Myanmar Military Carries Out Atrocities in the East, Too

A distracted international community hasn’t been watching.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Members of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force run during training at their base camp in a forest in Myanmar's eastern Kayah state.
Members of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force run during training at their base camp in a forest in Myanmar's eastern Kayah state.
Members of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force run during training at their base camp in a forest in Myanmar's eastern Kayah state. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The military crackdown against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority spurred the exodus of nearly 1 million Rohingyas fleeing persecution, many of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which has been housing the world’s largest refugee camp since 2017. The U.S. government declared the crisis a genocide this past March. 

But now, largely under the radar of a distracted international community, the military responsible for the horrific mass killings in Myanmar's west and that illegally seized power in a coup in February 2021 is increasingly terrorizing minorities in the country's east. Myanmar's military has ramped up violence and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in the eastern states of Kayin and Kayah, which sit along the Myanmar-Thai border, according to a new report by the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International. 

Amnesty has documented hundreds of cases of illegal killings, unlawful arrests, systematic looting and burning, and collective punishment—but has stopped short of labeling the attacks genocide. According to research and on-the-ground interviews conducted in March and April 2022, Myanmar's military has ramped up violence against ethnic minorities in the east, particularly against the predominantly Christian and Buddhist Karenni. 

The military crackdown against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority spurred the exodus of nearly 1 million Rohingyas fleeing persecution, many of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which has been housing the world’s largest refugee camp since 2017. The U.S. government declared the crisis a genocide this past March. 

But now, largely under the radar of a distracted international community, the military responsible for the horrific mass killings in Myanmar’s west and that illegally seized power in a coup in February 2021 is increasingly terrorizing minorities in the country’s east. Myanmar’s military has ramped up violence and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in the eastern states of Kayin and Kayah, which sit along the Myanmar-Thai border, according to a new report by the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International. 

Amnesty has documented hundreds of cases of illegal killings, unlawful arrests, systematic looting and burning, and collective punishment—but has stopped short of labeling the attacks genocide. According to research and on-the-ground interviews conducted in March and April 2022, Myanmar’s military has ramped up violence against ethnic minorities in the east, particularly against the predominantly Christian and Buddhist Karenni. 

As of May 31, the military has killed at least 1,876 people, overwhelmingly civilians, since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization based in Mae Sot, Thailand, and in Yangon, Myanmar. But the death toll is “likely a significant underestimate,” according to the Amnesty report, especially in border areas in the east where fighting and human rights violations often occur in remote areas and where communication channels are limited.

“There has been an obvious deterioration in human rights in Myanmar following the coup, but the tactics employed by Myanmar’s military are nothing new,” Carolyn Nash, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, told Foreign Policy. “The war crimes we’re seeing now are in part a result of long-standing impunity that the military is confident no one will threaten.” 

Bombings and airstrikes are being deliberately used against civilians in a strategy of collective punishment, a field-level commander who defected from the military after serving in Kayah state told Amnesty International. Nash said, “The world’s attention has shifted in recent months, but violence continues to escalate and civilians are paying the price.”

Western countries such as the United States have deferred largely to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its Five-Point Consensus, a framework proposed by the group’s nine active members with requirements that Myanmar must meet before being fully invited back into the association. But the Myanmar junta’s exclusion from ASEAN “did not stop the violence in Myanmar, including crimes under international law being committed by the military in eastern Myanmar,” the report notes.

The muted global reaction has limited accountability for Myanmar’s military. Global companies with operations in Myanmar have largely attempted to stay out of the conflict, continuing to operate in Myanmar even as some profits could fund the junta, an expert familiar with U.S. and ASEAN business interests told Foreign Policy. Within Myanmar, businesses are refraining from establishing formal relationships with the junta, but they are also not cutting ties.

“It’s simply a cop-out for countries like Japan not to enact targeted sanctions, even when it can and has the necessary legal framework to do so,” said Teppei Kasai, a Tokyo-based program officer for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, with a focus on Cambodia and Myanmar. Japan still hasn’t frozen ongoing nonhumanitarian projects, even though it said last year it won’t sign off on new ones, Kasai said.

And though in April the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Burma Act, a bill to authorize humanitarian relief and support for civil society, Republicans have stalled it in the Senate, said Michael Haack, a contractor with Campaign for a New Myanmar, a group lobbying for the bill.

What’s happening in Myanmar is “unspeakable,” said Haack. While many are familiar with the Rohingya crisis, few Americans are aware of the aerial bombings and insurgency that have internally displaced more than 600,000 people since the beginning of the coup, he said. “I don’t think that’s quite gotten to a mainstream audience.” 

“Continued deference to a five-point consensus that has achieved no meaningful impact will only prolong the suffering,” said Nash of Amnesty. “Food stocks that displaced Karen and Karenni civilians have been depending on are running out, and ongoing violence means that villagers can’t return to their fields to plant rice.”

Myanmar’s summer monsoon season is fast approaching, bringing with it landslides and flooding and blocking consistent access to safe drinking water. Aid workers will face barriers in moving medical supplies and other goods across the country, Nash said. “This will mean mass starvation, further devastation of a health care system that is already buckling, and protracted, destabilizing displacement.”

In May, Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing offered a series of so-called peace talks, but his offer was rejected by the country’s four largest ethnic armed organizations, saying they refused to meet until the shadow civilian-led National Unity Government was also invited to the table. Amnesty urged the U.N. Security Council to implement a “comprehensive arms embargo” on Myanmar. Previously, the United Nations adopted a nonbinding embargo that “calls upon all member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar,” but the measure is voluntary.

“The international community has failed the people of Myanmar. The worst is yet to come in Myanmar, and the international community must act now,” Nash said.

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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