Human Rights Clinic: ‘Myanmar Military Must Reform Policies’

In a memorandum released on March, 24, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic stated that the Myanmar military must reform policies and practices that threaten civilian populations in the country.

Policy Memorandum: Preventing Indiscriminate Attacks and Wilful Killings of Civilians by the Myanmar Military describes a pattern of attacks that has unfolded over several decades. The memorandum identifies the policies and practices that give rise to such attacks and proposes a practical program of reform.

“The Myanmar military needs to publicly renounce and reverse the longstanding policies that have resulted in attacks on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law,” said Matthew Bugher, Clinical Advocacy Fellow at the Clinic. “Until problematic military policies and practices are fundamentally reformed, civilians will remain at risk wherever and whenever military force is deployed.”

The memorandum draws from the findings of an ongoing investigation by the Clinic into the conduct of Myanmar Army units during a 2005–2008 counterinsurgency offensive in eastern Myanmar. During eleven field missions to the region, the Clinic compiled more than 1,000 pages of witness statements from survivors of military attacks and former soldiers, among others.

The Clinic documented numerous “shoot-on-sight” incidents in which soldiers opened fire on civilians, including women, children, and elderly persons. Myanmar Army soldiers often shot at villagers as they fled their homes with family members. Witnesses also described executions, the deliberate placement of landmines in civilian locations, and the indiscriminate shelling of villages and agricultural fields.

In many parts of Myanmar, attacks on civilians have decreased dramatically with the signing of ceasefire agreements between ethnic armed groups and the central government. However, progress has been inconsistent, and reports of continuing abuses raise serious concerns. Notably, since the failure of a seventeen-year-old ceasefire agreement between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), there have been persistent allegations of attacks on civilians by the Myanmar military in Kachin State and northern Shan State. These reports suggest that recent improvements in civilian security are the result of a decrease in armed conflict, rather than the reform of military policies and practices at a national level.

“The reports of attacks on civilians in Kachin State are disturbingly similar to those documented during previous military offensives,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “The military must prioritize civilian protection if it is to meet its stated commitment to become a modern, professional army.”

The Clinic is particularly concerned by the orders given to soldiers in military-defined “black areas.” In these regions, soldiers are often instructed that all individuals are “the enemy” and are therefore legitimate targets of attack. This practice is a per se violation of the principle of distinction, a key tenet of international humanitarian law that requires combatants to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

The Clinic calls on the military to immediately renounce all counterinsurgency policies and practices that lead to the targeting of civilians. However, this action alone will be insufficient. Protecting civilians in Myanmar will require a concerted effort to overturn entrenched norms and longstanding military practices. The Clinic’s memorandum identifies the institutional causes of civilian targeting at all levels of military authority. For example, it considers the policies formulated by senior generals, the orders given by field commanders, and the challenges facing foot soldiers on the front lines. The memorandum outlines a program of reform that aims to influence the institutional culture of the military and the decision-making processes of individual soldiers throughout the military hierarchy.

“The Myanmar military should act immediately to end unlawful attacks in black areas and conflict zones,” said Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Such failures to address the underlying institutional causes of civilian targeting will endanger communities, threaten the peace process, and undermine reform efforts.”