Myanmar military increasing efforts to keep truth from getting out, UN expert says

The United Nations

The crackdown on journalists, cutting off the Internet and disrupting the flow of information across Myanmar, is “not working”, and the world is not buying the military leadership’s “propaganda” that it is exercising restraint against protesters, the UN independent human rights expert on the country has said, in an in-depth interview with UN News.

Over 700 people are reported to have been killed in the brutal response by the security forces since the military overthrew the democratically elected Government on 1 February. Thousands more have been injured – many of them seriously, and over 3,000 people are in detention.

That includes at least 71 journalists, more than half of whom are still detained, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – UN’s media workers’ safety watchdog – which added that some two dozen people have been charged for “allegedly spreading fake news”.

Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told UN News in his extensive interview, that the military junta has been making “significant efforts, which have been increasing, to keep the truth inside the country, to not allow the world to see what is going on”.

“Already the military has been making up stories about what it is facing. From the very outset, it said that it is using ‘utmost restraint’ – its language – to contend with ‘violent protests’, [but] we saw nothing of the kind.”

“We saw increasing violence and increasing brutality by the military. And we saw very peaceful, unarmed protesters … despite their efforts to block it, the truth is getting out, and it is a gruesome truth”, Mr. Andrews added.

In the first of this two-part interview with the Special Rapporteur, UN News asked the rights expert how he characterized the current international response to the crisis in Myanmar and what countries can do to stop the bloodshed.

We will be publishing part two over the weekend, in which he addresses the responsibility to protect citizens from violence, and his hopes for the country’s future.

The interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tom Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

UN News: It must be increasingly difficult to get information from Myanmar, but as far as you know, what is the situation on the ground?

Special Rapporteur: You are right. There have been great efforts by the junta to block information from getting out to the world. Not only the blocking of Internet but also now the interruption of broadband wireless service, and there have been at least 64 journalists, that I know of, who have been arrested and detained.

So there has been a significant effort, which has been increasing, to keep truth inside the country and not allow the world to see what is happening.

Nonetheless, we know that conditions are worsening in Myanmar. We know that at least 700 people are confirmed dead, at least 3,000 people arbitrarily detained, and at least 46 children killed.

We now know that [troops] have been directed to unleash a reign of terror in neighbourhoods…destroy property, arrest people, or shoot them at random

We know that the intensity of the brutality has been increasing and the tactics are increasingly gruesome, where you have weapons of war being unleashed on non-violent, unarmed people.

Among the disturbing things we are tracking, is that not only has the junta directed their forces to shoot point blank at protesters, in fact, shooting for the head, they actually warned on State television that young people could be shot in the head.

We know that [the soldiers] have been directed to unleash a reign of terror in neighbourhoods in Myanmar, to go through neighbourhoods, destroy property, arrest people, or shoot them at random, shoot into people’s homes. We know that some of the children who have been killed were killed because of these terror tactics that have been used.

So, things are bad and they are getting worse. The tactics that the junta is deploying have become increasingly brutal and ruthless. Despite their efforts to block it, the truth is getting out, and it’s a gruesome truth.

UN News: How would you characterize the current state of the international response?

Special Rapporteur: There is strong concern among the international community. I know that many people around the world, as they hear this news, are horrified at what is going on in Myanmar.

We have seen the UN Security Council meet on three occasions and voice concerns. We know that the Human Rights Council had a special session, just on this crisis, which I addressed. The General Assembly met for a briefing on the situation. There has been engagement by the international community formally through the United Nations in various aspects.

We also know that some nations have been taking action, not just expressing concern, actually taking action. And it has come in the form of sanctions. There are dozens of different forms of sanctions and arms embargo by countries around the world. Increasing numbers of countries have established sanctions, increasing levels of sanctions. And we know that more countries are considering actions, primarily through sanctions.

People are horrified. But I believe that the action that has been taken so far has been inadequate, it has not met the challenge the world is facing in Myanmar, seeing the horror that continues every day.

The international community can and should do more to respond.

People holding a vigil in Yangon, Myanmar.

UN News: Can you tell us about some of these sanctions? The military regime in Myanmar, are they gaining any ground in terms of recognition or acceptance?

Special Rapporteur: No, that is for sure. I think that the brutality of this military has horrified everybody.

It is hard to even consider this as a military. I used to serve on the Armed Services Committee in the United States Congress, and our responsibility was the military. A military is responsible for securing and defending a country and its people. That is their job.

The Myanmar military is doing exactly the opposite. It is attacking the people, not defending them. It is hard to even call it a military, it is more of a criminal enterprise, that illegally abducted the leaders of a country, committed a coup – an illegal coup, violated the very constitution that it drafted, and has been brutalizing the people ever since.

The world has shown various degrees of responses, various degrees of expressions of concern. I know that China has expressed concern about developments inside the country. It has called for the release of all political prisoners, for example. It has made it clear that what is going on is not what China wants at all. There have been expressions of concern all over the region.

The junta has been losing ground … with every act of brutality, it becomes increasingly illegitimate in the eyes of the world

Certainly the junta has been losing ground. With every act of brutality, it continues to lose ground, become increasingly illegitimate in the eyes of the world.

There are a number sanctions. The European Union just passed a regimen of sanctions, they increased their level of sanctions. The US increased their sanctions on three different occasions.

And sanctions come in various forms, they can be against individuals who are responsible for these atrocities, but the trend now is to include not just targeted individuals, but the businesses and the business interests, including the conglomerates of the junta, and so those sanctions are increasing.

The United Kingdom has also increased its sanctions. And I know a number of countries are actively considering increasing sanctions.

UN News: The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar said that the deputy commander of Myanmar’s military told her directly that the military is not afraid of sanctions, that they have been sanctioned before and they are not afraid of isolation either. So what is left for the international community to do that will actually make a difference on the ground?

Special Rapporteur: Well, we can start by not believing them. The junta has always said that sanctions do not work. They have always said that they are not afraid of international isolation. And they probably will always say that. So, there is nothing new there.

But we know that is not true.

We know that the reforms – which were overthrown in the coup – did not come as a result of the military leaders waking up one day and saying, jeez, we have been making a big mistake, maybe we should be respecting human rights and giving people an opportunity to hold leaders accountable.

The junta has always said that sanctions do not work … but we know that is not true

No, that’s not how it happened, [the reforms] happened precisely because of sanctions and we know that their leaders – for a fact – appealed to the world, to lift sanctions.

We know it made a difference. We know that it had an impact on them and that reform happened following sanctions. The junta will always say that sanctions make no difference, and it should not be a surprise to anyone.

So I think what is left for the international community is, first of all, to engage with one another. There needs to be continued diplomatic engagement to discuss the full array of options that are possible to try to achieve as unified a response as we possibly can. To understand that not all countries are going to want to act in the same way or follow the same path, even though every country that I know have grave concerns over what is going on in Myanmar.

For those countries who believe that it is important to act in light of the horror in Myanmar, I believe they need to consider not only sanctions, but coordinated sanctions. The many and varied sanctions regimes should be united, that these countries should come together, discuss their options, and then to the extent that’s possible, link up their sanctions regimes so that they will have a collective impact, that they will have the strongest possible impact working together.

Same with (the) arms embargo, include dual use technologies, surveillance and other types of technology to do whatever is possible to stop the revenue flow, stop what is empowering the military’s brutality, take away the means by which they can continue its reign of terror, through sanctions, through arms embargo, and to do this in a coordinated way.

Now, ideally, the Security Council could do this. It could also refer those who are responsible for this atrocity to the International Criminal Court (ICC). I’m told that is not going to happen, people say that there is not a unified view of that in the Security Council, and that any measure of action like this would be vetoed.

The job of the Security Council is to engage when there is a crisis, that affects, in this case, not only the country, but also the region … this is a humanitarian crisis that is going to explode into the region

Maybe that is true but I do not know that it is true. Why? Because it has not been tried.

No resolution has been put before the Security Council that has been discussed, debated, considered and voted. It has not happened. So an option would be for that to happen. And if there are nations who are opposed to that kind of action, for whatever reason, they can vote against it or veto it and explain why, lay their case out to the world.

That is the job of the Security Council, to engage when there is a crisis that affects, in this case, not only the country, but also the region. This is a humanitarian crisis that is going to explode into the region. A great deal is at stake here. This is precisely why the Security Council was formed. So it seems to be reasonable that it would debate this and consider action.

The Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar.

UN News: A number of countries have said they do not support unilateral sanctions, and that such measures would only provoke the military into more violence and make things worse, would you like to make a comment?

Special Rapporteur: Multilateral sanctions are more preferable to unilateral sanctions, so I’m urging countries that have sanctions to work together.

The argument that sanctions would make things worse. First of all, as I mentioned, we know, from history, that sanctions have modified the behaviour of military leaders in Myanmar for the better. They have had a positive impact.

We also know that expressions of concern and limited actions in the form of different sanctions or uncoordinated sanctions, have been followed by increasing violence and brutality by the regime.

I think there is a very strong argument to be made, that employing strategies that we know have worked in the past, could work in the present. We know that the limited actions that has been taken by the world has not led to a reduction in the violence and the brutality against the people of Myanmar

So in my view, there is a strong argument for countries to consider coordinated sanctions regimes, strong and meaningful action, to try what we know has worked in the past, to try it in a more focused, coordinated way, through sanctions and through arms embargo.

I believe that it is worth trying, it is worth making this attempt, because we know that things are bad and getting worse. So why not try something that we know that there is evidence of success in the past.

Why not try that now? That’s what I’m urging countries to consider.

UN News Release. More on this here.