Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has come under intense scrutiny as evidence emerges of a systematic pattern of human rights abuses that extend from the highest-ranking commanders down to low-level soldiers.
The Security Force Monitor (SFM), a project of the Columbia Law Human Rights Institute in the United States, released a groundbreaking report titled “Under Whose Command?” shedding new light on the military’s secretive operations.
One of the most chilling incidents detailed in the report occurred in Nam Neang village in eastern Myanmar near the Thai border. In March, Myanmar soldiers, engaged in intense fighting with anti-coup armed groups, surrounded a temple where 18 villagers had sought sanctuary with three monks. Tragically, the soldiers demanded that those inside the temple come out, and when they did, they were shot dead. The soldiers then photographed the corpses and shared these gruesome images on social media, claiming to have killed anti-coup fighters.
This incident is a clear violation of international law, but it is just one of many atrocities linked to troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Aung Aung. The SFM’s research shows that Aung Aung’s involvement in such abuses dates back to his leadership of the 33rd Light Infantry Division, which has been connected to the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya – an event that is currently under investigation for genocide by the International Court of Justice.
Aung Aung’s career trajectory saw him promoted to the position of Lieutenant General in October 2022, where he assumed leadership of the Bureau of Special Operations 2, responsible for operations in the country’s east and northeast.
The SFM report, which covers a 12-year period until March 30, 2023, collected data from various sources to uncover a shocking trend. It revealed that 64% of senior army commanders, a total of 51 out of 79, had allegations of disappearances, killings, rape, or instances of torture attributed to units under their command. What’s even more concerning is that 54% of these commanders were promoted in rank after such alleged abuses occurred, illustrating a disturbing pattern of reward rather than accountability within the military hierarchy.
According to Tony Wilson, the founder and director of SFM, “It’s about building a picture; that it’s a system of control exercised from the top.” The report has drawn the attention of Myanmar experts who believe it could be instrumental in holding the military accountable for war crimes and genocide cases.
The February 2021 coup, which ousted democratically elected leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, led to widespread protests and brutal military responses. The military’s strategy of “four cuts” or “clearance operations” aimed to disrupt the opposition’s access to food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. This strategy had previously been used against the Karen ethnic group in the 1960s and deployed in northwestern Rakhine state in 2017 during a crackdown on the Rohingya population.
International actions are being taken to address these grave abuses. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is currently handling a genocide investigation related to the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya. Additionally, cases have been filed under universal jurisdiction in various regions, including South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
The SFM report also highlights specific incidents, such as a shelling attack on two Mon civilians by a battalion under the Southeastern Regional Military Command. The research reveals a pattern of abuses extending up the chain of command, ultimately implicating regional commanders.
Among the documented cases is the entire chain of command behind the 2015 rape, torture, and killing of two Kachin teachers in northeastern Myanmar. The SFM hopes that its research will support legal actions and ensure justice for the victims and their families.
In summary, the SFM report offers a stark and disturbing look into the systemic nature of human rights abuses within Myanmar’s military, implicating a majority of senior commanders and raising crucial questions about accountability and justice for the victims.