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Rights Groups Warn of More Torture, Executions in Myanmar as Martial Law Spreads

Myint Swe, right, acting president of the military government, attends a meeting with members the National Defense and Security Council in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 31, 2023, in this photo released from the The Military True News Information Team.
Myint Swe, right, acting president of the military government, attends a meeting with members the National Defense and Security Council in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 31, 2023, in this photo released from the The Military True News Information Team.

Rights groups are warning of a likely rise in arbitrary arrests, torture and executions by Myanmar’s military regime after the junta’s move last week to place swaths of the country that are home to millions of people under martial law.

The junta declared martial law in 37 of Myanmar’s 330 townships on February 2, a day after marking the two-year anniversary of the military’s overthrow of a democratically elected government, by extending emergency rule across the country for six more months.

It adds to the 12 townships the junta placed under martial law in the months that followed the February 2021 coup, mostly in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities.

Martial law puts all police, judicial and administrative activity in the townships in the hands of regional military commanders, who can launch opaque military tribunals into 23 offenses, from spreading “false news” to high treason. According to the announcement in state media, sentences can include indefinite prison terms and death, with no appeals except in cases of capital punishment.

The announcement said the tougher rules were needed “to exercise more effective undertakings for ensuring security, the rule of law and local peace and tranquillity.”

To some, though, the move is more proof that the junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council, or SAC, has little to no control over much of Myanmar. The 37 townships, spread across the country, have seen some of the fiercest fighting in recent months between the military and a patchwork of armed resistance groups.

“This is a humiliating acknowledgement of the reality on the ground. [The] SAC cannot govern these areas in any meaningful manner. Its state apparatus has collapsed aside from security forces in the main towns,” said Matthew Arnold, an independent Myanmar analyst.

License to kill

Rights groups accuse the military of committing mass atrocities across the country in a scorched earth campaign against the resistance that has killed nearly 3,000 civilians by their best estimates.

Manny Maung, the Myanmar research lead for Human Rights Watch, said martial law portends even more abuses by junta forces in the targeted townships.

“It gives them a bit more license to do what they want,” she said. “They already do what they want with very, very little accountability. But in these particular areas, I’d say that this is a notice for us that they’re willing to take steps even further.”

Of the nearly 100 people sentenced to death by Myanmar’s courts since the coup, Manny Maung said all were arrested in townships placed under martial law after the coup, including four men executed in July. With another 37 townships added to the list, she said she expects more death sentences and executions to come.

“There is definitely a precedent that’s been set, and they’ve shown that they will go ahead with it if they think that they will get maximum leverage out of ... killing people in their politically motivated fashion,” she said.

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John Quinley, director of Fortify Rights, a group that documents rights violations in Myanmar, said his research team also found an especially high number of indefinite detentions of protesters in the Yangon and Mandalay townships, which were placed under martial law in the wake of the coup. Many, he added, were beaten during their arrests and some were tortured in custody.

He said martial law and other enhanced security orders have at times foreshadowed large and deadly military operations. In 2012, the military government running Myanmar imposed a state of emergency on Rakhine state amid race riots that displaced more than 100,000 minority Rohingya and left dozens dead. An independent fact-finding mission sponsored by the United Nations concluded that security forces likely participated in the violence and were “at least complicit.”

“Historically, martial law in Myanmar has been used pre- and post- pretty widespread atrocity crimes,” said Quinley. “So, I think ... we’re going to see more human rights violations after this has been put in place for quite some time.”

Diminishing returns

Of the 37 townships placed under martial law last week, roughly half are in the northwest states of Chin and Sagaing, both strongholds of the armed resistance.

The Chin Human Rights Organization smuggles humanitarian aid across the border from India to communities in both Chin and Sagaing cut off from the rest of Myanmar by military blockades. The group’s director, Salai Za Uk Ling, says the military has arrested and killed aid workers and volunteers caught breaking the blockade.

The new powers local commanders now have under martial law, he told VOA, will make their work even riskier.

A resident of Hakha, the capital of Chin state, who spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity for his family’s safety, said local commanders imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the town over the weekend, just days after gaining their martial law powers.

He said gunshots and rocket fire ring out almost daily from just outside of town as the military battles armed resistance groups that hold most of the countryside. In town, he added, junta officers are struggling to run basic government services as most public sector employees refuse to work for the regime.

“There is no law at all, that’s why we are very much worried about [martial law],” the husband and father or two said. “It is like giving [themselves] more power to commit crimes including arbitrary arrest, killing, or giving death penalty sentence.”

Arnold said he expects the SAC to place even more townships under martial law in the coming months in a desperate bid to cling to power. He doubts it will succeed at winning back what it has lost to the resistance, especially in rural areas, where its grip is already weak.

In many of the townships bearing the brunt of the military’s force, Arnold added, the resistance has only grown.

“Basically, there are now diminishing returns for the military to undertake atrocity attacks because the resistance is now so widespread and saturated across the vast swath of the country,” he said. “The people want to be rid of this military once and for all. If anything, atrocities encourage more resistance at this point.”