The Myanmar military has been carrying out indiscriminate attacks on its civilian populations and obstructing access to necessities critical to their survival since it seized power nearly a year ago on February 1, 2021, Amnesty International said today.
Amnesty International interviewed four displaced civilians and six local aid workers and volunteer humanitarian responders. Their powerful accounts highlight the military’s systematic attempts to starve people and prevent them from accessing health care as it seeks to crush armed resistance to the coup.
For more than six decades, the military has applied a “four cuts” strategy in the country’s border areas, cutting off essential resources to destroy the support base of ethnic armed organizations fighting for self-determination. Now, it has expanded these tactics to areas where new People’s Defense Forces have emerged, as it continues to violently crack down on all forms of resistance to the coup. The military’s use of the four cuts strategy has had devastating consequences for the civilian population.
As part of its war against armed resistance, the military has not only launched indiscriminate airstrikes and burned hundreds of homes, but it has also cut off vital items and services for civilian populations across diverse ethnicities and geographic areas.
The United Nations has identified 284,700 people internally displaced due to armed clashes and insecurity since the coup and at least two million people newly in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, while projecting that humanitarian needs will further escalate in 2022.
On December 9, the UN described “severely limited” humanitarian access with challenges including road blockages and increased scrutiny of humanitarian supplies and personnel.
“Since the military seized power, the people of Myanmar have faced extreme hardships. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their own homes. Many are suffering from hunger and facing the frightening reality of having to survive without health or medical care even as the pandemic continues,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research.
Barely surviving in the forest
Katherine* was entering the second trimester of her pregnancy when fighting between military forces and combined forces of civilian resistance groups and ethnic armed organizations erupted across Kayah State in May. The military responded to the new opposition front by conducting airstrikes, firing heavy artillery and shooting indiscriminately, causing 100,000 people to flee their homes as of June 8, according to United Nations estimates.
On June 9, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews warned of “mass deaths from starvation, disease and exposure” across the state as the military cut off displaced people’s access to food, water and medicine, including by blocking aid deliveries.
When the fighting reached Katherine’s village in Demoso township, she and her husband fled into the forest with their two children. The family relocated several times for their safety and endured the rainy season sleeping under a sheet of tarpaulin. According to her husband, although they received some food from humanitarian aid groups and other villagers, it was insufficient.
Around seven months into Katherine’s pregnancy, she began vomiting and suffering from dizzy spells, fatigue and shortness of breath. On one occasion, she went into seizures. By eight months, her limbs had swelled, and she had lost the ability to walk. She went into labor in October. Even though a midwife was present, neither Katherine nor her baby survived.
“She could not access nutritious food or warm shelter. My wife faced difficulties during her pregnancy, and she became weak and unable to deliver the baby,” said her husband.
Kayah State’s Hpruso township has also seen mass displacement since May, but Francis* could not immediately flee with his family because he is paralyzed from the waist down. His wife and mother-in-law ran into the forest with their four children, and he joined them the next day, when people from his village came back for him and carried him.
The family returned home after a week and a half, but soon had to flee again because fighting resumed. In total, they spent about a month in the forest. “When we first ran, we just slept where we could, with no blanket or shelter. After one or two days, when things quieted down a bit, we brought some bedsheets and blankets [from home]. We stayed under a tarpaulin the whole time,” said Francis.
His family and others who had to flee their village not only had to survive with whatever food and water they could find. They also could not access medicine or medical supplies. Francis’ wife usually uses rubber gloves and catheters to assist his bowel movements and urination, but they ran out while in the forest.
In June, a charity group offered him more stable shelter, where he now stays with his wife and two youngest children. Although the shelter offers better facilities and access to resources than the forest, Francis said food is still limited. He also fears that the place where he is staying could come under attack.
Francis’ two older children are staying in their grandmother and aunt’s home, and they are still fleeing in and out of the forest as the fighting between the security forces and armed resistance groups continues. He wants to reunite with his children, but he worries it would create difficulties for those who are helping him. “If I choose to go back to the village and then I must flee again, I will be a burden to others. I cannot cope with that anymore, so I decided to stay here until things get better,” he said.
Carrying loved ones on their backs
In Sagaing and Magway Regions and Chin State, in Myanmar’s northwest, fighting between the military and civilian resistance groups as well as ethnic armed organizations has displaced more than 93,000 people according to the United Nations, as the military attacks residential areas with airstrikes, arson and indiscriminate gunfire.
Tial Lian,* age 30, fled into the forest from her village in Chin State’s Mindat township with her husband, two children, her father and grandmother when clashes escalated in May.
Because her father, age 77, and grandmother, whose age she estimates to be more than a hundred, are unable to walk well, Tial Lian and her husband carried them on their backs when their family fled. The family has since been going in and out of the forest, where Tial Lian and her husband have been constructing a small shelter out of tarpaulin. There would be times when, worried that their baby’s cries could alert soldiers to their location, the couple would run deeper into the forest with their children, leaving the two elderly people behind in the shelter for several days.
Sometimes, rats gnaw holes in the tarpaulin, which offers little protection from the elements. “When it rains, our tarpaulin cannot bear the weight of the water. We get soaked, and our blankets too,” said Tial Lian. They also sometimes go for days without eating because they do not dare to make a fire when soldiers are nearby.
Even when they can travel back to their village, accessing food and medicine is difficult. “The roads to buy rice are blocked, and no one sells rice in the village either,” said Tial Lian.
“Because the road is blocked by soldiers, we have to pay 1500 kyats (approximately US$1) for supplies that would [usually] be only 1000 kyats,” she added. In addition to being short on rice, she said sometimes the family cannot access cooking oil, salt, or fish paste.
According to UN estimates, renewed fighting since March between the Kachin Independence Organization and the military in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State has displaced more than 15,000 people across the state.
Hkaw Reng* has not been back to her village in Injangyang township since fighting intensified in March. She left her village and walked with her one-year-old son for two days before setting up camp. They have since received limited humanitarian assistance. “Roads are blocked and the place where I am staying is remote, so it is hard to access food and medicine,” she said.
Around April, Hkaw Reng found out she was pregnant, but she has not yet received any prenatal care. She worries about how she will deliver the baby, as traveling to a medical facility could take hours and she would need to pass through military checkpoints on the way.
Cutting off supplies
Six local humanitarian responders described ways the military has severely limited aid responses, including by arresting aid workers and by confiscating or destroying food, medicine and relief supplies or restricting their transport.
“The military is denying life-saving aid to people. They are strangling their lifelines such as food and medical supply routes and threatening medical workers who only want to save lives,” said Emerlynne Gil.
In November, the United Nations described a “fragile” security context in southeastern Myanmar and “heavily restricted” humanitarian access.
In southern Shan State’s Moebye township, where fighting broke out in late May, a humanitarian response team made up of local youth tried to send relief supplies to displaced people hiding in the mountains on the morning of June 8, according to one of the team’s members. The person, who is not being identified for fears of reprisals, said he and other members of the response team loaded a van with sacks of rice at a school which was being used as a storehouse. But when the van embarked, soldiers opened fire towards it. The van never reached its destination.
“We had to flee quickly and were not able to move the supplies,” he said.
That night, he watched from a distance as soldiers emptied the storehouse of its contents and burned them. More than 80 bags of rice, as well as other food items, medical supplies, and drums of gasoline were destroyed. The soldiers also destroyed a marked ambulance and another vehicle. “They burned everything except the portable toilets,” said the humanitarian responder.
Military forces also aimed and fired their guns into the mountains, he said, causing people who had already been displaced from their homes to relocate again. Although they did not have enough food, they feared coming out of hiding to find more.
This response team member also relayed that in early October, a driver transporting food supplies designated for IDPs in Moebye was arrested between the towns of Nyaung Shwe and Pekon. “[Soldiers] confiscated all the dry food supplies and the truck and arrested the driver and his assistant.”
The military also blocked the transport of medical supplies into Moebye since early October, according to him, and his team has been unable to receive donated relief items from Yangon. “The situation is not safe, so we don’t dare to go and collect donations and no drivers dare to transport them either.”
His team does not travel to the market in nearby Loikaw to purchase items themselves anymore and has delayed distributing some items because of the risks. They also face difficulties transferring funds to purchase items because few money transfer agents dare to help them, fearing they too could be targeted.
This volunteer response team, which also partners with healthcare professionals to provide mobile clinics and emergency response services, sometimes had to delay or suspend these services due to fear of arrest.
A civil society worker in neighboring Pekon township, where there have also been clashes and displacement since late May, told Amnesty International that the military started blocking roads there in June. “At first, we used other routes, but those were blocked too. Now, we are transporting [relief items] little by little but in some areas, we could not transport anything,” she said.
The military also regularly inspects the contents of vehicles at random checkpoints. “Lately, they have completely restricted transporting any medication. When people order medical supplies, [security forces] open the packages on the road and confiscate them,” she said.
Another civil society worker described similar challenges when attempting to distribute aid in Kayah State’s Loikaw, Demoso and Hpruso townships. “Soldiers stop and check a lot when we send food and tarpaulins for shelters and sometimes, we aren’t allowed to pass through. When we transport supplies, we cannot do it openly,” she said.
Her organization has removed the white flags it initially displayed on its vehicles to signal relief work. Furthermore, in order to avoid attention from the military, her organization now purchases aid in small quantities.
Fear of being attacked or caught in the crossfire has also delayed or stopped her team from reaching certain areas in Demoso township. “We have to look for a safe road which [the military] does not know about,” she said. “We stop in one place and keep the stuff, and when the road is clear, we resume the trip.”
Humanitarian responders in northwestern Myanmar are facing similar impediments, and the United Nations reported shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies on December 9.
A volunteer with an emergency response team in Mindat, Chin State said that his group has been unable to send food or medical aid to many parts of the township due to blocked roads, and that the team delivers relief items in small quantities by motorcycle or on foot to reduce their visibility after one of its members was arrested while returning from delivering aid to displaced people.
In Sagaing region’s Kalay township, a civil society worker said that the military has “blocked all the main roads” and that security forces “check everything” in vehicles travelling in the area.
“They prohibit all items that can help [IDPs], and arrest people. There are times that we do not dare to help, and just wait,” she said. Her organization refrains from sending medicine altogether because they heard that the military confiscates all medicine at the entrance into the town.
The risks of transporting goods have also made it hard to find a driver in areas with ongoing fighting in Chin and Sagaing region where her organization operates, she said. “There were times when we had to negotiate and beg [drivers] to deliver food,” she said.
A volunteer doctor in Sagaing region’s Yinmarbin township said that his team is unable to freely transport medicine or medical equipment. “Sometimes, [our suppliers] send it to us but we don’t receive it,” he said. He is part of a network providing mobile healthcare to conflict-affected communities and injured People’s Defense Force members, as well as food aid to displaced people in Sagaing region.
The military has shut down the internet in 24 townships in central and northwestern Myanmar, including Yinmarbin, since September. The volunteer doctor said that he and his teammates consequently face a delay in accessing information about the ground situation, which had severely hampered their medical response, especially in areas where the military has at times blocked phone networks.
He and his teammates also face security risks. He told Amnesty International that in July, a temporary medical facility was hit by military shelling and gunfire, causing the volunteers and patients to flee. At least three volunteers from his network were also arrested, he said.
These accounts are emblematic of what is happening across the country and demonstrate how the Myanmar military is systematically depriving civilians of desperately needed supplies and medicine.
“We will see more lives lost if the military continues this brutal campaign against its own people. The military must allow full access for humanitarian workers in affected regions,” said Emerlynne Gil.
Note: *Names have been changed to protect their security.
Contact: [email protected]