May 3, 2021
Posted by Taylor Landis
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”Continue Reading…
April 29, 2021
Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: “In Accordance with the Law” – How the Military Perverts Rule of Law to Oppress Civilians
Posted by Pwint Htun
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post was published on the Just Security blog on April 28, 2021.)
“When protestors refuse to listen to our orders to disperse, we shoot at the protestors in accordance with the law.”
These are the chilling words of a Tatmadaw soldier. Unfortunately, they are not isolated ones, and they show how the idea of “law” has been perverted to justify both the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the deplorable violence that has followed. The word “law” (or “upaday” in Burmese) has long been a tenuous concept in Myanmar. After decades living under a military dictatorship, in which laws were used as tools of oppression and could change at the whim of those in power, the people of Myanmar have, understandably, little trust in law. The recent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and the current junta have only further affirmed this perception. The concept of law and the related idea of the rule of law have been warped and manipulated by soldiers and police officers, many of whom believe they are enforcing the “law” to uphold order when they crack down on protests against the coup.
At a recent military tribunal, the “law” was weaponized as a tool to instill fear by issuing unappealable death penalty sentences to 19 young protestors for one soldier’s death even though there were no eye witnesses to the alleged crime. In telling contrast, since early February, nearly 800 unarmed civilians have been killed at the hands of Tatmadaw. It is difficult to imagine a version of Myanmar further away from rule of law than this one. There instead needs to be an all-out effort to strengthen the true meaning of the rule of law in Myanmar by both returning the country to civilian rule and undertaking constitutional reforms to enshrine democratic rights instead of using the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as a tool protecting military might.Continue Reading…
April 27, 2021
Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini
(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series will brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The article first appeared on Just Security on April 26, 2021).
On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – shattered the all too brief effort to transition to democracy in Myanmar. Over the past two and a half months, the Tatmadaw has continued its illegitimate effort to undermine the democratic elections from last year and prevent the elected government from taking power. In the face of mass popular opposition and international condemnation, the military has only escalated its use of violence against its own population – systematically stripping away rights and violently attacking protestors and dissidents, reportedly killing over 700 civilians as of Apr. 20, 2021, and detaining more than 3,000.
Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the people of Myanmar have stood their ground and refused to be silenced. On Apr. 16, opponents of the coup from across the political spectrum announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) to resist the military. Just as importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a grassroots movement aimed at disrupting state functions and crippling the economy in order to undermine the military’s attempt to rule, has been hugely successful in galvanizing collective action since early February. In addition to the tens of thousands of CDM participants walking out of their private and public sector positions, protests across the country have seen massive youth engagement on a scale not seen in a generation. The organizing power has been impressive. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been used to spread awareness and coordinate protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance. The military has taken notice of the CDM’s power, issuing threats against young people protesting and shooting indiscriminately at protestors of all ages, including children. Parallel movements have arisen in areas like neighboring Thailand, with Thai youth protesting their own authoritarian government in solidarity with activists from Myanmar.
Today we launch a Just Security series that will take a deep dive into the situation in Myanmar. The series will provide insights that put the coup and civilian response into historical and modern context, deepen unexplored angles on the current crises, and survey possibilities and ways forward over the next six months to a year. This series also aims to elevate policy discussions on a number of issues, ranging from peace and accountability to religion and democracy, asking: What is happening now and why?
Within the series, contributions from authors from Myanmar and others working closely on the situation will explore topics such as youth leadership in the CDM and protests, domestic and international solidarity, environmental concerns, the dissolution of rule of law in Myanmar, and what the coup means for ongoing international accountability efforts. Below, we offer an overview of the major themes of the series, along with a timeline of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. The current uprising against military rule must be understood in the context of these decades-long struggles for peace, democracy, accountability, and justice.Continue Reading…
January 29, 2021
Lockdown and Shutdown: New White Paper Exposes the Impacts of Recent Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh
The Cyberlaw Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School were proud to co-author a new 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 report 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. The co-authors joined to present a webinar to launch the report on January 19, 2021, which you can watch below or on the HRP YouTube channel.
October 7, 2020
One month ahead of Myanmar’s general elections, a new report dives deep into root causes of hate speech and its effect on civil society space in Myanmar
For Immediate Release
(Yangon, 8 October 2020) — Myanmar must tackle the root causes of hate speech and address impunity of perpetrators, while ensuring that measures to combat hate speech is in line with international human rights standards with robust and inclusive participation of civil society, said 19 organizations in a report published today. The immediate implementation of these calls is vital ahead of the November 2020 general elections, which has already seen the erosion of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities throughout Myanmar.
“Institutionalized hate speech in Myanmar has long been systematically disseminated by powerful actors including the military, government, ultranationalists and other maligned actors. They benefit from the constructed narratives of hate and from the division and conflict it creates in society. Hate speech also contributes to a climate where impunity for human rights violations goes unaddressed. Hate speech is already being deployed as part of campaign strategies leading up to the November 2020 general elections. Such campaigns must immediately be denounced and countered by the government and the Union Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election,” said Moe Thway, President of Generation Wave
The new joint report, “Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar,“ documents and extensively analyzes the role that hate speech, rampant misinformation campaigns, and ultranationalism have played in the resurgence of oppression and human rights violations in Myanmar and highlights the new alignment of the government and military in the proliferation of hate speech. In analyzing the trends and patterns of hate speech in Myanmar, the report identifies a number of mutually reinforcing constructed narratives aimed at advancing Buddhist-Burman dominance at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.Continue Reading…
August 22, 2019
As a Satter Fellow, Jenny Domino LL.M. ’18 focused on how social media policy limits one’s right to speak in the midst of democratic transition
By Elaine McArdle
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Jenny Domino LL.M. ’18 was awarded a Satter Human Rights Fellowship from the Human Rights Program for the 2018-2019 year. A lawyer from the Philippines, Domino spent her fellowship year with ARTICLE 19, a human rights organization focused on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and information. Over the last year, she has worked to strengthen ARTICLE 19’s response to hate speech in Myanmar, specifically as it incites and provokes violence against the Rohingya community.
Among other things, Domino wrote a human rights-based report analyzing the sufficiency of Facebook’s responses to criticism that it had failed to moderate hate speech in a timely manner in Myanmar. Her report has significantly informed ARTICLE 19 Asia’s engagement with Facebook regarding its content moderation policies. She also organized a regional workshop in spring 2019 on hate speech on social media, bringing together human rights defenders from the ASEAN region to discuss common themes of disinformation, attacks on the press, and weak social media policy.
Facebook’s community standards are the same throughout the world, but a problem occurs when rules are enforced without sufficiently taking into account the geopolitical contexts in which such content is shared, said Domino. Throughout her career, Domino has dedicated herself to deepening the commitment to international human rights law in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. In her home country of the Philippines, she led the Commission on Human Rights’ accountability project on the persons most responsible for the extrajudicial killings arising from President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. Her work proved useful in light of the International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination into whether these killings constitute crimes against humanity.
“When you enter a market and you don’t understand the political context of where you’re operating, that can be a problem,” she said. “The way certain speech is received or acted upon in one context—let’s say, the U.S. or the Netherlands—is different in a place like Myanmar or the Philippines. This distinction is more pronounced when the political context of a specific country involves atrocity crimes or systematic violence against civilians.”
The year has been “very meaningful for me,” said Domino, who will continue to specialize at the intersection of freedom of expression, corporate responsibility, and international human rights law, at the International Commission of Jurists, following her fellowship.
“I’ve learned a lot, not just in terms of substantive knowledge but the practical—and sometimes grim—aspects of working in the NGO scene. I am still trying to figure out through which capacity I can serve best, one where I can make the most impact as a lawyer. For now, I am content to have discovered a cause I deeply care about.”
The Satter Human Rights Fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocities. The fellowship is made possible by a generous gift from Muneer A. Satter J.D./M.B.A.’87. This profile is a preview of the 2018-2019 Human Rights Program Annual Report. This article was cross-posted to HLS Today’s website.
March 13, 2019
By Susan Farbstein
We’re thrilled to share this happy news: in honor of International Women’s Day 2019, the Clinic’s very own Yee Htun has been selected by the Harvard Women’s Law Association as a “Women Inspiring Change.” To say this honor is well deserved would be an understatement.
Since joining the Clinic in 2016, Yee has guided teams of students as they engage with some of the gravest and most pressing human rights issues facing her native Myanmar: ending violence against women and girls, decriminalizing sodomy laws and enshrining LGBTQI rights, repealing or revising laws that encroach on freedom of expression, documenting hate speech and designing strategies to promote tolerance, spearheading coordination between local and international organizations seeking accountability for atrocities, and improving land rights for the rural poor.
Yee’s personal story is also inspiring. Yee fled Myanmar as a young child in the late 1980s, following the military junta’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. After five years in a Thai refugee camp with her mother and sisters, the family emigrated to Canada as government-sponsored refugees. Yee would go on to earn a J.D. specialized in international law, to be selected by the Nobel Women’s Initiative to lead the first-ever international campaign to stop rape and sexual violence in conflict, and to serve as the inaugural director of the Myanmar Program at Justice Trust.
But Yee’s dazzling resume, strategic judgment, and legal accomplishments pale in comparison to who she is as a person. She earns your respect and admiration without an ounce of ego. Students are in awe of Yee without being intimidated by her. She’s a hug and a shot of adrenaline, all rolled into one.
My co-director, Tyler Giannini, echoes this sentiment: “There are people who just naturally connect with others and inspire them to action—Yee is one of them. She has a tremendous ability to bring people together, which is so critical in a place like Myanmar where the military has tried to divide people for so long. She leads with her energy, which is contagious. And she leads with her commitment to justice, which is unwavering.”
I have watched, again and again, as clinical teams working with Yee are transformed by the experience—discovering not just their passion for human rights but also the confidence to act, speak, and lead in ways that they might never have imagined without her support and mentorship.
So it comes as no surprise that Yee’s students nominated her for this recognition, singling out her “courage, empathy, and tenacity” as particularly inspiring. Describing a recent trip to Myanmar, the students emphasized her incomparable “optimism and relentless advocacy” as she balanced strategizing with local partners, drafting human rights reports, and leading workshops, all while mentoring and training them.
I first met Yee at a staff meeting when I returned from a semester of leave and was immediately drawn in by her confidence, sincerity, and good humor. As she discussed the work that she and her students had undertaken that term, I was overwhelmed by how much she had accomplished, and energized by her warmth and enthusiasm. I still feel that way every time we speak—impressed, inspired, and invigorated.
Yee, thank you for giving so much of yourself to your students and your work. Thank you for being not only a generous colleague, but also a friend and a true role model. Thank you for motivating us all to rise to your level.
November 27, 2018
Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law Yee Htun was profiled in the Harvard Gazette on November 19, 2018. The article explored Htun’s personal journey fleeing persecution in her birth country of Myanmar and returning there to help advance law reform efforts After years spent in the field working to end sexual violence in conflict, among other issues, she came to the the International Human Rights Clinic in 2016 where she now teaches human rights advocacy and works on projects focused on women’s rights, hate speech, and de-escalation of communal tensions in Myanmar and neighboring countries. As she states:
“We want to show that the law cannot only be a tool for oppression,” said Htun. “What drew me to law was the fact that it is a crucial tool for change and can play a key role in safeguarding democracy and enshrining rights. That’s the lesson I have learned in my personal journey and one that I hope to share with my students and the communities we serve.”
Read the full piece on the Harvad Gazette website.
June 9, 2016
Today marks the grim five-year anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State. This conflict, between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Organizations at the local and international level have also documented severe human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence and forced labor.
The International Human Rights Clinic today joins 129 other organizations in calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin State.
“Joint Statement: Five Years of War- A Call for Peace, Justice and Accountability in Kachin State”
(June 9, 2016)— Although much of the world has expressed excitement over Myanmar’s political transition, communities throughout Kachin and northern Shan states have been living with severe human rights abuses and displacement for the last five years.
Since 2011, renewed armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. In the conduct of the war, the Myanmar military has perpetrated severe human rights violations. International and community-based organizations have documented extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labor, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention, attacks on civilians and non-military targets, and pillaging of property. These abuses have been perpetrated with near-complete impunity. Some of the abuses may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.Continue Reading…
November 5, 2015
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
Tomorrow is Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) hearing in Geneva. Today, a coalition of groups issued a statement calling for accountability for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, the head of Myanmar’s UPR process:
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
November 5, 2015
We, the undersigned organizations, call for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Population, to be held accountable for his involvement in human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On November 6, 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council will review Myanmar’s human rights record during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. Regrettably, the Myanmar Government has appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for its UPR process.
Hundreds of civil society organizations in Myanmar have signed a petition expressing their concern about Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s role in the UPR process, as well as the current impunity at the national level that exists for his involvement in abuses. They have called on the international community to take concrete steps to hold him accountable.
Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has a well-documented track record of human rights violations. He led Myanmar’s Southern Command during a military offensive in Kayin State from 2005-2008. According to a report released by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, there is sufficient evidence against him to satisfy the standard required to issue an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for his command over soldiers that intentionally attacked, killed, tortured, enslaved, and forcibly transferred civilians.
In his current position as the Minister of Home Affairs, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including violations of the rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. For example, strong evidence exists that the Myanmar Police Force, which is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has repeatedly used unlawful and excessive force against peaceful protesters. In November 2012, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko was accused of authorizing riot police to use white phosphorus munitions to disperse peaceful protesters—mostly monks and villagers—at the Letpadaung Copper Mine, resulting in severe chemical burns of more than 100 people. In March 2015, the police again used excessive force in the town of Letpadan against unarmed protesters calling for reforms to the National Education Law.
The Human Rights Council has called upon the Myanmar Government to take all necessary measures to ensure accountability and end impunity for violations of human rights. This recommendation also was made during Myanmar’s previous UPR in 2011 and has been reiterated in advance questions for the forthcoming UPR this year. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recommended in both her March and October 2015 reports that the Government address impunity for human rights violations committed by security personnel.
In light of Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s track record, we call on the Myanmar Government to remove him as the head of its UPR process, and to initiate a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation into the allegations of his involvement in human rights violations and international crimes. The international community should lend support to any investigation and prosecution. If the Myanmar Government does not pursue accountability in a prompt and effective manner, the international community should initiate its own investigation into Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s responsibility for human rights violations and international crimes, and governments should pursue appropriate legal action against him if he enters their territory under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Burma Campaign UK
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Global Justice Center
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
US Campaign for Burma
World Organization Against Torture
November 5, 2015