Under a total internet blackout, the Myanmar military is conducting indiscriminate airstrikes, burning villages, and arbitrarily detaining and torturing people as armed conflicts in Rakhine and Chin States escalate, according to a new Amnesty International report.
Through May and June, Amnesty collected photographic evidence and testimony revealing serious human rights violations and “deep impunity” within the ranks of Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.
“While Myanmar authorities were urging people to stay at home to help stop COVID-19, in Rakhine and Chin states its military was burning down homes and killing civilians in indiscriminate attacks that amount to war crimes,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said in the report.
In January of 2019, the Arakan Army (AA)—a Rakhine armed group seeking greater self-governance—launched a coordinated attack on several police posts in Rakhine, with the government retaliating by instructing the Tatmadaw to “crush” the rebels. Conflict has flared ever since, with fighting surging again between March and May of this year.
Ming Yu Hah, deputy regional director at Amnesty, told VICE News that the use of air power has become “disturbingly common as the military pulls out all the stops” to quell the AA. In May alone, 30 civilians were killed or injured in the conflict.
“This volume, combined with the sweeping mobile internet blackout in affected areas, are indeed a new level of counterinsurgency in Myanmar, compared to previous tactics by the Myanmar military,” Hah said.
An estimated 10,000 people have fled their homes recently due to the violence and warnings of advancing military operations, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Through more than two dozen remote interviews with Rakhine and Chin people, Amnesty found that the Tatmadaw’s allegedly indiscriminate use of air power has inflicted massive human suffering.
“The whole village saw the plane... the sound was so loud,” said one interviewee from Meik Sar Wa who witnessed a March airstrike.
After hearing the blasts, he ran to his father’s house to find his brother fatally wounded in the abdomen, as well as the corpse of his brother’s 16-year-old friend. His uncle, who wasn’t home at the time, was killed in the same airstrike, he told Amnesty.
In the same village, two members of another family said that an airstrike killed nine people in their community, including a seven-year-old boy — “Our family is destroyed,” the boy’s father said.
One ethnic Rakhine farmer described airstrikes in Hnan Chaung Wa that killed seven and injured eight in April. After helping with the injured and the dead, he also watched two jets launch another round of strikes nearby. Even after fleeing the area for another town, the airstrikes followed, he said.
“The reliance on airstrikes and internet blackouts may be new, but one constant is the military’s remorseless neglect for civilian life,” said Bequelin. “The atrocities have not stopped—in fact, the Myanmar military’s cruelty is only getting more sophisticated.”
Attempts to reach a Myanmar government spokesman were unsuccessful on Wednesday. However, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday addressed the internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin states, calling it “necessary to prevent the AA from exploiting mobile internet technologies to detonate IEDs and landmines, to incite hatred among different ethnic groups and to plan attacks or kidnappings of government officials.”
The ministry also insisted that the blackout had not disrupted COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Normal internet access will be restored once the situation stabilizes,” the statement added. It did not address broader claims of military abuses.
Amnesty’s research, meanwhile, also revealed alleged cases of arbitrary detention—and sometimes torture—of civilians in Rakhine suspected of ties to the AA. In one case in May, after a video went viral showing plainclothes members of the security forces punching and kicking blindfolded and handcuffed detainees, the Tatmadaw was forced to publicly admit to the abuse.
One interviewee told Amnesty that her husband had been detained, tied up, and beaten for a span of five days in February. Now, he has trouble breathing.
“He wasn’t given food or water… They kicked and hit him with rifles in the back and kicked his chest as well,” she told the researchers. “Before this, he was tall and big, but when I saw him… he was visibly thin.”
Soldiers also allegedly held a knife to his throat to extract a forced “confession” as to his supposed links to the AA, then charged him under the Counter Terrorism Law, Amnesty said.
Another villager in Kyauktaw Township witnessed Myanmar soldiers in March round up and beat 10 people, including her husband.
“Until now I have no news about my husband, and I'm devastated,” she said.
Satellite imagery, meanwhile, shows widespread burning and destruction of villages in different townships in Rakhine and Chin, with both the military and the AA attempting to shift blame to the other for the destruction. In its report, however, Amnesty noted that the burning was consistent with Myanmar military tactics.
One displaced person in Minbya Township said soldiers burned down 10 houses and a school, killing two villagers. An ethnic Rakhine man said he had tried to return to his own village of Sein Nyin Wa after being displaced, only to find it had been reduced to ash.
Though Amnesty said it was unable to directly document similar abuses by the Arakan Army due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and limited access, reports indicate that they continue.