People wait to fill up empty oxygen canisters in Mandalay on July 13, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: AFP
Aung Myo Min
Aung Myo Min

Myanmar’s Covid-19 and human rights crisis is growing. UN, Asean must act now to save lives

  • The Tatmadaw has plunged the country into chaos and is using force against peaceful demonstrators. National vaccination efforts have been thrown into disarray by the military coup
  • Myanmar needs humanitarian help now but the international community should ensure they don’t lend legitimacy to the military regime

Since the Myanmar military launched a coup on February 1, the human rights situation across the country has been deteriorating each day, developing from a political crisis to what the United Nations recently described as a “multidimensional human rights catastrophe”.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, is plunging the country into chaos, committing grave rights violations, including the unlawful use of force against peaceful demonstrators, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture.

Independent media outlets have been banned, and access to the internet and social media cut off. Since the coup, some 915 people have been killed, including children and medical workers, and thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained by the Tatmadaw. A staggering 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of violent Tatmadaw raids on neighbourhoods and villages.


Myanmar military coup hampers fight against country’s biggest wave of Covid-19

Myanmar military coup hampers fight against country’s biggest wave of Covid-19

The people of Myanmar have shown incredible resilience and continued to peacefully protest despite the heavy military crackdown. Many of them, including youths, are risking their lives daily, challenging arrest, torture, and detention with the ultimate aim of restoring democracy.

At the same time, lives of the millions of people in Myanmar are exposed to the higher risk of Covid-19 infections and fatality, as national efforts to combat the pandemic, including vaccination programme, have been thrown into disarray by the military coup and its oppression and offensive since then.

At the regional and international levels, countries have condemned the military takeover. Most recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep concern about events in Myanmar and urged Asean to take action.

US hits Myanmar with sanctions, revokes ICC penalties

Several countries have also been pursuing efforts to end the crisis. In June, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling states to “prevent the flow of arms” into Myanmar. But this is nowhere near enough. A series of more robust and coordinated actions from the international community and the UN bodies is needed to isolate the military junta and restore democracy and rule of law in the country.

First, the international community must refrain from any measures that risk lending legitimacy to the military regime. To this end, states should abstain from giving diplomatic recognition to the military junta.

Instead, countries should maintain diplomatic relations with, and give recognition to, the people-elected National Unity Government of Myanmar. Its legitimacy to represent Myanmar in this juncture must be duly recognised by the UN bodies, especially the UN General Assembly.

In addition, the international community should cut all support or any connection to the junta. This includes imposing economic sanctions against the military and related companies as well as a global arms embargo on Myanmar to prevent further escalation of violence and offensives by the military.

Second, there must be accountability for grave human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw, not only since the coup, but also in the past. States should support an independent international investigation by UN bodies and hold those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses to account.

Third, the international community must provide neutral and impartial humanitarian assistance to those on the ground as a matter of priority. As the UN’s World Food Programme recently warned, up to 3.4 million more people could go hungry in the coming months due to the economic disruption caused by the political crisis – on top of 2.8 million people considered food insecure before the coup. States should ensure the prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance to those suffering, based on need only and without channelling aid through the military.

Tremendous efforts were made in the last 10 years by the people of Myanmar to make democracy and human rights a reality. Steps were taken to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention against Torture. The international community must act now to prevent these vital progressive steps from being completely lost.

Asean to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, says Singapore, as UN warns of civil war

The UN bodies, including the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council should keep Myanmar high on their agenda, ensure momentum is maintained, and take urgent and effective actions to end the suffering of millions of people in the country. In this context, it was vital that the Human Rights Council decided to hold two crucial Interactive Dialogues with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar on July 6 and 7, respectively.

The people in Myanmar are in urgent need of international intervention to save their lives and protect their rights against the military atrocity. Postponing such important discussion, as suggested by some states (with questionable purpose and ground), can amount to the neglect of the duty of the Council. Similarly, the General Assembly must take decisions immediately and recognise the National Unity Government as the representative of the people of Myanmar.

On July 12, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Myanmar without being put to a vote. It reiterated the urgent need to ensure that all those responsible for crimes relating to violations and abuses of international law throughout Myanmar, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, are held to account. Justice is a must. Accountability is a must.

As highlighted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet: “Time is of the essence. The opportunity to reverse the military takeover is narrowing and the risk of a large-scale civil war is real.”

The time to act is now.

Aung Myo Min is Minister of Human Rights of the National Unity Government.