Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn as a writer
Raslaphas Kaweewat as a photographer
After the coup d’état in Myanmar, human rights violations were so widespread which could be called a humanitarian crisis and a crime against humanity. At the “Unpredictable Myanmar” forum, there were 5 speakers who have Myanmar-related experiences and understanding of international law including specific case experts with Kitpatchara Somanawat as a moderator. There was also, at the entrance, a photo exhibition reflecting the problems of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees from Myanmar.
Pornsuk Kerdsawang of Friends Without Borders Foundation stated that Myanmar before the coup was not very peaceful as human rights violations have continuously been occurring in the country regarding both border clashes and press freedom.
The post-coup unpredictability in Myanmar has made the country jump backwards. Although the peace process has not much taken place in Myanmar before, human rights yet started to have its direction and could move forwards. With more access to the internet, Myanmar people are more than ever aware of the world outside as well as the global society.
After the coup d’état, people suppression with violence was an attack that did not distinguish between armed and unarmed people, it did not consider whether it is an important place such as a hospital; school or people’s houses in general or not.
Apart from the violence, there were also other subsequent problems like communicable diseases control; shortage of medical devices and personnel; famine; blockage of food resources access. People have been starving; could neither make a living nor cultivate since they had to ceaselessly flee. There were also the use of child soldiers; forced conscription and widespread of forced labor. Moreover, there was a huge emergence of illegal businesses along the border.
“So, I personally think that Myanmar’s crisis is our (Thai) crisis.”
The crisis in Myanmar has resulted in a large number of Myanmar refugees, both IDPs and political refugees who came into Thailand in different forms and means.
Thailand has no-policy policy to deal with this matter, that is there is no concrete policy and be ignorant. Unlike 30 years ago, although Thailand did not implement or recognize the refugee status of Myanmar people, there were safe refugee camps and allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to undertake refugee status determination; to provide assistance or protection for the refugees before traveling to a third country or returning to their domicile. But now, there is no such process for new group of refugees anymore.
Carrying out the international relations through the friendship between Thai and Myanmar armies could not solve any problems in the long run and will cause more hardship and suffering to the people both in Myanmar and Thailand, especially in the areas along the border.
The Thai state does not consider people who have fled from war as refugees because it has no refugee law, there are then only those who stayed along the border escaping warfare. While political refugees are considered by the Thai state as illegal migrant workers and illegal immigrants. It cannot distinguish who are refugees or labors, anyone arrested will be called illegal labors.
The fact that Thailand considers Myanmar’s crisis as a little thing is not a solution, the refugees do not disappear or the number of refugees will not be reduced. Though the refugees can be sent or pushed back, they will ultimately return as their domestic situation does not allow them to safely live.
The refugees have to be in fear; live secretly and cannot reveal their identities. As for aid agencies, assistance could not be done openly but confidentially, it was as a result unreachable and insufficient for the refugees.
They have to flee all the time, be afraid of soldiers when in Myanmar and be afraid of Thai police when in Thailand. Refugees are not criminals, but they have to hide and cannot reach any public health services. Children do not have access to education, those who crossed over study in Thailand were forced back.
In relation to diseases and epidemics, there is currently more of malaria epidemic around the border after disappearing for many years.
We have seen news of people from the war zones in Myanmar being arrested while taking refuge in urban areas, Bangkok in particular, who did not primarily intend to look for a job but to survive in such a state of war and the Myanmar Army’s suppression. This group did not include only men, but also women and children.
The Thai state firstly needs to accept the fact, then applies management science to be able to fix or alleviate what happened. We have to look at them as the region’s population in order to save lives and to mitigate our as well as regional security problems. Thailand had an opportunity to make more friends than enemies, it should therefore move or do something. If not, such opportunity will become a time bomb and we could not solve any problems anymore.
Pornsuk added that even though the 2021 coup was similar to the incidence of 1988, there were yet many very different things. As this current coup has extensively affected throughout the country happening to the general public including children; women and elderly, this is the difference that should be emphasized.
The People’s Defence Force or PDF was emerged with a lot wider targets and attacks than the 88 Generation Students in 1988. And when the resistance increased, devastation done by the Myanmar Army became more expansive. Air strikes randomly took place, it did not care whether the areas belonged to ordinary people or troops.
At the present, the border areas relates to many illegal businesses such as cross-border human trafficking involving several complicated stakeholders and countries making; casinos; drugs including call center as well as money laundering businesses. Furthermore, within the border areas, some parts were bombed while businesses can be continued in other parts, blazes can be seen sporadically in the areas.
“When urban refugees were arrested by the police in Mae Sot or Bangkok, they were often labeled as illegal labors immediately. Their status are intertwined on many levels, various problems are tangled. Many things overlap and are difficult to resolve if there is no concrete assistance measure.”
Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Chiang Mai University noted that Myanmar’s human rights crisis started with the junta claiming of legitimacy that the civilian government has manipulated the election. An organization like the State Administration Council was then set up to enact and amend certain laws giving the junta full power to tackle the opposition or the pro-democracy groups.
People’s opposition was widespread across the country, especially in the big cities. At first, despite the fact that the people resisted peacefully, the junta and the Myanmar Army responded with violence causing more and more deaths and many people as a result chose to flee the country.
When becoming refugees, almost all of them have encountered stress; despair and severe trauma, they had to also experience various inequalities after leaving the country.
Many of them realized that being doctors; engineers or university lecturer with specific competency might be able to survive, but those without jobs or particular skills must struggle to survive abroad. They had to find a job, then became illegal labors.
In conclusion, after the coup, the military junta has been using legal system as a tool to cause violence through a state emergency.
Chayan suggested that the Thai government should reconsider its international policy as well as pointed out how much opportunity Thailand lost from this situation, more assistance for refugees and the humanitarian circumstances along the border must be provided.
Sanhawan Srisod, legal adviser from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), stated that the ICJ has been continuously monitoring Myanmar’s post-coup implementation of laws.
8 years ago, after the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) coup d’état, Thailand has implemented similar laws leading to many types of human rights violation like in Myanmar right now.
Sanhawan pointed out the unpredictability of the post-coup Myanmar’s legal system which is inconsistent in many aspects with the principles of international law.
Many law implementations in Myanmar are not compatible with international laws, for example, the state of emergency declaration and the use of martial law.
According to the ICJ’s adviser, format and condition of the state of emergency or martial law declaration are not consistent with international laws since an important condition must be a situation that affects the existence of the nation. But the junta’s reason in implementing these special laws was an electoral fraud or manipulated election, it was not within the scope of international laws.
One of the significant issues was when declaring the state of emergency and martial law, military officers were allowed to play an important role in exercising of absolute power. The junta, in addition, was not held liable for their actions that will lead to a culture of impunity.
As for law amendment, the State Administration Council (SAC) established after the coup to have power to declare various law amendments such as those that lead to citizens’ privacy violations; easier body-search without witness or warrant required; law that criminalizes comments causing fear; the amendment of Section 124C increasing a prison term of up to 20 years on any actions that intend to hinder the performance of the Defense Services or the change of Section 124D adding as disrupts or hinders Defense Services personnel and Government employees.
There was also an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure imposing that those prosecuted under Section 505A, 124C, 124D are not bailable and can be arrested without warrant.
Moreover, the Electronic Transactions Law was also amended allowing government officials to access personal data.
With regard to the arrest and detention of the accused, the junta has withdrawn the citizens’ right to challenge the legitimacy of the arrest and detention officials, it is a very important right in judicial process. As a result, more than ten thousand people were arrested after the coup, these people could not object whether the authorities’ arrests legitimate or not.
After the coup in Thailand, civilians could be prosecuted at the military court, this situation also happened in Myanmar. Judges in the military court were military officials, the courthouse was set up in the prison. General public could not attend the hearings or hear the verdict, this is contrary to international law as the court must be public.
There were many lawyers who would enter in the junta’s legal process, but they were threatened; arrested and imprisoned, especially those who have helped political prisoners. 46 lawyers have been imprisoned and arrested after the coup, similar cases also occurred in Thailand. The Lawyers Council of Thailand normally applied electoral system, but it was appointed by the soldiers after the coup d’état.
The living condition in the place of detention is very bad and crowded, detainees lived and were treated without human dignity which is against the international law.
Sanhawan added that a lot of child rights violations happened after the coup. The children were placed in the same detention facility as the adults, they were sexually abused and forced to sign a confession agreement when released. And the worse thing was at least 2 children were executed.
Her main requests were to have civilian government as soon as possible, to stop using military and special courts; judicial process must be righteous; culture of impunity among relevant officials must be eliminated and any future law amendments must be in accordance with the principles of international law.
“I personally think that fighting situation in the justice system was not totally hopeless, there were many lawyers working every day in the court. I also believe that normal judicial process can function. It can be seen that the accused were periodically released due to the lawyers’ attempt during the court procedures.”
Dr. Kwanchanok Kittiwanich, lecturer of the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, raised a question of why we have to talk about peaceful means when talking about conflicts, particularly regarding both pre- and post-coup refugees from Myanmar. She also posed a thought-provoking question on how limitations or challenges could be reduced using the lens of peace studies or peaceful means.
Kwanchanok said that non-violence experts have always been questioned when wars happened and the word “Peace” is also problematic when adding into various policies, they become charming and undebatable.
The word ‘peaceful means’ is a big topic in the international arena, the United Nations (UN) will attach great significance to peace process having 3 main components: peacebuilding; peacekeeping and peacemaking. Not only global organizations but civil society organizations directly involved in conflict areas also play their roles in this part in order to turn the top-down policies into the bottom-up ones for the peace process. Important organizations in Myanmar consist of many sectors to make the voices of marginalized people or minorities with diversity louder.
Human rights are principles running counter to the state’s sovereignty which influences various policy making. For this reason, the Thai state through the National Security Council or NSC therefore found that these were refugee problems and when the state had no refugee policy as well as looked at it as external matter making the policy unresponsive to the refugees and slowly proceed.
The state has never integrated humanitarian principles into its policies. When writing international and border policies, the state often considers its security and that of the people residing within Thai territory first, refugee policy consequently moves at a very slow pace.
How can we make the refugees’ voices be the most heard and presentable both in refugee reception and repatriation or sending to a third-country processes?
Border communities are dependent economically; socially and culturally on each other. But as the war has been lasting since 1962 until now with the constant increasing number of refugees, the state managed it by defining them as war refugees.
Kwanchanok noted that the refugees in recent times are not only war refugees anymore, they are also economic refugees. Moreover, those who enter both inside and outside of the camps are not the same group, each group has different language; belief; religion; origin; gender and age that the state needs to figure out how the a policy should be to better deal with it.
The Thai state should therefore not ignore both neighboring and domestic happening situations.
“Refugee problems are more profound than our present understandings, building peace must be a daily process not pushing people into the camps and destroying their future. We have to be hopeful that there will be no violence in the future and the refugees could live on.”
Thomas H. Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, explained that the UN Special Rapporteur is an independent mechanism whose decision-making does not directly depend on the UN Secretary General or even the Human Rights Council. There are however rules that must be followed, for example, criticism of the alleged member state cannot be done immediately, this relevant state must be notified in advance. Although there is freedom of criticism, it is also subject to some restrictions.
Main missions of the Special Rapporteur in the case of Myanmar are the same as other cases which are reporting information to the UN Human Rights Council; analyzing what happened in Myanmar and conducting a report as well as updating information in writing. Additional reviews can also be made on a specific issue appeared in the report.
Thomas stated that he conducted a report earlier this year about the armed allies or countries selling arms to the Myanmar Army. He subsequently made another report regarding the post-coup impacts on the people, focusing on children and youths.
What can be now mentioned and assessed is that Myanmar’s soldiers will continue to commit human rights violations and crimes against their people, the Myanmar military junta has burned more than 30,000 houses to date. The coup, moreover, resulted in the collapse of the economic; public health and educational systems. It was estimated that, by 2022, there will be more than 33,000 Myanmar children with no access to education and basic necessities.
Thomas anticipated that the international community will continue to be disappointing in the case of Myanmar due to the lack of political will. A clear comparison can be made between the case of Myanmar and the Ukraine war as only 4 days after the beginning of the Ukraine war, the international community, the UN in particular, has taken a lot of measures towards the Ukraine case. But when it comes to Myanmar, nothing has been progressed despite of over-a-year campaign of the Myanmar people.
As for the case of Myanmar, no resolution or emergency meeting has yet to happen at the UN General Assembly or even confiscation announcement; funding or account access blocking or international sanctions against the junta, there were merely national measures implemented by each country itself.
What the international community should do is to block access to factors that allow the Myanmar military’s succession of power, namely finances; weapons and legitimacy.
In relation to humanitarian aid, the Myanmar junta has previously blocked the assistance not to reach Myanmar people. It is expected that there will be many more people fleeing to the border areas in the future.
Thomas commented that Thailand and other neighboring countries should not be indifferent, they have humanitarian responsibilities to help neighbors. If the neighbors’ houses are on fire, our house will also burn. It can accordingly be said that Thailand has both moral motivation as well as personal interests in assisting its neighbors.
The way to discontinue crimes against humanity in Myanmar is when the United Nations Security Council or UNSC can issue resolutions for a targeting intervention; a ban on arms shipments to Myanmar and an international aid transfer. It is however difficult in this part as some countries of this council are expected to oppose or veto such sanctions.
Nonetheless, in the meantime, many countries have agreed that they were responsible to help Myanmar and created a co-working network which could be hard to achieve without a clear political will.
As to the present response to the case of Myanmar, the international reaction is just an immediate solution. The sanctions are inconsistent depending on each country’s measure due to a lack of political will and real coordination. When the real coordination happens, it may be necessary to start looking at what the Myanmar junta’s weakness is and collaborate from there, but there is no coordinating host at this moment.
The Special Rapporteur in the case of Myanmar analyzed and added that the first factor allowing the military junta to keep on suppressing the people is money or funding access, it is therefore extremely important to internationally block access to financial sources or accounting support of the army. The second factor is weapons and technology letting the Myanmar military government commit more crimes, faster and more severe. Diplomatic pressure is the third factor, it is very essential that many countries come together stating their standpoint as it puts pressure on and makes the voices of the affected people be responded. And the forth factor is the matter of righteousness, many countries have pursued policies which legitimize the Myanmar Army both consciously and unconsciously.
For example, the upcoming election in 2023 is the funniest story as it is not an election but a ridiculous drama. It is unable to see how it could be a changeable; free and fair election when the army continues to crack down the opposite side and to arrest journalists. It is also reported that some countries have already sent working groups to assist the Union Election Commission or UEC to organize the election happening in Myanmar next year.
“The international community still needs to play a role in providing humanitarian aid to Myanmar people both inside and outside the country”, said the UN Special Rapporteur.
Thomas added the information about the progress of various reports preparation as the Special Rapporteur that the reports will not only mention the problems, but also the ways Myanmar people helping one another.
What is sadly happening at this moment is the financial cut of CSOs working across the borders to help the displaced people and refugees from Myanmar and the UN financial aid to Myanmar is also very little. In addition, the desperate situation in Myanmar will push more people to cross the borders as well.
“The Myanmar refugee situation remains very worrisome, a group of people were in trouble and crossed the border to survive, but got arrested and pushed back. Many of those who returned were arrested; tortured and killed. And the most visible thing from any angles is the moral and legal failures happening both in Myanmar and at the international level”, he sadly concluded by mentioning the overall situation.