Survivors testify at U.S. congressional hearing on atrocities in Myanmar

(Washington, D.C., September 13, 2023)—Members of the United States Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration should take consequential action to ensure accountability for those responsible for ongoing atrocities in Myanmar and deny the military junta access to weapons, revenue, and political recognition, Fortify Rights said today in a written statement submitted for the U.S. Congressional Record. The 14-page statement was submitted as part of a hearing today before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (the Lantos Commission), examining the human rights situation in Myanmar since the February 2021 military coup d’état. 

“The United States, one of the world’s most powerful and influential countries, could do much more to hold perpetrators in Myanmar accountable on the international stage,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights, in a written statement submitted for the record. “Impunity for horrific crimes has prevailed in Myanmar for decades due to international inaction and indifference, and the U.S. is in a position to help change that.”

The Lantos Commission is a bipartisan commission in the U.S. Congress that promotes, defends, and advocates internationally recognized human rights norms in a nonpartisan manner, both within and outside of Congress.

Those testifying at the hearing today include Lucky Karim, a Rohingya human rights defender and genocide survivor from Myanmar, and Dr. Aye Chan Mon, a medical doctor from Myanmar who survived the 2021 coup and subsequent deadly crackdown. Others testifying include Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. State Department; the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews; and three other senior officials from the U.S. State Department.

Fortify Rights testified before the Commission in 2017 and 2018, making this its third contribution to the record. In its written submission published today, Fortify Rights calls on the U.S. Government to increase support for ongoing efforts worldwide to investigate, name, and prosecute the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military junta. The statement details Fortify Rights’s documentation of crimes against humanitywar crimes, and genocide by the Myanmar junta and others in Myanmar, including a summary of more recent unpublished findings from Chin State.

After years of negotiations, the U.S. Congress passed the BURMA Act of 2022, authorizing and encouraging the Executive Branch to provide technical assistance to ongoing investigations, prosecutions, and other accountability mechanisms to hold Myanmar military officials accountable for their gross human rights violations. Such accountability efforts are being continued by the U.N. International Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice. National courts in Argentina and Germany have also received criminal complaints under universal jurisdiction regarding the Rohingya genocide and post-coup mass atrocity crimes. Fortify Rights called on the Commission to encourage all members of the U.S. Government to ensure U.S. resources contribute to these ongoing efforts and the work of Myanmar human rights defenders.

Fortify Rights’s written testimony stressed that “ignoring impunity has a cost” and that it “travels like a virus, seeking hosts, seeking to expand, and perpetuating cycles of violence and human rights abuses.” The submission noted that “to allow impunity to reign in Myanmar would be a moral and strategic failure that the United States, the people of Myanmar, and innocent civilians around the world cannot afford.”

The written submission emphasized that since the 2021 coup, the Myanmar military “engaged in a horrific pattern of violence, including the killing, rape, and torture of civilians from various ethnic backgrounds, forcibly displacing millions, imprisoning democratically elected leaders, and suppressing fundamental civil rights.” It related how Fortify Rights has documented acts of violence since the coup that amount to a “widespread and systematic nationwide attack against the civilian population” by the Myanmar military junta.

The submission details how active-duty Myanmar military officers told Fortify Rights that “army snipers are ordered ‘to shoot at the leader of the protesters’ because ‘[w]hen the leaders are shot, the protesters will be fearful.’” It also describes official Myanmar governmental documents obtained by Fortify Rights that corroborate and support these claims.  

Matthew Smith testified regarding his travel in 2022 to Chin State, Myanmar, where the military junta was razing villages and attacking civilians. During the investigation, Fortify Rights collected reliable evidence of mass killings, a beheading, beatings, and grotesque, prolonged torture committed by the Myanmar junta against ethnic-Chin civilians.

The Fortify Rights submission also addressed the continuing refugee crises in neighboring countries created by the Myanmar junta, including evidence of severe restrictions on refugees’ rights to movement, livelihood, security, and food.

Since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in the country has only grown more dire for the Rohingya as well as other ethnic minorities,” said Rohingya human rights defender Lucky Karim in her prepared testimony for the Commission. “Dictatorship is a notorious problem in many countries. Dictators take away the freedom of the people in the name of their own power. They attack people’s hopes and dreams.”

Lucky Karim’s written testimony detailed the untold suffering that she and more than a million other Rohingya people have endured at the hands of the Myanmar military junta. She described how she and her family “had to live in the Bangladesh refugee camps for more than six years,” where “conditions steadily worsened.” She testified that non-state actors have killed and abducted Rohingya refugees in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Worse, she said, is that “donor funding for humanitarian response is decreasing” and that “recent food ration cuts by the World Food Program are having devastating consequences.”

“The humanitarian response needs sustained funding to ensure life-saving assistance, including food, health, education, and safety in the Cox’s Bazar [Bangladesh] camps,” said Lucky Karim. “Looking toward long-term solutions, any dialogue and actions taken about our issues should not be led only by China. We want more participation from the U.S., the United Nations, Bangladesh, and influential countries who care about human rights. Most of all, like any people, we Rohingya need a voice and a role in making decisions about our own future.”

The submission from Fortify Rights also details how the Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, Myanmar, continue to face genocide, including through administrative means designed to erase their ethnic identity and brand them as foreigners.

The findings presented at the hearing are consistent with the findings of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, and other U.N. reports and statements on the situation in Myanmar. On July 6, 2023, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk addressed the 53rd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying he believes Myanmar is in a “deadly freefall into even deeper violence and heartbreak” and that “it is almost impossible to imagine that the people of Myanmar can endure more suffering.”

Fortify Rights’s recommendations to the Commission include that the United States denounce direct and indirect foreign support for the Myanmar military junta and for the Biden Administration to devise adequate and meaningful penalties for such support. Fortify Rights also called on the United States to sanction the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise “with special attention to blocking the junta’s access to revenues and financial services” and to target “individuals and entities involved in the import and export of arms, aviation parts, and aviation fuel to Myanmar.”

Russia and China are among the Myanmar military junta’s top providers of weapons to the junta. Natural gas sales from Myanmar to neighboring Thailand, facilitated via the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, account for the junta’s single largest source of annual revenue.

Since the Myanmar military launched the coup in 2021, Fortify Rights and its partners have published extensive evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Myanmar military. Fortify Rights has also extensively documented the Rohingya genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by a transnational criminal syndicate responsible for mass-scale human trafficking from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia.

Most recently, in January 2023, 16 survivors from Myanmar and Fortify Rights provided new evidence of atrocity crimes committed by senior Myanmar military generals and others against women, men, and children in Myanmar to the Federal Public Prosecutor General of Germany through a criminal complaint filed under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

“In the absence of more effective U.S. engagement to end and remedy these atrocity crimes, authoritarian regimes are filling the gap in developing foreign relations with the Myanmar junta and its neighbors,” said Matthew Smith in his testimony. “These countries can affect dramatic change within South and Southeast Asia, and we believe the U.S. should redouble all efforts to engage Myanmar’s neighbors on these issues and incentivize them to change course.”

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