a brief time over the past decade, the military seemed to be handing over power to civilian rule, winning plaudits from the international community. Now the facade is gone.

Human rights leaders and organizations expressed alarm at Myanmar's military coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday, ending the nation's tentative progress in putting behind decades of military rule.

The abrupt change in fortunes for the nation added urgency to a U.N. human rights investigator's urgent message to the world body less than a year ago to “step up its efforts” to protect ethnic and religious minorities from “ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity” by Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, in Rakhine and Chin states.

An opinion from the United Nations’ top court, the International Court of Justice, instructed the Southeast Asian nation that it must "take all measures within its power" to prevent genocide.

In early morning raids, the military detained Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy party just as parliament was set to reconvene. The military-run Myawaddy TV announced that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will run the country for one year due to "election fraud" in November elections that gave Suu Kyi's party most of parliament's contested seats.

It cited a new constitutional provision that lets the military seize power in cases of national emergency, but NLD said in a Facebook post that Suu Kyi considers it a military coup that should be resisted. She is herself the daughter of a top military leader — Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated during the former British colony Burma's transition in July 1947, when she was only two years old.

The coup is another dramatic turnaround for Suu Kyi. After becoming leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, she was put under house arrest for 15 of the following 22 years of military rule. Starting in 1962, the nation endured five decades of military-led isolation.

But after a 2010 general election and her election to parliament in 2012, the United States and other Western governments eased up on economic restrictions. With international business moving in, Myanmar restored her party to power in 2015.

But even as she pushed the nation towards democracy, international consternation grew at her failure to condemn the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingya Muslims that fled by the hundreds of thousands into neighboring Bangladesh in 2018.

The constitution also gave the military a quarter of all seats in parliament and barred Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto civilian leader, from becoming president. That was because it specified a president could have no foreign-born direct family; her children are British, as was her late husband.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres strongly condemned the military's detention of Suu Kyi, Myanmar's President U Win Myint and other leaders, and called it "a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar."

Guterres urged the military "to respect the will of the people of Myanmar and adhere to democratic norms, with any differences to be resolved through peaceful dialogue," according to a U.N. statement.

Tirana Hassan, deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch, called for an urgent international response instead of the usual "diplomatic foot-dragging" towards Myanmar's military.

"The overturning of Myanmar’s constitutional order and the arrest of the civilian government and activists has the potential to trigger a disastrous human rights crisis in an already fragile country," said Hassan.

"The Myanmar military has for decades engaged with impunity in wide-ranging human rights violations," she said, "starting with crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes, arbitrary imprisonment, and monopolization of the country’s natural resources."

'Crumbling of the fragile' gains

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet — who in her first day on the job in September 2018 expressed outrage over Myanmar's conviction of two Reuters journalists that reported on the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims — said she was "gravely concerned" at the military coup.

"I am alarmed by reports suggesting that at least 45 people have been detained, including elected parliamentarians under confinement, and I call for their immediate release," Bachelet said, calling attention to "disturbing reports of journalists being harassed or attacked, and restrictions on the Internet and social media" that limit people's access to information and self-expression.

Bachelet, who heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and served as Chile’s first female president, reminded Myanmar's military leadership that the Southeast Asian country is bound by international human rights law.

"I urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar at this time," she said, "and for all states with influence to take steps to prevent the crumbling of the fragile democratic and human rights gains made by Myanmar during its transition from military rule."

Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur, or investigator, on human rights in Myanmar, called for the immediate and unconditional release of all detainees and the restoration of communication networks and internet connectivity, including mobile and Wifi, in Yangon, the nation's commercial hub, and in Naypyitaw, its capital.

“The ‘state of emergency’ in Myanmar is the military itself," he said. "They are guilty of an assault on an emerging democracy and the people of Myanmar. Human rights and democracy champions are in detention and under siege. They need and they deserve the world to be standing with them, which makes a strong international response imperative.”

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council, the most powerful arm of the world body, planned to take up discussions about the coup on Tuesday. The council, which has the power to impose sanctions and take other legally binding measures to enforce international security, includes five permanent veto-wielding seats for Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

Refugees International called on the Security Council to impose sanctions and a global arms embargo on Myanmar. It described the overthrow of Suu Kyi's government as a "blatant violation" of democratic principles, raising the risk of major human rights abuses and more violence that forcibly uproots people.

"The Myanmar military has a history of targeting ethnic minorities for abuse and is responsible for committing genocide against the Rohingya," said Daniel Sullivan, a senior advocate for human rights with the Washington-based organization. "The coup also raises concerns about access to those in need of humanitarian assistance, particularly forcibly displaced people who are already among the most persecuted and vulnerable."

Myanmar's military should immediately and unconditionally release Suu Kyi and other leaders of her party, said London-based Global Witness, which dismissed the military's claims of acting in accord with the constitution. It noted NLD won 83% of the vote in an election that international observers declared free and fair.

“The February 1 detention of civilian leaders and human rights activists is an outrageous and unacceptable attack on the will of the people of Myanmar and the democratic gains, however imperfect, that Myanmar has achieved over the past decade,” said Paul Donowitz, the organization's campaign leader for Myanmar. “The international community must make it clear that this coup is unacceptable and take immediate and unified action to hold military leaders including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing accountable."