Respect for free expression and assembly also declined sharply during the year as the authorities escalated their use of repressive criminal laws.
“Myanmar’s failure to hold its military accountable for atrocities against the Rohingya is finally turning the wheels of international justice,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Two international courts are now examining whether Myanmar committed genocide and who should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.”
In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.
Myanmar appeared before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on December 10-12 to respond to a complaint filed by Gambia for alleged violations of the Genocide Convention. Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi rejected the genocide allegations, claiming that there was no orchestrated campaign of persecution despite considerable evidence of military atrocities against the Rohingya.
In November, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized the ICC prosecutor to investigate alleged crimes against humanity, namely deportation, other inhumane acts, and persecution against Rohingya in Myanmar since October 2016. The court had already confirmed its jurisdiction over the crime of deportation and other related crimes, which it ruled was completed in Bangladesh, an ICC state party.
Almost one million Rohingya are living in camps in Bangladesh after fleeing the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign that began in August 2017. The estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar live in dire conditions, subjected to government persecution, violence, extreme restrictions on movement, and deprivation of food and health care.
Armed conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups intensified in 2019 in Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine States. In Rakhine State, the government ordered an internet blackout, which began on June 21 and included four townships affected by intensified fighting between the military and the ethnic Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Army. Civilians in embattled areas were increasingly endangered by severe aid blockages, indiscriminate artillery attacks, and forced displacement.
The United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission ended its work in September, handing over evidence of serious crimes by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, and Karen ethnic minorities to the newly operational Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), to continue collecting evidence.
Freedom of expression and the media remained under dire threat in Myanmar in 2019. In May, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released from prison on a presidential amnesty after serving over 700 days in pretrial detention and prison. However, more than 250 people faced criminal lawsuits in 2019 under various laws restricting freedom of expression. Protesters were often targeted under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior approval for an event.
Farmers across the country also faced difficulties with rights-repressing laws. In March, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law came into effect, requiring anyone occupying land classified as “vacant, fallow, or virgin” to apply for permits, with prison terms for failure to comply.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy government promised to overturn repressive laws enacted during military rule,” Robertson said. “Instead they are using those laws to attack their critics and have even introduced new repressive legislation.”