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Remarks by Thomas H. Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 76th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations

New York, 22 October 2021

Mr. President, distinguished delegates,

Since my last report to you, one year ago, a military coup has devastated Myanmar, plunging it into a deep human rights, humanitarian, and economic crisis.

I have had the privilege of speaking with scores of people in Myanmar whose lives have been upended by this crisis. They desperately want this body and the world to know of the horror that has engulfed their country. But, frankly, they also want to know if the members of these United Nations care. And, if so, whether member states care enough to take the necessary action to make a difference. 

Many, I dare say most in Myanmar, have come to believe that the world and this body, do not care. Over the last several months they have experienced a steep downward trajectory of conditions, including increased human rights violations, and attacks by the military junta while, at the same time, they have witnessed a grossly disproportionate response by the international community.

So, I come before this venerated body today conveying a simple plea from the people of Myanmar: Care about this unfolding catastrophe and then translate that care and concern into meaningful action.

There is global responsibility to address this crisis, and it is insufficient to pass it off to those who lack the will or the capacity to take the requisite action, particularly given the scope of the atrocities that are ongoing. As I document in my written report, since the February coup, the Myanmar military has engaged in probable crimes against humanity and war crimes, with:

  • Over 1,100 civilians murdered;
  • More than a quarter million displaced; 
  • Over 8,000 arbitrarily detained with many tortured, including dozens who were tortured to death. I have received credible reports of children being tortured and abused by junta forces;
  • At least 100 journalists who lost their freedom because they had the courage to document and report the truth;
  • Even more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals attacked, harassed, and arrested—even as Myanmar suffers through a health care crisis;
  • The family members of those sought by security forces, including very young children, abducted and imprisoned.

While peaceful protests courageously continue against the junta, these gross and unrelenting violations of human rights—and the belief that the world does not care enough to act—have led some farmers, students, factory workers and others to take desperate measures, including picking up often rudimentary weapons to fight back against one of the largest militaries in the region. They have formed a loose network of what they call “people’s defense forces” and they are inflicting increasing casualties on junta forces. The junta has responded in many instances with ferocious indiscriminate attacks against entire villages.

Meanwhile, there is evidence of human rights violations on the part these opposition forces, including assassinations and indiscriminate killings of non-combatants. These too are unacceptable and must end.

Unfortunately, we are very likely on the eve of yet another catastrophe, including a significant loss of innocent life and an even greater number of human rights violations. I have received credible information that the junta has been moving tens of thousands of troops, heavy weaponry, and other military assets into the north and northwest regions of the country, ostensibly preparing for offensive operations against these local defense forces. They recently cut off internet access in these areas.   

These tactics are ominously reminiscent of those employed by the military before its genocidal attacks against the Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017. We should all be prepared, as the people in this part of Myanmar are prepared, for even more mass atrocity crimes.

I desperately hope that I am wrong.

What can and should be done?  We can start by understanding that the junta depends on the international community to help it meet three fundamental needs: 1) money, 2) weapons, and 3) legitimacy. Targeting these three needs while expanding humanitarian aid and support to the people of Myanmar, including the Rohingya who are languishing in refugee camps outside of the country, is the best way that the international community can help.

The events of the last seven days are instructive. ASEAN’s announcement that the junta will not be welcome at its upcoming summit strikes at the heart of the junta’s third need—legitimacy. The junta responded on Monday by announcing the release of over 5,000 prisoners. This shows that, despite their statements to the contrary, the junta is susceptible to pressure by the international community. I will be monitoring closely the release of these prisoners. Indeed, I have received reports that some of those who were released have already been re-arrested and returned to prison.

But without pressure, without denying the junta that which it needs from the international community, none of the detainees would have been released.

With respect to weapons, the UN Security Council should pass a resolution prohibiting  arms sales to Myanmar, reinforcing the June General Assembly resolution that called upon “all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”—a resolution that not a single member of the Security Council opposed. This action is necessary because weapons and dual-use technology continue to be sold and shipped to the junta. But, if it is not possible for the Security Council to take such action, all Member States who have decided to prohibit the export of weapons from within their borders, should work to persuade countries who continue to supply the junta with weapons to stop.  

Finally, Member States need to significantly increase financial pressure on the junta. The economic sanctions that have been imposed by member states are welcome and necessary. To date, however, sanctions have not impacted the ability of the junta to continue to seize state revenues and foreign exchange to enrich its leaders and fuel its attacks on the civilian population. The single largest source of revenue for the junta is the oil and gas industry. I encourage member states to follow the call of several hundred civil society organizations within Myanmar who have called for Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise to be sanctioned. This can be done without interrupting the flow of energy or impacting the return on investment of energy companies.

The people of Myanmar are not calling for anything that they, themselves, are unwilling to do. Millions are now imposing their own citizen sanctions on the junta by withholding taxes and utility bill payments, while refusing to buy products associated with military owned enterprises.  By some estimates, these actions have denied as much as one billion dollars from the junta. But to be truly effective, they need Member States to join them.

Targeting these three needs of the junta—weapons, money, and legitimacy—while increasing humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar, is urgently needed and I believe the best means for the international community to support the people in Myanmar.

Let the member states of this august body demonstrate that the people and nations of the world do, indeed, care about the people of Myanmar and that they are willing to stand with and for them not only with words, but, more importantly, with action.

Thank you.