A major new initiative to record, verify and investigate incidents in Myanmar has been launched. Myanmar Witness will independently collect, preserve, process, investigate, verify and review incidents of possible interferences with human rights. The project will be sharing information with the United Nations’ Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), to ensure evidence for future accountability for human rights violations is verified and preserved.
The international project team brings together leading experts in open-source intelligence techniques, digital forensics, weapon system identification and disinformation, with a network of dozens of civil society actors from across Myanmar. The project will be coordinated by the Centre for Information Resilience, a UK-based non-profit with expertise in (OSINT) techniques to expose, document and counter harms committed by authoritarian states and malign actors.
Myanmar Witness will encourage civilians to safely submit digital content including photos, videos, social media posts and other data via a submission form. This collection and processing of evidence will be in line with international accountability standards. The project team will also independently verify incidents on open-source social media channels. All the data will be independently verified, hashed, and kept safely and securely, in line with international best practices and to preserve evidence for any possible future judicial processes. Safeguarding the identity of witnesses and those providing data will be of utmost importance.
Already, Myanmar Witness has uncovered and verified:
Evidence of reprisal attacks by the Myanmar Army
Evidence of shelling of civilian areas and religious buildings
Widespread indications of an intention to harm, if not kill, demonstrators
Evidence of mass arrests
Violence against medical workers
A spokesperson for Myanmar Witness said:
“The world has watched with horror at the growing number of apparent human rights incidents in Myanmar. At its heart, Myanmar Witness is about justice and accountability. Our analysts and researchers will work to independently investigate, verify and preserve alleged human rights violations of people across the country. We’ll be working closely with international bodies, NGOs and the media to ensure there is a clear, verified record of alleged incidents. Crucially, we’ll be sharing our findings with the IIMM to preserve evidence. Our work today will hopefully go some way to ensure accountability tomorrow.”
As well as a resource to preserve evidence for future judicial processes, the Myanmar Witness team will be freely available to journalists seeking to investigate possible human rights interferences. We welcome submissions or inquiries from journalists and media organisations. For more information, please visit: www.info-res.org/myanmarwitness
Myanmar Witness is supported through funding from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.
Press release distributed by Pressat on behalf of Centre for Information Resilience, on Saturday 17 July, 2021. For more information subscribe and follow https://pressat.co.uk/
On May 24 in Myanmar’s Kachin State, 13-year-old Awng Di walked over to his aunt’s house about noontime to feed her chickens. Thirty minutes later, heavy artillery crashed through the chicken coop; Awng Di died before reaching the nearby clinic.
“Our family has never been involved in politics … We’re just trying to survive,” Awng Di’s mother told Al Jazeera. “Now, I want to curse [the military soldiers] every time I see them.”
Momauk township, where Awng Di was from, has been the site of clashes between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, and the Kachin Independence Army, the armed wing of an ethnic armed organisation, since April. The uptick in violence in Momauk and other parts of Kachin State has displaced more than 11,000 people, according to UN estimates.
The clashes in Momauk mark a broader escalation in fighting across the country since the February 1 military coup, as decades-long conflicts between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar’s border areas resume or accelerate, and civilian defence forces emerge in townships that had not previously seen fighting.
In response to the increase in armed resistance, the Tatmadaw has launched indiscriminate air and ground strikes on civilian areas, displacing 230,000 people since the coup. Security forces have also looted and burned homes, blocked aid access and the transport of relief items, restricted water supplies, cut telecommunications networks, shelled places of refuge, and killed and arrested volunteers seeking to deliver humanitarian assistance.
According to Naw Htoo Htoo, program director of the Karen Human Rights Group, the Tatmadaw’s patterns of violence since the coup mark the continuation of a strategy known as four cuts, which the military began using in Karen State in the 1960s and has since deployed against civilian populations in other ethnic minority areas.
“[The Tatmadaw] doesn’t use the words ‘four cuts’ any more, but the strategy is definitely the same as the four cuts that they used on ethnic people for over 70 years,” said Naw Htoo Htoo.
Through means including restricting access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits, the strategy seeks to starve the support base of armed resistance and turn civilians against resistance groups.
In addition to Karen State, the armed forces have also used the strategy in areas including Kachin and Rakhine states, most notoriously in northern Rakhine State in 2017 when its ‘clearance operations’ sent hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
According to Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher focused on security and conflict in Myanmar, the four cuts strategy “treats civilians not just as ‘collateral damage’ but as a central resource in the battlefield.
“They are targeted directly with extreme violence and see their livelihoods intentionally destroyed so that armed groups cannot find sanctuary and civilian support,” he told Al Jazeera.
Since the coup, the Tatmadaw appears to have expanded its use of four cuts across the country, including in areas predominantly populated by the ethnic Bamar majority. In late March, after security forces looted homes in central Magway Region’s Gangaw township, locals began fighting back with hunting rifles. The Tatmadaw responded with heavy explosives and machine guns that killed four people and left more than 10,000 fleeing to the forest, according to local media group Myanmar Now.
Magway Region’s Pauk township also saw indiscriminate violence on the night of June 15, when more than 200 houses in Kinma village burned to the ground, killing an elderly couple trapped inside their home. Two Kinma residents who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said they did not know about any clashes leading up to the fire, but according to Myanmar Now, the incident occurred days after skirmishes between local resistance fighters and plainclothes police and soldiers.
One of the villagers told Al Jazeera that he saw at least nine people in plainclothes enter the village at about 11pm on June 15, setting homes on fire and shooting at the village’s cattle, pigs and buffaloes.
The Tatmadaw has blamed the incident on 40 “terrorists” and said that media who accused it of torching the village were trying to discredit it.
The military spokesperson did not answer repeated calls from Al Jazeera seeking comment on the incidents of violence or the use of the “four cuts” strategy.
Now, the residents of Kinma are scattered in nearby villages or staying in makeshift shelters in the jungle, where they are running low on food and supplies, according to Than Tun Aung, the pseudonym for one of the two villagers from Kinma interviewed by Al Jazeera. “Collecting aid is challenging because there might be police or soldiers along the way,” he said. “We are always alert and ready to run.”
‘All lives are threatened’
Kayah State and neighbouring southern Shan State, which had been peaceful before the coup, have also been the target of intense Tatmadaw attacks since May 23, when a group calling itself the Karenni People’s Defence Force overran a police station in the town of Moebye in Shan State’s Pekon township and fighting quickly spread across the region. While civilian defence fighters conducted targeted ambushes with homemade weapons, the Tatmadaw launched what the UN described as “indiscriminate attacks”, firing artillery and guns into civilian areas and displacing 100,000 people, most of whom are now living in nearby forests.
Churches, where some have sought shelter, have been repeatedly attacked, including the Sacred Heart Church in Kayah State’s Loikaw township, which was shelled on May 24, killing four people.
Aid delivery in Kayah and Shan is difficult and dangerous. The Tatmadaw has blocked the flow of goods into conflict-affected townships, killed and arrested aid volunteers, and killed two displaced people as they tried to fetch rice from their homes.
Joseph Reh, a volunteer relief worker in Pekon township who preferred his real name not be disclosed for security reasons, told Al Jazeera that his group initially used white flags when delivering aid in the hope it would protect them, but that security forces shot at them anyway.
His group stockpiled food and relief items in a school, but was initially unable to distribute the goods due to the risk of being attacked. On the afternoon of June 8, when volunteers attempted to carry sacks of rice to displaced people hiding in the mountains, he said that security forces fired at the group’s van, forcing it to turn back.
“Because of that, they found out where we keep our food and supplies,” said Joseph Reh. “They came to the school, took all our supplies to a field, and burned them” that evening. In total, he said more than 80 sacks of rice were destroyed, as well as stockpiles of other dry food items, medical supplies, an ambulance and a car.
“They destroyed things they weren’t supposed to destroy and which weren’t related to the people’s defence forces they are fighting,” said Joseph Reh. “The food supplies they burned were purely for displaced people … The ambulance they burned was not related to the fight at all. It said RESCUE and had a red cross logo.”
According to Joseph Reh, security forces fired into the mountains for the next two days, further restricting aid delivery.
In addition to shortages of food and supplies, displaced people face insufficient shelter and medical care. In Chin State’s Mindat township, where civilian defence forces took up hunting rifles and homemade weapons in mid-May, the Tatmadaw launched heavy weapon attacks which displaced more than 20,000 people. At least six displaced people have since died from lack of access to healthcare, according to Radio Free Asia.
“Everything is under military control and all lives are threatened,” said Salai Shane, the pseudonym for the head of a volunteer emergency response group in Mindat. He described “extreme difficulties” when trying to access displaced people.
On June 13, one of his group’s vehicles was seized en route from Pakokku, Magway region, to Mindat, while transporting food and raincoats; Salai Shane has since lost contact with the driver. Security forces arrested another member of the group on June 19 and confiscated his motorbike and the relief supplies which he was transporting to displaced people. During a week in custody, he was beaten and interrogated, according to Salai Shane’s account.
With aid volunteers having been shot dead in Kayah State, Salai Shane says he is especially fearful of delivering aid on foot. “Sometimes there is no route for motorbikes and we have to carry items by ourselves over several trips,” he said. “If we are in the forest or the jungle, we can be killed and our bodies disappeared.”
Military fuels anger
According to independent researcher Kim Jolliffe, the Tatmadaw is willing to do “unfathomable things” to the general public in order to retain control. “It knows only one way to deal with opposition and that is to beat every dissenting element of society into submission through extreme force,” he said.
But while the four cuts strategy may seek to turn the public against armed resistance or weaken resolve, Naw Htoo Htoo of the Karen Human Rights Group says the approach is likely to backfire.
“In the short term, there might be some impact on armed resistance due to food and water shortages and limited access to resources, but for the long term, [the Tatmadaw] will not be able to govern anywhere,” she said. “The more they oppress the people, the more civilians become stronger, because when they deliberately attack everyone, the people hate them more.”
Victims of Tatmadaw violence since the coup told Al Jazeera that the experiences have cemented their hatred of the security forces and made them even more determined to ensure their downfall.
“It will never be possible for us to view the military positively,” Than Tun Aung of Kinma village told Al Jazeera. “We just want to continue living peacefully as farmers … We have to end this military regime or we will suffer for our entire lives.”
In Mindat, Salai Shane has come to a similar conclusion. “If civilian defence forces could defeat the military and remove them from the area, we would be able to freely resume business and agricultural activities and live better lives,” he said. “We cannot separate the two: armed resistance groups are made up of civilians, because we all hate the military regime and aim to abolish it. Restricting aid to civilians will only delay the armed resistance movement, but cannot stop it.”
Several government ministers, military coup leaders and adult members of their families are among those being targeted.
The United States has imposed fresh sanctions on 22 individuals including four Myanmar government ministers in response to the February military coup and attacks against the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the new sanctions were levied “in response to the brutal campaign of violence perpetrated by the Burmese military regime and to continue imposing costs in connection with the military coup.”
The sanctions do not target the Myanmar people, but are aimed at pressuring the military to “immediately restore Burma’s (Myanmar’s) path to democracy,” Blinken said.
The sanctions target Myanmar’s minister of information Chit Naing, minister for investment Aung Naing Oo, labour and immigration minister Myint Kyaing, and Thet Thet Khine, the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement.
Three members of the powerful State Administrative Council were also hit with sanctions, as were 15 spouses and adult children of officials, in an expansion of US punishments imposed in February, March and May following the coup.
Under the sanctions, all US property in the name of the individuals are blocked, and Americans or people in the US are prohibited from conducting property or interest transactions with them.
Andrea Gacki, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement the action demonstrates Washington “will continue to impose increasing costs on Burma’s military and promote accountability for those responsible for the military coup and ongoing violence”.
The Department of Commerce meanwhile slapped sanctions on four business entities: King Royal Technologies Co, which provides satellite communications services supporting the military; and Wanbao Mining and its two subsidiaries, which have revenue-sharing agreements with a company that helps fund the country’s defence ministry.
The actions come as Myanmar rejected new figures released by the United Nations, which said there were reports from within the country that security forces have killed at least 883 unarmed people, including at least 40 who are believed to have died in custody.
At a Tuesday briefing, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that the global agency’s country team also determined that 5,202 people were in detention as a result of their opposition to the military takeover.
On Saturday, there have been reports of the possible release of more people from prison, as the country’s military leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing marks his birthday.
Meanwhile, protesters remained defiant of Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership, with several protests held across the nation on Saturday denouncing him. Many protesters also held a symbolic cremation of his image while laying funeral wreaths emblazoned with the general’s name.
Protests were even held in the country’s second city of Mandalay despite a lockdown order on Friday due to the spread of COVID. At least two million residents are covered by the order.
Myanmar’s creaking healthcare system has already been struggling to respond to the pandemic even before the February coup that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since the coup, thousands of doctors, volunteers and civil servants have joined a mass civil disobedience campaign to protest against the military regime.
Myanmar has reported 3,347 virus-related deaths, although true figures are likely to be higher.
Protestors have been killed in the Asian country of Myanmar which is currently embroiled in a political crisis following a military coup earlier in the year. Mass protests are currently taking place across the country following a general election in which incumbent leader San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a landslide.
UN special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said in New York: “Today it was the bloodiest day since the coup happened on the first of February.
“We had today 38 people died. We have now more than over 50 people died since the coup started, and many are wounded.”
Crowds have taken to the streets, most with homemade protection, in defiance of the military coup.
They are demanding democracy be restored to the country and for elected leaders to be released from detainment.
What has happened in Myanmar?
The military seized control of the country on February 1, overthrowing the election result.
San Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest and has been charged with possessing illegal communications equipment, violating Covid-19 restrictions and publishing information that may cause “fear or alarm.”
Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has taken power.
He has been widely condemned internationally and sanctioned for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities.
According to the United Nations, more than 50 people have been killed in unrest since February 1.
Is it safe to travel to Myanmar?
International travel is currently prohibited by the UK Government due to the coronavirus lockdown, unless travel is absolutely necessary.
The current FCDO advice for travelling to Myanmar reads: “As of February 1, the Myanmar military has declared a state of emergency and assumed control.
“There are reports that figures in the Civilian Government, civil society and a foreign national have been detained by the military. Political tension and unrest is widespread since the military takeover.
“The British Embassy is following the situation carefully and will continue to update our Travel Advice.
“The military has shut down access to various internet platforms and reports of disruptions to wider internet, phone networks and ATMs are widespread.
“You are advised to stay home and stay safe.
“If you do need to collect essential provisions, you should do so quickly, avoiding crowds.
“There is a nationwide curfew imposed between 8pm and 4am until further notice.”