Civilians are being killed by Russian weapons just like in Ukraine, says special rapporteur Tom Andrews in call for global action
A man sits in front of a house destroyed by a Myanmar junta air strike. The UN special rapporteur for human rights there has called for an arms embargo. Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondentWed 15 Mar 2023 19.00 GMT
Myanmar is a “failing state” and the crisis is getting exponentially worse, a UN special rapporteur for the country has warned, urging countries to adopt the same unified resolve that followed the invasion of Ukraine.
“The same types of weapons that are killing Ukrainians are killing people in Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told the Guardian in an interview, citing the supply of Russian weapons to the junta since the coup two years ago. The junta relies heavily on aircraft from China and Russia, and has increasingly resorted to airstrikes to attempt to quell determined resistance forces.
The international response to Myanmar has been inadequate and some countries are continuing to enable the junta’s atrocities, Andrews said, calling for an arms embargo.
“It is unspeakable what is happening and what is so incredibly frustrating is the fact that, as far as most of the world is concerned, this is not happening,” he said.
Instead, the world was “watching a train wreck”, Andrews said. “Myanmar is a failing state, it is in the process of failing and this is happening before our very eyes.”
He spoke ahead of a report, to be presented to the Human Rights Council next week, that details how people who have fled Myanmar face “the risk of arrest, detention, deportation, pushbacks at land and sea” as well as obstruction of their access to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Myanmar was plunged into chaos in February 2021 when the military detained the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and seized power. The coup has provoked widespread opposition, including both a peaceful civil disobedience movement and an armed resistance. Conflict has spiralled over the past two years, spreading across vast areas of the country, including regions that were once peaceful, where members of the public joined defence groups to fight back against the military.
The military – which analysis suggests has lost territory to the resistance despite having superior weaponry – has increasingly deployed airstrikes, including against schools and medical facilities, as well as scorched earth tactics, in an attempt to stop the resistance.
“As it becomes more dangerous for their troops to operate on the ground they have resorted to these gunships, fighter jets that are dropping bombs on villages and even IDP centres [camps for internally displaced people who have been forced to flee],” said Andrews.
Myanmar’s military has previously denied carrying out atrocities and says its operations target “terrorists”.
A report by the special rapporteur last year said Russia, China, and Serbia were providing the junta with weapons. A recent investigation by Myanmar Witness also found the military was heavily reliant upon Russian or Chinese air assets for its attacks.
Andrews said he recently spoke to a father whose home was destroyed by the military. The father had taken his family to a centre for displaced people; only for it to be bombed. His two daughters, aged 12 and 15, were killed.
The junta launched airstrikes in 10 out of 14 of the country’s administrative divisions during the last six months of 2022, according to Myanmar Witness, with such attacks occurring on an almost daily basis.
Given its reliance on aircraft from China and Russia, the junta has sought to publicly align itself with both nations after the coup. The military, led by Min Aung Hlaing “fawns over Russia”, said Andrews. “He has flown to Moscow, he has praised Putin, they of course seek and secure weapons that they use to commit these atrocity crimes.”
However, Andrews said that other countries are capable of taking more robust strategic action to stop the junta from accessing resources. While many western governments have imposed sanctions, greater coordination was needed, he said.
An arms embargo, and measures to stop aviation fuel from reaching the military should also be adopted. He did not suggest sending weapons to support the resistance, but instead measures to stop weapons or resources from reaching the junta.
Andrews has also backed calls for the UN security council to pass a resolution that will refer the situation in Myanmar to the international criminal court.
Countries have a moral imperative to do “everything possible to squeeze from the junta the means through which they are continuing to attack their people”, said Andrews. It was also in the interests of the international community, especially neighbouring countries, to act, he said.
“Myanmar is a very significant country, it is a nation of 54 million people, located on a very important part of the world between India and China. Already you have seen the impact of the instability that’s there. Thousands and thousands of people every month are running for their lives every month over the border into the region.”
In a report to be presented to the Human Rights Council on 20 March, the special rapporteur said neighbouring governments had forcibly returned people – including military deserters and children – to Myanmar despite the risk of imprisonment, torture, or even execution.
According to the UN, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has soared, from 1 million before the coup, to an anticipated 17.6 million in 2023.
“The economy has imploded, you have half of people now living in poverty. You have the collapse of the education system with millions of kids not having the opportunity for an education. The health system has collapsed,” he said. “Things are bad and they are getting exponentially worse.”
Some in Myanmar, while welcoming the support Ukraine has received, have questioned why the international response to the atrocities in their country has differed so vastly, said Andrews. He said that he did not have the answer, adding that some nations were continuing to enable the junta’s crimes.
“There is a moral imperative to not turn our backs on people who are exhibiting extraordinary courage in fighting for their country and their future,” said Andrews.