Myanmar is a multi-ethnic nation suffering from the world’s longest ongoing civil war, now totalling over 60 years of serious violence.
The beginning of Myanmar’s conflict dates back to its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, amidst growing internal divisions which were reinforced by the British.
In the post-independence era of civilian governance, ethnic minority groups across the country advocated for recognition of their rights. The largest ethnic resistance came from the Karen National Union (KNU), who pushed for the right to an independent state, governed by the Karen people. In 1962, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – took control through a coup, initiating over a decade of martial law and what is known as the Ne Win era. The junta under General Ne Win committed severe human rights abuses, leading to a rise in ethnic rebel groups to fight back against military violence and advocate for ethnic autonomy.
Over the next forty years, a series of military coups, mass protests, and harsh crackdowns became a familiar pattern in Myanmar.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Tatmadaw continued this pattern, including escalating clashes with ethnic groups across the country, at the same time inflicting severe human rights abuses against civilians and causing mass displacement from ethnic minority regions. In 2007, a series of protests took place across the country, known as the Saffron Revolution. The Tatmadaw’s violent response to these protests drew international attention and pressure for democratic reforms. Finally, as a result of these pressures, the Tatmadaw presented a new constitution in 2008. The military government lauded this document as a beacon of democracy, though it was widely understood by others to be a tool for the military to maintain control. Elections were held in 2010 under the new constitution, with many ethnic groups living in conflict-heavy areas unable to participate.
Following the 2015 elections and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), Myanmar made progress in certain areas of democratic reforms and saw international praise for this new direction. However, much of this progress was consolidated in major cities and members of ethnic groups remained – at best – politically under- or unrepresented and – at worst – actively under attack. The civilian government, still subject to military influence in many ways, also failed to hold military perpetrators of grave crimes accountable, instead preferring a rhetoric of a united Myanmar that could move forward and leave the past behind. This impunity set the stage for future atrocities.
In 2016 and 2017, attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on a military border post led to the initiation of the Tatmadaw’s clearance operations against Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State. Those clearance operations, following the Tatmadaw’s historical “four cuts” policy, saw destruction of villages, systematic sexual violence, and indiscriminate killings. As a result, over 1,000,000 Rohingya refugees fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where most of them still remain. The pattern of impunity continued, and no meaningful domestic accountability was pursued for the hundreds of thousands of victims.
A slew of international accountability efforts was launched in 2019 in response to the clearance operations carried out against the Rohingya, including a case at the International Court of Justice and an investigation by International Criminal Court, as well as the foundation of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) to investigate international crimes in Myanmar.
The 2020 elections, while nominally democratic, saw many ethnic groups with limited access to polling places and complete disenfranchisement for Rohingya Muslims on the basis of citizenship. After a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD), a pro-democracy political party, Tatmadaw leadership publicly challenged the results of the elections, claiming widespread voter fraud.
On February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, preventing the newly elected government from taking their seats. Military leader Min Aung Hlaing declared a nationwide state of emergency and announced that the Tatmadaw would take control of the country. This state of emergency marked the beginning of a new wave of systematic crackdowns against peaceful protestors and perceived dissidents.
The months following the coup saw mass protests against the military’s takeover, with people of all ages taking to the streets to support democracy. In response, the military attacked peaceful protesters and bystanders with deadly force and arrested thousands on charges such as sedition. Torture and other inhumane treatment in military-run prisons is well-documented. In addition to reprisals against dissidents, there has been renewed targeting of ethnic groups with indiscriminate violence that many have suggested amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The international community has largely condemned the coup and military violence, including sanctioning of junta officials and calls for humanitarian aid. The IIMM has continued to investigate crimes committed after the coup and has prepared a set of case files that are ready to be used in prosecutions by competent courts. In addition, several cases related to violence against the Rohingya and the post-coup violence have been brought in domestic courts under the theory of universal jurisdiction.
 See Emily Ray & Tyler Giannini, Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Echoes of the Past, Crises of the Moment, Visions of the Future, 26 April 2021, available at https://www.justsecurity.org/75826/beyond-the-coup-in-myanmar-echoes-of-the-past-crises-of-the-moment-visions-of-the-future/.
 Radio Free Asia, Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution: 10 Years Later, available at https://www.rfa.org/english/news/special/saffron/.
 See Ray & Giannini, note 1.
 The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the Ethnic Armed Organizations https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/MM_151510_NCAAgreement.pdf.
 Stephanie Nebehay, Brutal Myanmar army operation aimed at preventing Rohingya return: U.N, 11 October 2017, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-un/brutal-myanmar-army-operation-aimed-at-preventing-rohingya-return-u-n-idUSKBN1CG10A.
 UN News, Response plan launched to support 1.4 million Rohingya and Bangladeshis, 29 March 2022, available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1115012.
 See, e.g., Fortify Rights, Nowhere is Safe – The Myanmar Junta’s Crimes Against Humanity Following the Coup d’Etat, March 2022, available at https://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Nowhere%20is%20Safe%20-%20Fortify%20Rights%20Report.pdf.
 See Andrew Nachemson & Emily Fishbein, The Guardian, Myanmar’s coup: a year under military rule in numbers, 1 February 2022, available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/feb/01/myanmar-coup-a-year-under-military-rule-in-numbers.
 Victoria Milko & Kristen Gelineau, Associated Press, Myanmar military uses systematic torture across country, 28 October 2021, available at https://apnews.com/article/myanmar-torture-military-prisons-insein-abuse-390fe5b49337be82ce91639e93e0192f.
 See, e.g., Amnesty International, Myanmar: “Bullets rained from the sky”: War crimes and displacement in eastern Myanmar, 31 May 2022, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa16/5629/2022/en/.
 UN News, Myanmar: ‘Appalling’ violations demand ‘unified and resolute international response’, 15 March 2022, available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113972.