By Lisa Schmidt
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) explores the topic of enforced disappearances in a series of blog posts to draw much-needed attention to this forgotten crime. The blog series will put the underreported crime of enforced disappearances in context worldwide, and specifically focus on how authoritarian regimes use enforced disappearances to further their agendas. This post will explore the atrocities committed by the Burmese military junta, through journalist Nathan Maung’s story.
Burma is a country ruled by an authoritarian regime. It has suffered decades of civil war, poor governance, widespread poverty, and repressive military rule since its independence from Britain in 1948. However, starting in 2011, there was hope for Burma to transition to democracy. In 2015, political and economic reforms were undertaken and a democratically-elected government came into power through what was considered a credible election in that it reflected the “will of the people.” Unfortunately, Burma’s attempt to transition to a democracy that respects human rights failed.
On February 1, 2021, in the dead of the night, the streets of Burma erupted violently as the junta seized power and ousted the elected government. Reports of junta activity were initially shared among the people of Burma and on social media. Then, everything went dark. The junta cut off electricity, internet, and phone services for hours — and this was only a taste of what was to come. Since then, under the pretext of a state of emergency, the junta has sporadically shut down internet and communication services. They rounded up and arbitrarily arrested members of parliament, activists, and critics. Many of them still remain in undisclosed locations today.
Months of political unrest followed. Mass pro-democracy protests were organized throughout the country. From people banging pots and pans and honking car horns in protest against the coup, to mass civil disobedience, the people of Burma spoke up against the coup. This prompted the Burmese junta to crack down on the protests with excessive violence, arresting over 15,000 people and killing over 2,000. The junta also responded with unthinkable abuses against the civilian population, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as torture, rape, and other sexual abuse. They used excessive and lethal force, including live ammunition and grenades. Most notably, the crime of enforced disappearance became commonplace following the coup; it is estimated that over 7,000 individuals have been forcibly disappeared by the Burmese junta.
HRF spoke with journalist Nathan Maung, one of the thousands of individuals who were forcibly disappeared by the Burmese junta. Nathan was born in Burma but fled at a young age after being involved in student activism in the late 1990s. He first escaped to Thailand before seeking refuge in the United States. Watching his country from afar, ten years later, he decided to return to Burma and found Kamayut Media, an online publication that reports on politics and human rights abuses in Burma.
A month after the March 2021 coup, more than 40 Burmese soldiers raided the Kamayut Media office and arrested Nathan without a warrant. The attack was in retaliation for the newspaper’s exclusive interview with a leading Burmese democracy activist and dissident, Min Ko Naing. Moreover, Nathan had previously trained more than 400 young students in video and human rights journalism. His work drew a lot of attention and thus placed him and Kamayut Media as top targets of the junta.
For two weeks, no one knew where Nathan was held, himself included. He was moved every two to three days to ensure he did not recognize his location. He was also left incommunicado, unable to communicate with anyone. During the first three days, while being detained at the Yay-Kyi-Ai junta interrogation center in Mingalardon Township, Nathan was refused food and water, blindfolded and handcuffed, and forced to stand at all times. Like clockwork, he was tortured in a six by eight-foot room every two hours. He was hit on the jawbone, shoulder, and eardrums. “I realized that I could be dead at any time, any point, any second,” said Nathan.
After two weeks, Nathan was transferred to Burma’s most notorious prison near Yangon, Insein, known for its inhumane conditions, use of torture, and detention of political prisoners. He was placed in solitary confinement for three weeks in a single cell with no contact with others. After 30 days of detention, Nathan was finally provided access to a lawyer and allowed communication with his family. However, Nathan chose not to speak to his family or let them see him. When speaking to HRF, Nathan said, “I didn’t want my family to see me in that state.” Moreover, he told the junta he had no family in Burma, and that they were all dead. He sacrificed being in contact with his loved ones to ensure their safety. Nathan shared that “there was only one thought I was thinking of. I need to survive.”
Nathan was released on June 14, 2021, 99 days after his initial arbitrary arrest. His bi-weekly phone calls with the United States Embassy and his US citizenship led to his release. Nathan was forced to leave Burma, leaving behind his family, friends, and loved ones in Burma, unable to return. He could not say goodbye to his colleagues and friends, many of whom remain in prison today. Nor could he say goodbye to his mother before she passed away. The Burmese junta did everything in their power to ensure that Nathan was left impaired, hopeless, disillusioned, and powerless. Nonetheless, Nathan has not given up and continues his efforts for Burma as a US-based journalist.
Nathan Maung’s story represents the reality of the situation in Burma. Enforced disappearances are not a new phenomenon in Burma’s troubled history. Thousands of people in Burma are looking for their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, friends, and loved ones, wondering whether they are detained, where they are detained, or worse, if they are still alive.
Their truths have been silenced.
A group that for decades has been targeted and is suffering from enforced disappearances and other human rights violations is the Rohingya people of Burma. The Rohingya people are an ethnic Muslim minority group in a predominantly Buddhist country. Since the late 1970s, the Burmese military has persecuted the Rohingya people and refused to recognize them as Burmese citizens — or as people. The exact number of Rohingya who are forcibly disappeared remains unknown. However, it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya have been forcibly disappeared by the Burmese regime. Many Rohingya, for example, were forcibly disappeared during clearance operations in the northern Rakhine State, which led to severe and systematic human rights violations and resulted in the displacement of nearly one million Rohingya people.
Enforced disappearance is a crime that leaves no trace. It too often goes unpunished, leaving its perpetrators with complete impunity. It disappears people against their will, often, very suddenly. And it is a crime that causes feelings of disillusionment and hopelessness to the victims of enforced disappearances.
HRF demands justice for those whose whereabouts are unknown, and expresses our support for the loved ones of those who have been forcibly disappeared. HRF urges governments to stop, protect against, and prevent enforced disappearances and bring justice to survivors.