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A protester flashes a three-finger salute during a march to condemn the military coup in Mandalay. Photo: EPA-EFE

Myanmar junta may scapegoat insurgents to ‘rain hell’ on civilians, warns UN rights expert

  • Thomas Andrews, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, says any coordinated effort by insurgents could lead the Tatmadaw to wage a brutal assault
  • The global community must continue supporting the civil disobedience movement to convince anti-coup protesters they do not need armed backing from insurgent groups, Andrews says
Any sort of coordinated militia action by Myanmar’s insurgents against the junta will provide the military rulers with the perfect foil to launch an all-out attack that would “rain down hell” on innocent civilians, a top UN rights investigator has warned.

More than 500 unarmed civilians have been killed by security forces in daily protests since the February 1 coup, and Thomas Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, predicted that the figure would “increase exponentially” if there was an all-out engagement between armed groups and the Tatmadaw, as the country’s military is known.

The coup’s architects have shown that they are desperate to paint the civil disobedience movement as an armed clash and “have been making stories out of cold cloth to justify their killings’, Andrews told This Week in Asia in a Zoom interview.


UN Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews ahead of Security Council meeting about Myanmar

UN Special Rapporteur Thomas Andrews ahead of Security Council meeting about Myanmar

“My fear is that … if there is any kind of militia action, then they would use that as an excuse to have a no-holds-barred assault on innocent people and of course they have demonstrated their capacity for brutality,” Andrews said.

“With this excuse that they are engaged in a military engagement, I just shudder at what hell that might rain down on the people of Myanmar, and the tragedy that might follow,” he said. 

Andrews said the onus was now on the international community to convince the anti-coup protesters that they need not turn to the insurgents for armed backing, and that they should instead press on with civil disobedience. 

Could Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups turn the tide against the junta?

The spectre of armed conflict came to the fore after three armed groups this week urged the Tatmadaw to end its crackdown on protesters, warning that the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” would support the protesters in their “Myanmar Spring Revolution” if the violence continued. 

The military separately launched air strikes against rebels in Karen state over the weekend – the first such assault in two decades – but on Wednesday declared a unilateral one-month ceasefire in light of the upcoming Thingyan festival, or the Burmese New Year.

The ceasefire offer included an exception for activities that disrupt the government’s security and administrative operations – a veiled reference to the daily protests.

Anti-coup protesters stand behind burning tyres during a demonstration on March 31, 2021. Photo: ZUMA Wire/dpa

The country’s borderlands, home to diverse ethnic subgroups, have been riven by conflict between the Tatmadaw and armed groups since the end of colonial rule in 1948, though ceasefires signed following a transition to democratic rule from military dictatorship in 2010 brought peace in some areas.

The February coup ended the five-year rule of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with the junta justifying the power seizure – with little evidence – that it needed to step in to rectify discrepancies in a poll last November. 

The prospect of all-out armed conflict was addressed by the UN’s special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, in her remarks to a closed door meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, according to AFP. 

Burgener said the Tatmadaw’s brutality – coupled with armed insurgents’ backing of anti-coup protesters – were increasing the “possibility of civil war at an unprecedented scale”. 

People march in an anti-military coup protest in Hlaingbwe township, Karen state, in eastern Myanmar. Photo: Karen Information Center/AFP

Andrews, who advises the UN Human Rights Council but whose views do not represent the world body, said countries needed to urgently act in a coordinated manner to impose tougher sanctions and a blanket arms embargo on the Tatmadaw to show the protesters that their actions were not in vain.

He said he understood why some protesters hoped to see the insurgents take on the Tatmadaw. “Obviously, if you see a neighbour, a brother, a son killed, of course you want to defend your family, you want to deal with this harrowing experience in whatever way you can,” he said. But nonviolent action remains the most potent tool against an adversary well versed only in using weapons of war, he said.

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“What I am suggesting to [the protesters] is … you are engaging in the most powerful weapon of all against this junta, and that is this massive, massive movement that crosses all lines: ethnic, social, age, profession and religion,” Andrews said.

“The international community should be willing to come forward in non-lethal ways to support you to the maximum [through] fully coordinated sanctions, an arms embargo and judicial mechanisms,” he said.

“It’s important for the people of Myanmar to know that we hear them, we’re with them and we are willing to take steps beyond what has been taken now, with and for them.” 


Thai villages on border anxious after Myanmar military clashes with ethnic group

Thai villages on border anxious after Myanmar military clashes with ethnic group


In the interview on Wednesday – before the Security Council meeting – Andrews said countries “willing to engage” on the crisis should not wait for the 15-nation council to act before taking their own steps. 

Barbara Woodward, the UN envoy from Britain, which requested the meeting, told reporters after the meeting that the council – charged with maintaining international peace and security – were united in their condemnation of the violence and were “discussing a range of measures at our disposal”. 

But China, which wields a veto, appeared to rule out fresh sanctions. 

Beijing’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun said in a statement that “one-sided pressure and calling for sanctions or other coercive measures will only aggravate tension and confrontation and further complicate the situation, which is by no means constructive”.

Quiet talks best hope for end to Myanmar violence: Asean scholars

In early March, the Security Council failed to outrightly condemn the coup and issue the Tatmadaw with a threat of sanctions after intervention by China, Russia, India and Vietnam to amend a statement initially drafted by Britain, reports have said. 

Such statements are decided by consensus and require the assent of the council’s five permanent members: China, Russia, the US, France and Britain. 

Andrews said concerns that the Security Council was not going to act “should not be an excuse for the rest of the world not to act”. 

He added that thus far, the five permanent members had not wielded their veto. “So until that happens, let’s stop that line of thinking and argument … I am saying, put it out there, let the countries of the world, let the members of the Security Council, hear the facts, ask questions, have their say [and] take a position. That’s their job.” 


Myanmar military accuses Aung San Suu Kyi of taking US$600,000 in bribes

Myanmar military accuses Aung San Suu Kyi of taking US$600,000 in bribes

At the same time, other countries “willing to engage” on the matter should move to coordinate their efforts to put pressure on the Tatmadaw, Andrews said. 

He suggested that these countries – including Asean states – should urgently hold an international summit to address their next steps. 

Speaking from Washington, Andrews said sanctions should go beyond just targeted measures against Tatmadaw figures. Broader sanctions should be imposed on military-linked business conglomerates and the oil and gas sector to cut off the junta’s revenue streams, he said. 

Why protesters in Myanmar are targeting Chinese factories and restaurants

While China has so far refrained from taking such action, Andrews nonetheless noted that Beijing’s public statements showed that it was displeased with the situation. 

“Myanmar needs to have clear messages sent to it and I think the most effective messages can come from the region and from the neighbours,” he said. 

“So with China identifying publicly these concerns, I am hopeful that there are also expressions privately behind the scenes from China and also from Asean nations to the military junta that they need to stop this violence.”