Plagued by decades of military rule, suppression of political dissent, and one of the world’s longest running conflicts, Myanmar (also known as Burma) was long viewed as a pariah by the international community. In the wake of the 2010 general elections, the human rights situation has become more complex. Fighting has diminished and the political arena has opened up in significant ways. Violent abuses continue in conflict zones, however, and uncertainty remains on many fronts about the future. Major rights questions persist about whether, for example, the rule of law will take hold and what will be done about past abuses.
Since 2004, the International Human Rights Clinic has engaged with human rights issues in Myanmar, ranging from high-level policy advocacy (both public and private) to major documentation efforts and humanitarian interventions. We have documented the use of forced labor; developed human rights training manuals; studied issues related to environmental rights; investigated abuses associated with natural resource extraction; supported refugees and resettlement; and examined whether international crimes have taken place in the country. Some highlights of our work include:
In 2005 and 2006, the Clinic along with the HLS Immigration and Refugee Clinic undertook the first in-depth study of the broad definition of “terrorism” under U.S. immigration law and its effects on refugees fleeing Myanmar. The study found that as many as 80 percent of such refugees could be labeled “terrorists” despite their legitimate claims to refugee status. Working in conjunction with advocacy partners, the Clinic sought solutions for these refugee populations, and the U.S. government instituted the first waivers of their kind for these groups to allow them to resettle to the United States. The Clinic also filed an amicus brief on behalf of an affected asylum seeker from Myanmar dealing with similar issues.
For several years, the Clinic advocated to prevent abuses anticipated in light of the Shwe gas pipeline development project. Building on its expertise from a similar project- the Yadana pipeline, built by Total and Unocal- the Clinic and partners filed one of the first complaints of its kind with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2008. The Commission did not accept the complaint for procedural reasons, and the Shwe gas pipeline continues to receive scrutiny from rights groups at present.
The Clinic began investigating war crimes in Myanmar in 2008, and a year later released a major report, Crimes in Burma, which showed that there was a prima facie case of international criminal law violations occurring in the country and recommended UN Security Council act to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate these grave breaches further. By 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur and more than a dozen other countries supported calls for such a Commission if the government did not take action to investigate and prosecute abuses in the country.
Since the release of Crimes in Burma, the Clinic has continued to document human rights violations in the country and has significant ongoing efforts related to military policy reform, transitional justice, and sustainable energy use by communities.
In November 2014, the Clinic released findings from a four-year-long investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Eastern Myanmar. The Clinic’s legal memorandum implicates senior Myanmar officials, including the current Home Affairs Minister, in war crimes and crimes against humanity. In October 2015, the Clinic and Fortify Rights released a report concluding that Myanmar police officers used excessive force during a crackdown on protesters, in which they arrested more than 100 individuals in Letpadan, Bago Region in March. The report calls on authorities to release individuals wrongfully detained for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
More recently, the Clinic has widened its focus to include women’s leadership and gender rights in Myanmar.
In 2016, the Clinic sponsored a three-day workshop in Yangon for women human rights advocates, entitled “Write to Change the World.” The Clinic has also served as legal counsel to a coalition of women’s rights organizations, producing memos on the international and regional best practices of protecting women’s rights and prevention of violence against women. Additionally, it has helped LGBTQI organizations and lawyers in their efforts to repeal Myanmar’s sodomy laws, holding workshops in Yangon in January 2017 with activists, lawyers and survivors helping them establish protocols for cases involving LGBTQI defendants.
In May 2017, the Clinic worked with journalists, artists, and lawyers on freedom of expression, which has been threatened by section 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications law, a statute routinely used to suppress political activities. The Clinic ran a workshop on digital security, and drafted a legal memo offering constitutional arguments to be raised in criminal defamation trials and model language that can be used to repeal or revise the law.
More recently, the Clinic has been working with partner organizations on law reform in Myanmar, especially on hate speech and a draft law on women’s rights. Staff have also partnered with organizations on advocacy related to the Rohingya crisis, including helping provide guidance to ethnic minorities inside and outside Myanmar who want to engage with international accountability mechanisms. During the COVID-19 crisis, the Clinic signed onto a letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh urging the country to uphold refugee rights and lift an internet ban in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, as well as joined with other NGOs in a letter the Prime Minister of Malaysia promoting a recognition and asking for action on hate speech against Rohingya populations seeking refuge in Malaysia.
The Clinic has also hosted a range of events related to human rights in Myanmar on the Harvard Law School campus. One panel, “Ties To The Top: The Role of Government Officials in Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar,” featured advocates U Teikkha Nyana, a Buddhist monk seriously injured by white phosphorus during a peaceful protest, and who is now suing the local police chief, as well as the Home Affairs Minister; U Aung Thane, a Supreme Court advocate who is helping him; Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights; and Roger Normand, of Justice Trust. Another series focused on Myanmar’s democratic transition, featuring separate talks by U.S. State Department Woman of Courage award winner May Sabe Phyu and Matt Bugher, JD ’09. In 2018-2019, in response to the Rohingya crisis and other human rights concerns in Myanmar, the Clinic screened “Sittwe,” a documentary about conflict-affected teens in Rakhine State, and hosted two Facebook live conversations. One of the conversations involved former UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Dr. Yanghee Lee.
In 2020-2021, the Clinic released two major reports. The first, “Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar,“ sought to analyze the role that hate speech, rampant misinformation campaigns, and ultranationalism have played in the resurgence of oppression and human rights violations in Myanmar. In January 2021, the Clinic worked with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School to release a white paper, Lockdown and Shutdown: Exposing the Impacts of Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in collaboration with Athan, the Kintha Peace and Development Initiative, and Rohingya Youth Association. The paper exposes the impacts of internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the voices of ethnic minority internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who describe the shutdowns’ impacts in their own words.
After the February 1, 2021 coup, the Clinic began a joint series with Just Security that explores the current political crisis, its effects in different regional areas, how it’s impacting education, and how international organizations such as ASEAN should respond, among other topics. The series features both international and local experts.