High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the 49th session of Human Rights Council (HRC) that the country’s humanitarian crisis continues to expand as systematic brutality by security forces known as the Tatmadaw, has inflamed pre-existing armed conflicts in multiple ethnic states.

“The economy is on the brink of collapse. Over 14.4 million individuals are now assessed as being in humanitarian need”, said the OHCHR chief, predicting that “food scarcity will sharply increase over the coming months”.

Meanwhile, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has forecast that “the combined impact of the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic could force nearly half of Myanmar’s population into poverty this year.”

Fleeing brutal violence

And yet despite harsh repression, many citizens continue to resist the military coup.

Although most protests have been expressed peacefully, including a ‘Silent Strike’ as well as other forms of protest and boycotts, the military has met all dissent with lethal force, mass arbitrary arrests, and the torture.

“Credible sources have recorded the deaths of over 1,600 individuals, many engaged in peaceful protest. At least 350 of those killed died in military custody, over 21 per cent of the total deaths,” Ms. Bachelet said.

Since 1 February 2021, more than half a million people have been forced to flee their homes, with at least 15,000 reportedly fleeing the country – adding to the nearly 340,000 people internally displaced before the coup, and more than one million refugees, most of them mostly Muslim Rohingya who have found refuge in Bangladesh

Targeting dissent

Disproportionate military crackdowns in clear violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, have taken place in Sagaing and Magway Regions, as well as in Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, and Shan States.

“Tatmadaw have targeted both armed resistance groups and civilians with helicopter gunships, airstrikes, and the use of indiscriminate force,” she said, as a so-called “four-cuts” strategy continues to “punish local communities for their assumed support to armed elements.”

“These attacks have occurred alongside mass arrests, summary executions and torture.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also recorded at least 286 attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel since February 2021.

A country on the edge

With shattered economic, education, health, and social protection systems and precious development gains destroyed, the High Commissioner voiced her concern that the State stands on the verge of collapse.

“I remain acutely concerned for the safety and rights of human rights defenders and other civil society actors,” she said.

“There is virtually no civic space left across the country. Intense surveillance, including by digital means, amplifies the danger to activists in all military-controlled areas.”

There is virtually no civic space left across the country – Michele Bachelet

Systematic abuse

The military uses arrests and detentions as “a tool to target and intimidate people who oppose them,” she continued, citing credible sources in saying that security forces have detained over 12,500 individuals, of whom 9,500 remain in detention including at least 240 children.

“Many of these individuals have been reportedly subjected to ill-treatment amounting to torture.”

And the plight of the long persecuted Rohingya people remains dire, with no end in sight.

Rohingyas in Myanmar “are denied freedom of movement and access to services”, she said, with “no durable solutions for internally displaced people, nor…conditions conducive to secure, sustainable, dignified and voluntary returns in Rakhine State”.

Accountability crucial

Ms. Bachelet said that Myanmar’s military forces are committing human rights violations with the impunity that they perpetrated four years ago during the violent persecution of Rohingya, and against other ethnic minorities in previous decades.

“There will need to be a political pathway to restore democracy and civilian rule,” she said, but such dialogue “cannot, and does not, displace the urgent need to hold to account those responsible for severe human rights violations.”

While noting that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing “has failed to stop the violence or to allow adequate humanitarian access,” the High Commissioner said: “The people of Myanmar deserve, and overwhelmingly demand, justice.”

Listen up

She called for urgent action by the international community and for all parties to halt violence and respond to the country’s humanitarian needs.

“Myanmar’s people demand that their voices be heard and that they have a say in their democratic future…It is time for us all to listen to them.”