Even before the February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military often deployed systematic violence against civilians, developing a reputation for ruthlessness that dates back decades. Their abuse of ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya have been the subject of countless international human rights investigations, while their nearly unchecked power allowed them to operate with impunity.

Soldiers set up barricades as tens of thousands of people gathered to protest the coup that ousted the civilian government in Yangon, Myanmar. February 15, 2021. (The New York Times)
Soldiers set up barricades as tens of thousands of people gathered to protest the coup that ousted the civilian government in Yangon, Myanmar. February 15, 2021. (The New York Times)

Since the coup, the scale of the junta’s violence and brutality has intensified, reaching nearly every corner of the country. In an attempt to assert its power, the junta has detained nearly 20,000 civilians and killed an estimated 3,000 others over the last two years. Meanwhile, 1.5 million people have been displaced as the junta and a strengthening resistance movement fight for territorial control.

One of the regions hit hardest by the conflict has been the mountainous Karenni State, often referred to as Kayah State. Located in the mountainous eastern part of the country, with an estimated population of only 425,000, the suffering of the region’s Karenni ethnic minority has often been overlooked — and so have the junta’s crimes against them.

The only way for the devastation to end is for the junta to be held accountable. Our coalition of local civil society organizations in Karenni State started documenting previously underreported violence in the region in May 2021. Our recently published final report compiles extensive evidence of what amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the junta.

The documented abuse proves the junta’s targeting of civilians is far more pervasive and severe than previously known, as it’s only through on-the-ground investigations that we were able to uncover these crimes. There are many places in Myanmar where this has not been done — where victims of the junta’s atrocities haven’t been given a voice and a path toward justice. Civil society should be empowered to undertake such efforts across the country, and the international community should use the evidence from Karenni State as a catalyst for serious accountability measures to bring the perpetrators of junta crimes to justice.

The Violence in Karenni State

The modern history of Karenni State has been characterized by a long stream of military violence against the Karenni people. But since the 2021 coup, this violence has escalated to a scale not seen for generations.

The rapid expansion of the military’s presence in Karenni State has turned villages into battlegrounds, resulting in rising civilian casualties. The junta employs a collective punishment strategy when it comes to fighting insurgencies and ethnic armed groups: They deliberately target civilians, seeing them as the “support base” for armed resistance groups.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by mortar shelling, crossfire, airstrikes and landmines. The junta has damaged or destroyed over 1,000 homes across 87 towns, as well as targeted civilian infrastructure like health care clinics. International humanitarian aid to the area has also been routinely blocked by the junta, leaving many people without adequate supplies of safe food and water. When aid does manage to reach Karenni State, the task is often taken up by local civil society members, who are frequently arrested and detained by the junta.

In all, the junta has arbitrarily arrested at least 260 civilians — including peaceful protesters, teachers, medical personnel and humanitarian aid workers — and have killed at least 115 of those arrested. Of those that are released, many have reported they were subjected to torture and cruel treatment.

The violence has created a massive population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Of the 425,000 Karenni people living in Karenni State and the surrounding regions, at least 182,000 have been displaced due to violence — over 40 percent of the population, a majority of which are women and children. For historical context, the previously most intense period of displacement during the late 1990s displaced 30,000.

The junta has not spared IDPs, either. In fact, the junta has made it clear that no one is allowed to provide aid to internally displaced persons, going so far as to limit the amount of medicine a person is allowed to carry. IDP camps have also been subjected to attacks by junta forces, and in one instance a camp was targeted with an airstrike.

Legal experts have concluded that the junta’s actions in Karenni State, including those stated above and many more found in the report, meet the criterion to constitute war crimes. Further, the conduct of the Myanmar military likely constitutes crimes against humanity when considered in the context of a widespread or systematic “attack” against the civilian population in Myanmar, committed with the requisite knowledge that the attack constituted a human rights violation. 

The International Community Must Hold the Junta Accountable

The international community has failed for two years to hold junta accountable. In that time, the junta has inflicted devastating violence and destruction on ethnic minority communities. The evidence of atrocity crimes demands a legal and moral obligation for the international community to act.

To start, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can accept the declaration from Myanmar’s pro-democracy National Unity Government under the Rome Statute, which would give the ICC jurisdiction for international crimes committed in Myanmar. Additionally, the U.N. Security Council can put forth a resolution to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC.

Such a referral might fail, as both Russia and China have close ties to the junta and veto power in the U.N. Security Council. Should that be the case, countries can publicly support the creation of an ad hoc international tribunal through the U.N. General Assembly or U.N. Human Rights Council.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies can impose further coordinated and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military and its leadership — specifically targeting Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise to cut off revenue. Additionally, they can impose a comprehensive global arms embargo on the military and sanction the aviation fuel supply to the junta to limit its ability to launch airstrikes against civilian populations, including IDPs.

Elevating the Role of Myanmar’s Civil Society

It is imperative that the international community continues to consult with local civil society organizations for up-to-date situational analysis on the ground, as civil society remains the main access point for the international community to truly understand what is happening in Myanmar.

At the moment, victims of the junta’s violence, particularly survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, lack access to basic medical and psychosocial support and feel hopeless in a system with no recourse for accountability. By increasing direct funding to support local civil society organizations, the international community can help meet the immediate needs of affected populations in Myanmar.

And by directly funding local civil society organizations for training in human rights education, documentation and advocacy work, the international community can support and empower them to speak out about human rights violations. The current work of civil society to document atrocities is critical for preserving records of war crimes and human rights violations and demonstrating the need for future accountability and reconciliation mechanisms.

With an eye toward future justice and accountability needs, the international community should also empower communities to define what justice and accountability looks like in their own terms. Currently, local capacity to provide justice and accountability in the country is limited, though several resistance actors are working to establish effective transitional mechanisms.

Potential justice mechanisms like international or hybrid tribunals will involve significant investments of time and resources, as well as complex negotiations among political elites, particularly in the scope of a larger complex national dialogue in Myanmar. The experiences of the tribunals of Cambodia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone offer many lessons for considering justice mechanisms in Myanmar. One of the most important lessons, however, is that there is no singular model — that justice and reconciliation cannot be imported. It is essential to listen to local voices to imagine just systems that build a community’s faith in accountability mechanisms.

These ongoing and future transitional justice efforts may help facilitate peace if done in a way that is meaningful and timely but could prove counterproductive if they do not invoke the right approach at the right time. This will be particularly challenging in the context of Myanmar, where there is significant diversity and therefore diverse understandings about what justice means and how it can be achieved — as well as decades of violence that will need to be addressed.

But without justice and accountability, there can be no lasting peace for Karenni communities or communities across Myanmar at large. The burden must not fall to civil society alone — the international community must take action.

Alar Corritti is the general secretary of the Kayan Women’s Organization.

Mie Mie is the chairperson of the Karenni National Women’s Organization.

Matthias is the coordinator for the Kayah State Peace Monitoring Network.

Ko Banya is the director of the Karenni Human Rights Group.

USIP’s Nicole Cochran and Gabriela Sagun contributed to this analysis.

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