April Justice Newsletter
Health and human rights are interconnected and access to affordable and quality health care for all must be granted. As COVID-19 exposes Burma’s underfunded and ill-equipped health infrastructure, the health ministry has transformed public spaces to be used for quarantine sites and temporary medical facilities. However, concerns about the spread and containment of the virus has not ceased fighting.
Despite the Burma Army’s financial donation of $1.6 million USD to be used in the prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19, the military has continued to reject all local and international calls for a ceasefire – which is needed to stop the spread of COVID-19. As ND-Burma noted in a statement released on 10 April, the army has failed to act on ceasefire calls by the Karen Nation Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Brotherhood Alliance and Chin National Front. Northern Alliance members also called on the government and military to declare a ceasefire so they could launch programs in their communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Burma’s Cardinal Bo also added his voice to the growing list of those calling for a ceasefire stating, “the pandemic’s consequences are catastrophic for public health and for social and economic life. This is no time to escalate the conflict.” United Nations expert, Yanghee Lee, who completed her mandate as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma at the end of April, also noted the continued escalation of violence in Rakhine and Chin amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burma has formed an emergency task force with military and civilian ministries to support measures around law enforcement and stability and to step up government efforts to respond to the pandemic in the country. At the end of the month, these efforts were expanded with the establishment of a new emergency taskforce including ethnic armed organizations and the government to respond to prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. The President’s office says they are cooperating with donors, volunteers, and civil society organizations to ensure ‘no one is left behind.’ The government also revealed their Economic Relief Plan which can be read here.
Hundreds more civilians were impacted by clashes this month, particularly in Rakhine, Chin, Shan and Karen States. The continued fighting has compromised relief efforts as humanitarian groups have worked to supply their communities with personal protective equipment and awareness materials in ethnic languages. For internally displaced persons living in camps, there are concerns about their access to humanitarian aid during COVID-19, particularly in Rakhine, Shan, Chin and Karen States where displaced groups at are a high risk of catching the virus. Human Rights Watch noted some of the concerns including inadequate access to clean water, sanitation and other essential services.
The general public and various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have been working close together in response efforts – especially across hard to reach areas that the government cannot access. Most of the work being coordinated rests on a basis of trust and understanding of community needs that are disconnected from the government’s service provision. Civil society is also able to act quickly and allocate resources as necessary. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights have warned against authoritarians exploiting COVID-19 to harness control and power.
In wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, women’s organizations have also expressed concern about the rise in domestic violence during the government imposed lockdown. Rates of violence have increased and offering support has become more difficult and is compromised in a situation where social distancing should be maintained to keep the case worker and survivor safe. This is yet another layer of challenges where the social sector is having to readjust their approach to support those in need.
On 21 April, the Office of the State Counsellor released a statement expressing ‘satisfaction and joy’ in response to news that rice supplies had been delivered to civilians in Paletwa township, Chin State. She praised the efforts of the military who ‘discharged their duties with courage and dedication.” On the same day the State Counsellor released her statement, a driver for the World Health Organization carrying COVID-19 test samples in Rakhine State was shot and killed. The other passenger was injured and is receiving treatment. Numerous rights organizations condemned the act – which neither the Arakan Army (AA) or Burma Army has taken responsibility for. The next day on 22 April, another driver of a company transporting disinfectant was struck after being shot in the head died, and the other injured.
The United States of America voiced their concern and ‘expressed deepest sympathies for all those affected by the violence,’ after the attack. They called for all parties to cease fighting, to take necessary precautions to protect local communities and pursue peaceful dialogue.
According to Radio Free Asia, at least 63 civilians have been killed and more than 160 people have been injured during clashes between government and AA troops in northern Rakhine and in Chin’s Paletwa township between February 26 and April 1.
The Rakhine Ethnics Congress says that since the beginning of January 2019, there have been nearly 160 000 civilians in Rakhine State displaced as well as many others who have been displaced in Kyauktaw, Minbya, and Ratheduang townships. The increased rate of causalities also prompted the International Arakanese Community to appeal to the United Nations and international governments to ‘protect all communities from genocide and war crimes in Arakan state.’ On 23 April, the International Campaign for Arakan called for an urgent response to the independent investigative mechanism for Burma in response to the escalation of the civil war in Rakhine State.
In addition, Members of Parliament said parliamentarians have said they have experienced threats for condemning violence in the region noting ‘these incidents occur almost every day – people have died and been injured. Villages have been burned down, people have fled.”
Despite the allegations against, the Burma Army, there has been no accountability or repercussions taken for committing grave acts of human rights abuses in the State.
Two Civilians Killed in Airstrike | 1 April 2020
Two villagers were killed after an air raid by the Burma Army that they have denied. A father who survived the attack said five helicopters dropped bombs on the mountain near the village and his son was killed, and wife injured. Their home and belongings were also destroyed.
Civilians Killed in Rakhine near Kyauktaw Township | 2 April 2020
Five civilians were killed, eight were injured following more fighting between the AA and Burma Army. A teenager was among those who died, as well as three older men and a woman.
Civilian Killed, Nine Injured | 22 April 2020
After artillery shells struck villages in Minbya township, 30-year-old woman in Myit Nar was killed, and three members of a family were wounded as well as two other residents in Htaunt Chay.
33 Rakhine Civilians Released After Shelling | 21 Apri 2020
Thirty-nine men who were arrested and detained on suspicion of being affiliated with the AA were released. The men had to sign a document stating they were not connected to the AA and would not be in the future.
Civilians Killed in Clashes After Two Separate Attacks | 25 April 2020
Casualties continue to mount as at least four civilians were killed following clashes between the Burma Army and AA. According to a villager, two men were shot on a moto driving through Minbya town, and two Rohingya died in an artillery shell explosion.
Rakhine Civilian Tortured to Death | 30 April 2020
An innocent civilian traveling by a Burma Army checkpoint was arrested, detained and tortured to death. The Burma Army has justified civilian arrests on suspected loyalties, often unfounded, to the AA. Any loss of life requires an immediate investigation.
Over 2,300 villagers have sought shelter in Paletwa and other villages, according to civil society organizations. The Chin State government said there are over 380 villages and 100,000 people in Paletwa Township and around 60,000 of them are being affected by the fighting. ND-Burma affiliate member, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), has been closely monitoring the situation and sharing regular updates that can be subscribed to here. According to CHRO, fighting in southern Chin state has killed dozens with civilians frequently hearing gunfire around their villages. Combined with sporadic phone service, CHRO says it has been difficult for them to get news about what is happening.
Airstrike Kills Seven Civilians in Paletwa Township | 8 April 2020
Seven civilians were killed, and nine others injured after clashes between the Burma Army and AA escalated. The victims were taken to Paletwa public hospital but without a surgeon, no bullets could be removed.
In response to this attack, several rights groups spoke out calling for civilian protection including the Women’s League of Burma who also condemned violence in Karen and northern Shan States. Civil society organizations worldwide also called for an end to armed conflict targeting civilians in a joint statement.
Three Civilians Die Amidst Heavy Fighting | 22 April 2020
Civilians in Paletwa told CHRO that fighting between the AA and Burma Army is taking place closer to town. Around 5PM, CHRO say artillery was fired into the middle of the town and exploded between the Myanmar Economic Bank and a nursery school which are located close to the town police station. The blast killed a female employee of the bank, Daw Ei Thandar together with her daughter, 4-year-old Elizabeth Moe Moe Aung, and another child, 9-year-old Maung Maung Win, the son of Daw Myat Lay Nwe.
Headman and Son Arrested, Forced to Guide Burma Army | 13 April 2020
In an update from the Shan Human Rights Foundation, several human rights abuses were committed against the backdrop of renewed conflict between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Burma Army.
Shortly after an attack, a Shan village leader with 35 households was interrogated and accused of providing food to Shan troops. The village headman and his son were later interrogated and forced to porter in the jungle for two nights.
Another case documented ongoing forced labor by 50 Burma Army soldiers who forced six villagers to provide six vehicles to take up military rations to the Loi Don base and upload rations, as well as drive them up the mountain.
Villager Killed by Burma Army During Clashes | 24 April 2020
During clashes between the MMDAA and Burma Army, a villager, Mai Aik Shwe, age 27, was on his moto when he was confronted by the Burma Army . His motorcycle was burned and he was killed in northern Shan. When his body was found, it was suspected he was shot and stabbed by the Burma Army Brigade (99), Infantry (79).
Burma Army Indiscriminately Fires on Civilians in Karen State | 9 April 2020
Free Burma Rangers shared an update about Karen State as the Burma Army continues to fire mortars into Karen villages. The military has been indiscriminately shooting at civilians carrying supplies and food. One of the deaths included community leader, Saw Thet Mee who was shot and is survived by his wife and five children.
KNU Tells Burma Army to Stop Fighting During COVID-19 | 30 March 2020
The Karen National Union (KNU) demanded the Burma government and military declare a nationwide ceasefire to stop the spread of the virus and control the pandemic. Some ethnic armed organizations are organizing COVID-19 campaigns in their areas including the KNU.
Concerns of COVID-19 in Paletwa Heightened | 1 April 2020
With the information backout in Chin and Rakhine townships continuing, there have been fears raised about COVID-19 reaching communities who have their safety further undermined by living in a conflict zone with causalities and injuries rising daily. Fighting between the Burma Army and AA has led to several roads and river routes being blocked. Civilians have restrictions on information and transportation – both which threaten their well-being.
IDPs in Kachin Struggling to Earn a Living During COVID-19 | 7 April 2020
Those who have been displaced in Kachin State were struggling to meet government orders to stop the spread of COVID-19 as they continued to leave camps to try and find work amid humanitarian aid shortages. Some people have donated face masks and hand soap, but the supplies are far from enough for the roughly 2,000 IDPs living at the Jan Mai Kawng camp.
Armed conflict between ethnic armies and the Burma Army in Kachin state have displaced nearly 100,000 civilians who are now living in 138 camps in government-controlled, ethnic army-controlled, and contested areas, according to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued Jan. 31.
Villagers in Rakhine In Need of Aid | 17 April 2020
With over 30,000 displaced villagers in Kyauktaw, Rathaytaung and Minbya townships in Rakhine, civil society is concerned that they are not receiving adequate food. Concerns have been heightened by the upcoming monsoon season which will pose more challenges for IDPs at the end of April.
Burma Army Attacks RCSS as Shan Medics Provide Health Checks | 17 April 2020
While a team of Shan medics provided awareness activities in Mongpan township, Shan State, the Burma Army attacked RCSS troops. Villagers said they had been told by the Burma Army to not accept medical checks by the RCSS and have made attempts to block their medical team from providing services.
Civilians Threatened with Jail Time for Accepting Face Masks | 23 April 2020
According to an RCSS spokesperson, the Burma Army threatened to imprison civilians if they took personal protective equipment from them.
President Makes Order to Battle Hate Speech Amidst COVID-19 | 21 April 2020
In an attempt to curb hate speech in Burma, the President ordered state and regional governments to encourage government employees to join anti hate speech activities. The announcement came following an increase in social media comments spreading false and discriminatory information about COVID-19.
COVID-19 Response Efforts & Coordination
The Border Consortium (TBC) released a statement on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and conflict affected communities. TBC is currently negotiating with donor governments for an additional US 1.6 million to support the emergency response in the refugee camps for six months with a total of US 2.4 million needed to cover 2020.
The Transnational Institute made a joint call for action on the urgent need to enhance measures in Burma prisons and detention facilities to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19.
The Mekong Migration Network released a statement on the impacts of COVID-19 on migrants in the sub-region urging relevant authorities in countries of origin and destination to take immediate action to protect and support the welfare of migrants and their families.
Human Rights Watch called on Burma authorities to reduce prison populations to fight COVID-19, which are overcrowded and unsanitary and to consider alternative detentions for prisoners with underlying conditions, elder prisoners and those with a disability.
Amnesty International released a report calling on the Burma authorities to “immediately lift curbs on the free flow of information to at-risk communities; ensure journalists, human rights defenders and activists can operate freely and without any harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment; and encourage rather than threaten to punish people who criticize, openly discuss, or attempt to raise awareness about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In wake of COVID-19 and escalating rights abuses, a new advocacy group called Justice for Myanmar announced their goal to exploit the activities of the Burma Army and make calls for justice and accountability for all people – regardless of race, gender, socio-economic background. Read the press release here.
Freedom of Expression
Amid worsening conflict in Rakhine and Chin States, Article-19 and other human rights groups have been voicing concern and alarm over Burma’s decision this month to block access to ethnic news websites. On March 23, the Ministry of Transport and Communications directed telecommunications operations to block access to 221 websites.
This is a blatant violation to rights of freedom of expression. Article-19 Asia called the move to block ethnic news websites, a ‘drastic and unjustified step by the Burma government.’ 240 rights organizations released a joint statement questioning the legality and compliance of the order to block the websites in the midst of the pandemic.
In a timely reveal, Amnesty International released a report on the criminalization of human rights defenders and activists in Burma writing: “just over four years since the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government came to power, human rights defenders and activists continue to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for peacefully exercising their human rights.
Burma News International Addresses NLD in Letter| 2 April 2020
On 31 March, the Editor of Narinjara News was charged with the anti-terrorism law after broadcasting an interview piece with the spokesperson of the AA.
Following strict media restrictions of several information outlets in Burma this month, as well as specific targeting of journalists, BNI released a statement requesting State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint to drop charges against the Editors of Narinjara News. All of the outlets whose content is being blocked are members of BNI that counts 16 different ethnic media newsgroups.
UN Expert, Yanghee Lee, also spoke out against the charges against the journalists stating, “these journalists were reporting on the escalating armed conflict in Rakhine State, where the Government has imposed a mobile internet shutdown. As such, their reporting was of the highest public interest value and should be protected.”
Charges against Ko Nay Myo Lin, Voice of Myanmar’s chief editor, were later dropped. however the two other editors, Thar Loon Zaung Htet, editor in chief of Khit Thit news agency, and Khine Myat Kyaw, editor in chief of Narinjara news agency, are allegedly now in hiding to avoid arrest. Burma Human Rights Network and other rights groups had called for charges to be dropped against the Editors.
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Address COVID-19, the New Year Presidential Pardon, the Blue Shirt for Burma Campaign & Releases New Report
Ex-Political Prisoners from Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Share Survival Tips on Isolation in COVID-19 Era | 6 April 2020
AAPP democracy activist, Ko Bo Kyi, shared his experience of surviving isolation during periods of uncertainty as a former political prisoner. His message resonated with many as he offered his advice to make sure ‘people don’t get too down.” He advised meditation, walking and focusing on things in our control.
Statement on 2020 Presidential Pardon | 17 April 2020
Following the release of prisoners in the annual presidential pardon, AAPP expressed concern about the lack of political prisoners included in the release. While the release was the largest in ten years with 24,896 freed – there were only 21 political prisoners included. AAPP’s statement can be read here.
Statement on #BlueShirtDay honoring the memory of activist, U Win Tin | 21 April 2020
On Blue Shirt Day, AAPP honored the memory of activist, U Win Tin and called on the Burmese government to immediately and unconditionally release the 58 political prisoners serving prison sentences, and 126 activists facing trial behind bars. The statement is available here and as is the updated list of political prisoners for April.
AAPP Releases New Report
AAPP also launched their latest report “You Cannot Survive Alone: The Role of AAPP in the Democratic Struggle in Burma 2000-2020”. A look back over the history of AAPP & written for their 20-year anniversary, the report is available in both English and Burmese.
Ta’ang Rights Groups Address Serious Human Rights Violations by the Burmese Army | 8 April 2020
ND-Burma members the Ta’ang Women’s Organization and Ta’ang Students and Youths Union called for justice and accountability as Burma Army commits human rights violations with entrenched impunity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ta’ang communities are now being threatened by both the pandemic and these serious human right violations. Network Media group reported on the statement here.
All Arakan Students’ & Youth Congress Documents 130 Human Rights Abuses since January 2020
A documentation update from ND-Burma member the All Arakan Students’
and Youths’ Congress, reveals 130 documented cases of killing torture/ inhuman degrading treatment, disappearance, arbitrary arrest and oppression of media in Arakan State and Paletwa (Chin State) since January 2020.
On 21 April, ND-Burma released a human rights fact sheet with an overview from January to April 2020. Download in English here.
On April 10, ND-Burma released a statement expressing concern that the Burma Army is using their response to COVID-19 to justify its authority and presence in conflict affected ethnic areas, where they are largely responsible for fueling conflict and exacerbating tensions between ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). ND-Burma condemns any emergency relief effort that puts the needs of the military before the people of the country. The statement can be read here and was also covered in Kantarawaddy Times and the Karen Information Center.
ND-Burma Releases New Report
In ND-Burma’s recently released report on abuses from July to December 2019, ND-Burma members documented 174 human rights violations with an alarming number of clashes in Rakhine and northern Shan States, as well as a notable decline in basic rights and freedoms. ND-Burma has concluded that the delays to a successful transition to a free, fair and democratic Burma are compromised by the Burma Army’s reluctance to give up power.
ND-Burma is a network that consists of 13-member organisations who represent a range of ethnic nationalities, women and former political prisoners. ND-Burma member organisations have been documenting human rights abuses and fighting for justice for victims since 2004. The network consists of nine Full Members and four Affiliate Members as follows:
- Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
- Human Rights Foundation of Monland
- Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand
- Ta’ang Women’s Organization
- Ta’ang Students and Youth Union
- Tavoyan Women’s Union
- Association Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
- All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress
- Future Light Center