Myanmar’s military on Monday held a fifth hearing in the court-martial of soldiers accused of committing atrocities against civilians during the brutal 2017 military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, an army spokesman said.
The rare court-martial came about following a report by the Associated Press in February that up to 400 Rohingya civilians had been killed, with their bodies dumped in five mass graves and burned with acid near Buthidaung township’s Gu Dar Pyin village.
The report was based on the testimony of Rohingya refugees who were among the more than 740,000 who had fled to Bangladesh for safety during the violence.
The Myanmar government rejected the report, saying an investigation had found no evidence to support claims of the killings and the mass graves.
A military-led probe, however, found that the soldiers did not fully comply with military instructions and rules of engagement.
“We are almost finish hearing the testimony of witnesses from the plaintiff’s side,” military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We will finish with the plaintiff’s witnesses in early 2020. We are trying to complete other procedures during the court-martial hearings.”
The five hearings that have already taken place at a military base in northern Rakhine state were held between Nov. 26 and Dec. 29, he added.
The defendants, who include officer-level servicemen, have been detained at local battalions, he said, but declined to give the exact number of soldiers being tried.
The military said that 264 local residents attended the Dec. 29 hearing, though it has not yet announced the number and names of witnesses who have testified or will take the stand for either the plaintiff or the defendants.
“We learned about the [latest] court hearing only after they announced it,” said activist Nickey Diamond from the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, who is following the case.
“I personally never trust the military,” he said. “Its conduct lacks transparency because it hasn’t allowed international and civil society organizations to observe the hearing. I have concerns about whether its conduct is really credible.”
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-military think tank the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, said critics of the government military must consider that soldiers in conflict zones must respond and react to insurgents.
“The critics are now heavily focused on finding fault with the military’s actions,” he said. “That’s fine, but these rights activists should be aware that there are radical armed groups in some areas. I want to question them as to why they have remained silent when it comes to the conduct of these radical groups.”
Thar Aye, a Yangon-based Rohingya activist and politician, said the case against the soldiers should be tried in a civilian court.
“The court-martial addresses the actions of members of the military under military procedures, but on the other side are the civilians,” he said. “So there should be a court protecting the rights of these civilians. Otherwise, conducting all the legal proceedings at a court-martial will not result in an independent ruling.”
Running its course
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA in September that only 19 people died in the Gu Dar Pyin incident and that all of them were “terrorists.” He also told the online journal The Irrawaddy that month that the court-martial was initiated over a clash between government soldiers and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Muslim militant group, near the village.
So far, the Myanmar military has held only one other court-martial in which four officers and three soldiers were each sentenced in March 2018 to 10 years in prison for killing a group of Rohingya men and boys in Maungdaw township’s Inn Din village amid the larger campaign of violence.
But in November of that year, the convicts were pardoned by Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief and freed.
Myanmar now faces legal action over atrocities against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court and in an Argentine court.
During a hearing at the ICJ on Dec. 12, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi told judges that the ongoing Gu Dar Pyin court-martial should be allowed to run its course and that there will be additional courts-martial after a government-mandated Independent Commission of Enquiry issues its final report in January 2020.
The Nobel laureate’s assertion at the ICJ in The Hague that her government would seek accountability for military atrocities against Rohingya was met with scorn by human rights experts monitoring the hearing, who pointed to Myanmar’s record of denial and stonewalling in the face of international requests to hold people to account and its unwillingness to allow outside observers into northern Rakhine state.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.