The Myanmar military kidnapped civilians and forced them to work as human shields, attacked homes, churches and carried out massacres, according to a report that warns recent atrocities in eastern Myanmar may amount to war crimes.
The report, by the Myanmar-founded human rights group Fortify Rights, documents abuses by the country’s military in Karenni state, also known as Kayah state, an area that has seen intense fighting between the army and groups opposed to last year’s military coup.
The military has faced strong resistance in Karenni state, and has responded with brutal violence in an attempt to crush opposition.
The report includes claims that the army used civilians as human shields and as forced porters – allegations which have also been reported elsewhere in the country, including in Chin state.
An 18-year-old student from Moe Bye township, located on the border between Karenni and Shan states, told interviewers that he was taken, along with his uncle and two other men, in early June 2021 and used as a human shield in clashes between the military and the local armed resistance. The group escaped after having been detained for four days, during which time they were tied up, blindfolded and tortured, the student said.
Another interviewee alleged that he and nine others were captured by the military and forced to porter army equipment for five days.
The Fortify Rights report, a flash report providing preliminary documentation, based on interviews with 30 people, including eyewitnesses and survivors, adds to growing evidence of military abuses.
Numerous international organisations have raised concern over recent atrocities in Karenni, including the Christmas Eve massacre of at least 40 civilians, including a child and two humanitarians working with Save the Children, near the village of Moso in Hpruso township. The victims were killed and burned.
The Karenni Civil Society Network estimates that 170,000 civilians, more than half the state’s estimated population, have been displaced since the military seized power last year. UN estimates suggest about 91,900 have been forced to flee their homes.
According to Fortify Rights, the military has targeted shelters for those who are displaced, including camps and churches, resulting in the deaths of civilians. In January, the military killed at least three people, including two children, when it bombed a camp for displaced people near the village of Ree Khee Bu in Hpruso.
Banyar Khun Naung, director of the non-profit Karenni Human Rights Group, said there were no indications that violence would reduce in intensity and that he feared shortages of food and essential supplies would worsen over the coming months.
“In Karenni we can see that our socio-economic condition has collapsed. Ordinary people, even if they are not [internally displaced people], even if they are the host community of IDPs, they can hardly survive.
“We cannot grow rice, or vegetable, we cannot trade between township to township, the online banking system has failed,” he said. The supply of food and medicine to Karenni state was also being blocked by the military, he said.
Statements by the UN expressing concern over the situation in Myanmar have had “no discernible effect” on the military junta, Fortify Rights said. The junta has also failed to honour a five point plan developed last year by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which calls for the “immediate cessation of violence” and a commitment for all parties to exercise “utmost restraint.”
Asean, which has led diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis and will meet this week, should support the establishment of a UN security council-mandated global arms embargo, Ismail Wolff, regional director at Fortify Rights.
“The Myanmar junta is murdering people with weapons procured on the global market, and that must stop,” said Wolff. “The UN security council must urgently impose a global arms embargo on the Myanmar military, and it would be strategic and sensible for Asean to support it.”