Roy Laifungbam has lived most of his life under draconian military laws and impunity in the northeastern region of India. He has experienced arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment, since the beginning of his human rights activism as a student in the 1970s. Roy has great insights and expertise into the dire situation in Myanmar and has kindly provided an analysis of the situation and what it means for minorities and the anti-torture, human rights community.
Can you describe the current situation in Myanmar?
The South Asian region and Southeast Asian region have both experienced very brutal regimes, capable of very inhuman violations of the rule of law and democratic institutions that have resulted in arbitrary executions, detentions, torture and severe restrictions in the lives of people's, including students, activists, academics, journalists and anyone critical of the authorities over the past six decades. The present situation is a nightmare that has returned in a country that has been through decades of harsh military rule from the late 1950s. A state of emergency has been declared for a period of one year since the beginning of February. But going by past experience, this could be extended for a very long period. Since last Sunday, martial law has been imposed in some parts of Myanmar, particularly in the second largest city of the country, Mandalay and other cities in the wake of a growing civil disobedience movement that has taken to the streets in the tens of thousands. Healthcare workers and teachers, civil servants have openly declared that they will discontinue to work under the military junta. These are very concerning developments in the presence of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
The situation is extremely fraught for the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, many of whom have waged armed resistances for decades that had been in a process of ceasefire and peace negotiations in the recent years after the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, came to an uneasy shared power relationship with the army. All the small, but significant, gains under this arrangement are in a precarious state of total undoing today. Hundreds are being detained, and their whereabouts, safety and ultimate fates are unknown. The shutdown of internet, banks and many commercial establishments have put the citizenry of the country into great jeopardy.
We are aware that the Rohingya minority has been especially targeted in recent times for horrendous atrocities. Their situation, when negotiations have been underway with the government of Bangladesh for their safe return, is now up in the air.
What is IRCTs greatest concern?
IRCT's greatest concerns are clearly in the domain of the organisation's heart - the concern for victims of torture and CIDT, the right to rehabilitation and the ultimate abolishment of the practice of torture as defined by UNCAT. This is a concern of humanitarian proportion, of human rights and the rule of law. IRCT, its Asian centres and other allied groups have had no direct access in Myanmar, and whatever little assistance we can provide are to victims that have fled the country to other parts of the world, like India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.
How will the situation impact the region?
The region will now see more displacement, a potential unhinging of peace building, a return of armed resistances by ethnic groups, a further exacerbation of a degraded economy, a dismantling of fragile healthcare services and a fracture in international cooperation that has deep and adversarial implications for torture and CIDT victims in Myanmar. A violent crackdown by the army, not new to Myanmar, is imminent. Myanmar's neighbourhood, including India's northeastern region (where I'm located) and southeastern Bangladesh are in a situation of silent bated breath, fearing the worst, with heightened security measures, closed borders and further restrictions to movement of the local populations.
What do you think the international community can do to help?
The international community, including the UN, has so far been very clear in its immediate response. A return to the old regime of boycotts, bans, and embargoes is now imminent. None of these are beneficial to torture victims and the practice of torture. The universal call for the release of all those detained is one way forward, that we have seen. A call for a free press and restoration of the freedom of expression, and the rule of law, is now all the more crucial. There must be restoration and enhanced efforts to uphold the right to health, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Myanmar along with access to international cooperation to tackle the "invisible" pandemic in the country. The coup d’etat in Myanmar is of the utmost international concern, like the shameful and unacceptable situation in Yemen.
For more information
Debabrata Roy Laifungbam (b.1954) is an indigenous Meetei from the North Eastern Indian State of Manipur, bordering with Myanmar. He is a public health physician who pioneered multidisciplinary services of direct assistance to victims of torture in the region, which has witnessed long term armed conflicts for several decades. The centre that he set up and leads has been a member of the IRCT for two decades. A passionate human rights defender and environmentalist, he has experienced torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including arbitrary detention, several times from State agencies since his medical student days. He has been closely associated with the finalisation of the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) by the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights of ECOSOC, and interacted with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and WHO, particularly on the issues of indigenous peoples' health and environment. Dr Laifungbam is the founder and Senior Director of the Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture and Trauma in Manipur, a collective of over twenty human rights organisations, which he led from 2010 to 2020. In this capacity, he has closely interacted with the UN’s various thematic mechanisms, such as the Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, torture, violence against women, water and sanitation, and human rights defenders. He presently resides in his native State of Manipur.