In Myanmar, as in some other countries around the world, the government has seemingly been using the COVID-19 situation to step up its military campaign in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, while at the same time launching an attack on the freedom of speech.
“While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine State, targeting the civilian population,” Yanghee Lee, who is concluding her tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said in a 29 April statement.
No ceasefire during COVID-19 crisis
On 23 March Myanmar officially registered its first COVID-19 case and since then has been stepping up its efforts to contain the spread of the virus. However, the country’s efforts to combat the diseases have not altered its military operations in Indigenous and ethnic minority areas.
Calls for a global ceasefire by the UN Secretary-General have been overwhelmingly supported by ethnic armed organisations, national and international civil society groups and diplomatic missions in Burma/Myanmar; however, these calls have been completely rejected by the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw). In fact, the last few weeks have even seen an intensification of fighting in Rakhine and Chin states and aggressive incursions into ceasefire areas by the Tatmadaw.
Intensified fighting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army – an armed opposition group fighting for the self-determination of the peoples of Rakhine that has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government – has also taken place in the last two months.
In the past few weeks, fierce fighting on an almost daily basis has resulted in the loss of more than 50 civilians, as the Tatmadaw indiscriminately shell and launch airstrikes on civilian infrastructure. UNICEF reported that by the end of March the number of people displaced as a result of violence in Rakhine and Chin states reached 69,000 people, with March alone seeing 12,000 civilians abandoning their communities.
Violence in Rakhine state has directly impeded humanitarian agencies assisting Myanmar in combating COVID-19. On 20 April a marked UN World Health Organisation (WHO) vehicle transporting COVID-19 samples came under attack, resulting in the killing of the driver and serious injury to the passenger.
With the recent intensification of the confrontations in Rakhine and Chin states international media and the UN are starting to give the outside world a glimpse of what has been happening in the country’s Indigenous areas for decades. The country has been the stage of arguably the longest civil war in modern history involving the country’s military and myriad armed opposition groups which continues today.
The civil war takes an especially heavy toll on Indigenous Peoples of Myanmar. The peace process launched in 2011 effectively came to stalemate in 2019 due to the continued breaking of ceasefires in ethnic areas by the Tatmadaw and the reluctance of the Tatmadaw to make necessary concessions based on ethnic groups’ requirements for self-determination.
Today, more than 312,000 people are displaced by the conflict in Myanmar – mostly in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan states, as well as in the South East region. However, there has been very limited media attention to the pleas of the affected peoples.
“While the country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the military is escalating its offensives against ethnic armed groups in Rakhine, Chin, Karen and northern Shan states,” Naw Hser Hser, general-secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, said.
In February, 300 villagers in Karen state were displaced amid fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Tatmadaw, with many more at risk.
“We have a list of more than 2,000 villagers – both who had fled their homes and who are on high alert, ready to flee. If further fighting takes place, these villagers will be forced to run for safety as they are in grave danger,” Saw Robin Moo, secretary of the Karen National Union’s (KNU) Mutraw District, said.
In April 2020, the Karen Peace Support network raised concerns that since January, 2,000 troops have been deployed in a KNU-controlled area of Karen state and mortared villages in order to push the development of a strategic road in Muttraw, as a result, thousands of people were displaced.
Attacks in eastern Karen state, parts of which are under the control of the KNU, include a 31 March incident in which soldiers killed a 56-year-old man returning from a shopping trip and a 5 March incident in which soldiers killed a forest ranger, according to a monitoring group.
In Shan state, armed confrontations between government forces and armed opposition groups in February-April have resulted in the death of at least one civilian, population displacements, forced labour and property loss.
These examples clearly show that the Tatmadaw is not reducing or halting their programmes, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Observers are even suggesting that the policy of ethnic cleansing that started with the Rohingyas is now moving on to Indigenous Peoples and other minority groups.
Indigenous activists, whom IWGIA is in touch with directly, condemn the killings and fundamental violations of human rights that are happening, and fear that this is only the beginning: “Today it is Rakhine, tomorrow it can be somewhere else. Potentially all Indigenous Peoples are at absolute risk.”
Responding on 1 April to calls issued by a number of ethnic armed organizations, including the Arakan Army, to halt fighting in order to focus efforts on the COVID-19 outbreak response, the Myanmar military have made it very clear that ceasefire was out of the question.
Moreover, there are known cases where the Tatmadaw has threatened civilians with arrests for accepting COVID-19-related assistance offered by opposition groups. This comes directly against ceasefire provisions, namely NCA Chapter 6, Article 25 provisions on health awareness education and disease prevention in Indigenous areas.
Clampdown on freedom of speech and information
While access to information, including for health promotion purposes, is especially important under the right to health, many states are using the COVID-19 pandemic to put in place heavy restrictions on basic human rights, such as freedom of movement, assembly and even freedom of speech.
In Myanmar, the government used the coronavirus to grant sweeping powers to the military-dominated COVID-19 task force as a pretext to shut down more than 200 homepages as a means to control the spread of “fake news” and “disinformation” about the virus.
However, several of the shut-down sites are Indigenous news sites featuring critical journalists who have made space for Indigenous leaders to speak up against ongoing human rights violations.
The government has also been targeting prominent journalists who have interviewed representatives of ethnic armed opposition groups that have recently been labelled as terrorists under national legislation, meaning that any journalist communicating with members of such groups is liable to be arrested.
In light of the increasing number of attacks on journalists, UN human rights experts issued a joint statement reminding governments that: “The right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions.”
Internet access has been blocked completely in nine townships in Rakhine since June 2019, making access to information a challenge. This internet and telecommunications blackout also affects Chin and Rakhine states, and restricts Internally Displaced Person communities from having up-to-date information on government planning and understanding how to protect themselves from COVID-19.
In addition to restricting access to dissenting voices, the government has not done much to provide vitally important information about COVID-19 and measures to prevent its spread to Indigenous and ethnic minority communities. IWGIA’s Indigenous partners report there has been little to nothing produced in ethnic languages on the virus from the government.
Burmanisation and economic interests
Ever since independence in 1948, brutal conflicts over Indigenous territories have played out with thousands of lives lost over the pursuit of economic, cultural, religious, and political control and dominance.
Continuous marginalisation, discrimination and consistent implicit favouring of Burmans over Indigenous Peoples1 fuels support from communities to the ethnic armed groups fighting for greater self-determination and autonomy for their peoples.
The constant arbitrary arrests, brutal torture, rape and killings that accompany operations aimed at defending national interests – meaning Burman interests – has put fuel to the fire for generations.
Examples of discriminatory practices and policies include: the demolition of Christian churches replaced by Buddhist shrines; the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin (VFV) Land Management Law covering almost a third of the country’s territory, most of which is located in traditional Indigenous areas thus disproportionately affecting Indigenous populations who become trespassers on their own ancestral lands if they do not get the correct permits; Christians not receiving government benefits; and disproportionately limited funding for education in Indigenous languages.
The destruction of monuments of cultural, religious and historical significance to Indigenous Peoples is another example of how the state uses its powers to try to wipe out the identity of Indigenous communities.
At the core of the struggle we see a fight to control the natural resources in Indigenous territories. The state has strong economic interests in using the natural resources found in Indigenous territories.
The VFV Law imposed in 2019 clearly spells out the view of the state that Indigenous territories that lie fallow should be used for economic gains. However, Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determined development in their territories according to article 3 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Myanmar is a signatory.
In Karen state for example, the Shwe Kokko city project is a massive project near the Thailand border on Indigenous Karen land. In effect, it is a new Chinese city, built by Chinese investors, construction firms and labour, which will include hotels, casinos, restaurants and villas. The project has neither sought nor received free, prior and informed consent of the Karen, who will receive no benefits from the project.
“The Burma Army has no right to sell off a vast tract of contested Karen territory to foreign speculators before a peace accord has been reached and a new federal constitution actualised, granting local communities rights to decide over their own lands and resources,” the Karen Peace Support Network said.
Lessons from the Tatmadaw’s violent attacks, and the imposition of ‘development’ and extractive activities in Indigenous territories not supported or suggested by the Indigenous inhabitants of those areas, can be learned from Kachin State.
The ceasefire period between 1994 and 2011 saw a massive rise in resource extraction, environmental destruction and subjugation and silencing of grassroots calls for self-determination, ethnic equality and a federal democracy in favour of benefitting a few elites.
This ceasefire capitalism proved to be inherently unsustainable and renewed conflict broke out in 2011, which has continued until this day, displacing over 100,000 people and facilitating an uncountable litany of human rights violations, mostly perpetrated by the Myanmar military. These violations amounted to what the UN-Mandated Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar found were crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The world must act to protect Indigenous Peoples and minorities
IWGIA is extremely worried about the civilian population in Myanmar caught in the middle of the dual COVID-19 and armed conflict crisis. The Government of Myanmar must ensure the right to health, including access to health-related information in all languages of the peoples of Myanmar.
IWGIA denounces the continued attacks on Indigenous communities in Myanmar and echoes what Naw Htoo Htoo, a spokeswoman for the Karen Peace Support Network said: “At a time when everyone needs to work together to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Burma and the Burma Army seem to see the global focus on the pandemic as an opportunity to further crackdown on ethnic people.”
IWGIA calls on the government to protect Indigenous Peoples/civil populations from atrocities and hold perpetrators to account.
“Having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity. For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximised civilian suffering; we all know what they did to the Rohingya in 2017. They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area, with people from Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin communities being killed in recent months. Their alleged crimes must be investigated in accordance with international standards, with perpetrators being held accountable.” UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee said.
IWGIA is extremely concerned about the targeting of those delivering relief assistance and calls on the Government of Myanmar to ensure the safety and smooth operation of humanitarian agencies.
IWGIA calls on the Government of Myanmar to uphold freedom of expression and the right to information.
IWGIA urges all parties to the conflict to re-start the peace process to find a long-term solution building on the right to self-determination of all the peoples of Myanmar, including the right to choose the model of development in their territories.
The horrible suffering of the Rohingyas has drawn worldwide attention; let us ensure that the pleas of other peoples of Myanmar affected by violence are also heard and responded to by the world.
IWGIA applauds the diplomatic missions to call for an end to the conflict – but urges them to broaden the appeal and keep attention to include other Indigenous territories.
Myanmar’s diverse population encompasses over 100 different ethnic groups. The Burmans make up an estimated 68% of Myanmar’s 51.5 million people. The country is divided into seven Burman-dominated regions and seven ethnic states. The Burmese government refers to those groups generally considered to be indigenous peoples as “ethnic nationalities”. This includes the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Karenni, Chin, Kachin and Mon. However, there are more ethnic groups that are considered or see themselves as indigenous peoples, such as the Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Mru and many others. Myanmar has been ruled by a succession of Burman-dominated military regimes since the popularly elected government was toppled in 1962. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/IndigenousWorld2019_UK.pdf