Scorched Earth And The Long Road to Justice for Myanmar | Opinion

Freed U.S. journalist Danny Fenster's six-month prison-stay and 11-year sentence are a reminder that Myanmar's justice system is incapable of holding fair proceedings. It exists only to serve the military. That is why, for years, I've been calling for Myanmar's military leaders to be brought to justice in international courts.

As I write, these men have unleashed a crude but deliberate strategy of slaughter and arson across the country. Terrorized communities are woken by machine-gun fire and air strikes. Soldiers raid selected villages. People are interrogated, beaten, tortured and killed. Sexual violence is rampant. Houses are searched, looted and burned. Survivors flee smoldering homes for the jungle.

The Myanmar military is notorious for these scorched-earth campaigns. Its genocidal attacks on the Rohingya in 2017, which forced three-quarters of a million people to flee their homes in a matter of weeks, followed this exact blueprint. But the same description applies to the military's attacks on the Kachin in northeast Myanmar, on the Karen in the southeast in the 2000s and on the Shan in the 1990s. The list goes on, and until those responsible are held to account, it will only continue to grow.

The objective of a scorched-earth campaign is to terrorize, punish and destroy any community thought to have links to groups opposing the military. The current target is the nationwide democratic movement resisting military rule following the attempted coup in February.

A massive scorched-earth campaign is already underway in northwest Myanmar. Reports of massacres and images of smoke billowing from people's houses are shocking social media—just as they did when the Rohingya were attacked four years ago. Alarming levels of troop deployments indicate that the full scale of this new operation could be unprecedented.

The military's widespread and systematic attacks on civilian populations are crimes against humanity, war crimes and even genocide. They continue to escalate because no one is intervening.

Myanmar town attacked by military
This aerial photo taken on October 29, 2021 show smokes and fires from Thantlang, in Chin State, where more than 160 buildings have been destroyed caused by shelling from Junta military troops, according to local media. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on Myanmar last week. If the council were able to properly dispatch its mandate it would have passed a resolution imposing a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar, enacted economic sanctions and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is what my colleagues on the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar and I call the "thee cuts": cut the weapons, cut the cash, cut the impunity.

Predictably, however, the council was unable to achieve anything close. In the end, even a mention of the military's current operations in northwest Myanmar was blocked from the final press statement.

It is critical that this failure doesn't deter states that pushed for more from taking their own action. They may be hamstrung in the Security Council, but there are other ways to implement the three cuts.

By working together, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and others can cut off the military junta's access to the billions in foreign currency reserves that it needs to purchase the weapons it uses against the people of Myanmar. They can also call on the lead prosecutor of the ICC to expand his investigation into Myanmar—which is currently extremely limited—so that it covers the entire country.

In April, elected parliamentarians formed a National Unity Government to lead Myanmar through the crisis caused by the military's violent attempt to seize power. It lodged a declaration with the ICC three months later, accepting the court's jurisdiction in Myanmar dating back to 2002, when the court was established.

For the first time, the lead prosecutor of the ICC can investigate the Myanmar military's persistent atrocity crimes against people throughout Myanmar. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 on my recommendation, already has two million pieces of evidence to help him do it. This is the best chance for justice that Myanmar has ever had.

It is unacceptable that on our watch, the criminal bandits who lead the Myanmar military are free to inflict so much suffering for the sole purpose of protecting their power and wealth. We cannot keep letting the people of Myanmar down. Stronger action is needed, and it needs to happen now.

Yanghee Lee, founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar and former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.