Argentina has become the latest member of the international community to pursue legal action against top Myanmar officials over the military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, amid mounting global pressure that the government be held accountable for the extreme violence that left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 across the border and into Bangladesh.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was named among several officials in a lawsuit submitted Wednesday in Argentina by Rohingya and South American human rights organizations for serious crimes, including genocide, against the minority group.
It is the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi has been legally targeted over the crackdown, which she and other officials have justified as a necessary countermeasure to deadly insurgent attacks by a Rohingya militant group in Rakhine state in 2017.
“This complaint seeks the criminal sanction of the perpetrators, accomplices and cover-ups of the genocide,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, an Argentine human rights lawyer and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar who is assisting the Rohingya plaintiffs, told AFP.
“We are doing it through Argentina because they have no other possibility of filing the criminal complaint anywhere else,” he was quoted as saying.
The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) and other groups filed the lawsuit in Argentina under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” a legal concept that allows national courts to prosecute individuals for serious crimes against international law, such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture.
BROUK president Tun Khin told RFA that others named in the lawsuit are former president Thein Sein, former president Htin Kyaw, current president Win Myint, and top military brass deemed responsible for the atrocities, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces.
Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, said that Aung San Suu Kyi has been named in the lawsuit because she failed to speak out against the military’s actions against the Rohingya.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi is looked upon internationally as the country's leader, and because she was seen as covering up for the military, she has been dragged into this as an accomplice,” he told RFA.
“We know that she has no power over the military, as is mandated by the constitution, but she should have given ‘a warning’ to the military that they should not commit these rights violations,” he said. “She failed to do so, and that worsened the problem.”
‘A very positive step’
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the lawsuit — the third such international case to be filed against Myanmar officials — a “very positive step” and encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi to cooperate with the Argentine court to claim innocence if she is officially summoned instead of declining a trial.
“It’s a very positive step that Argentina is raising these issues because it will force the Myanmar government to respond in a substantive way to serious allegations against them and the security forces,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, in an email response to RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Aung San Suu Kyi should agree to cooperate with lawful requests from Argentina since she claims that she has nothing to hide,” he added.
The legal petition seeks to persuade Argentina’s courts to exercise universal jurisdiction to prosecute everyone in Myanmar who may be criminally responsible for crimes designated as genocide and crimes against humanity, he said.
“The fact people are even talking about universal jurisdiction reflects the reality that Myanmar’s national government and military have totally failed to credibly investigate and address the atrocities committed against the Rohingya,” he said. “The big issue for Aung San Suu Kyi is whether she was involved in a cover-up of the rights abuses against the Rohingya or not.”
Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) party said the prosecution of civilian and military leaders by Argentina would violate Myanmar’s national sovereignty and that the country would not comply with the court.
“We’ve seen dishonesty in that campaign,” he said. “I view this as an attempt to garner international pressure to gain rights as an indigenous ethnic group for those who fled from conflicts in northern Rakhine state.”
“We will not comply with or be obliged by demands that violate the sovereignty of the nation,” he said, adding that the Myanmar government is conducting sufficient investigations and taking legal action on incidents involving Muslims in northern Rakhine.
On Monday, Gambia filed a separate lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, the U.N.’s highest court in The Hague, the Netherlands, accusing the Southeast Asia nation of state-sponsored genocide for the crackdown on the Rohingya.
In a third legal action on Thursday, judges at the International Criminal Court approved a request from prosecutors to launch an investigation into widespread acts of violence during the crackdown to determine if they qualify as the crime against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and persecution of the Rohingya based on ethnicity and/or religion.
Shuttered mosques, madrassas
In a sign of long-lasting damage to persecuted Rohingya communities in Myanmar, a survey by a Yangon-based Muslim committee has determined that at least 900 Islamic mosques and madrassas were demolished or forced to shut down during sectarian violence with Buddhists in Rakhine state in 2012, and they have not been rebuilt or reopened.
The committee, comprising Muslims leaders and organizations from across the country, is pressing the government to reopen the buildings. They have been compiling the list of mosques and Muslim religious schools since September, and have sent appeals to President Win Myint and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to reopen more than 60 of them.
“We have identified 900 of them in Rakhine state alone,” said committee spokesman Maung Myint. “The list includes more than 200 mosques, over 200 Arabic language schools, and 500 schools teaching basic education. All of them have been either shut down or destroyed.”
Records used to compile the report focus on 13 townships in Rakhine state where Muslims live — most of them located in Sittwe, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw townships — areas that were mainly affected between 2012 and 2017.
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint, no relation to the country’s president, said he did not have figures pertaining to mosques that have been shut down.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya community leader who lives in Sittwe, said that between 40 and 50 mosques there were destroyed during the 2012 communal riots.
“Many religious schools had been burned down,” he said. “The mosques were destroyed. Some were totally flattened later by bulldozers.”
The riots left more than 200 people dead and displaced roughly 120,000 Rohingya who were placed in camps outside Sittwe to avoid further clashes between Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Kyaw Hla Aung said displaced Rohingya have been forced to live in camps enclosed by barbed-wire since 2012 and are not allowed to travel without permission. The camps also lack mosques and formal Islamic schools, he said.
Aung San Win, a spokesman for the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, said he was not aware of the list of mosques that have been shut down.
Naung Taw Lay, also known as Nay Win Aung, secretary of the Myanmar Nationalist Network, a nationalist group that has participated in anti-Muslim rallies, said he has no objection to the reopening of the mosques.
“As nationalists, we just want to prevent terrorism,” he told RFA.
Human rights activist Thet Swe Win said he believes that the government will not allow the places of worship to reopen.
“The government has a responsibility to allow the reopening, but I question whether the authorities actually have the motivation to let them reopen,” he said. “I don’t think we can trust them. I don’t think they will let them reopen.”
Reported by Moe Myint, Nay Myo Htun, and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.