Myanmar authorities made “extensive and systematic” plans for attacks on Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state months before Muslim militants carried out deadly assaults on police outposts in August 2017, a Southeast Asia-based rights group said Friday, adding that it has found “reasonable grounds” that atrocities committed against the ethnic minority constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.
In a 162-page report titled “They Gave Them Long Swords: Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar,” Fortify Rights details a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in three northern townships, in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25, 2017.
Security forces also carried out another round of violence against Rohingya communities in Rakhine's Maungdaw township after a smaller-scale attack by the same group in October 2016.
Together the two campaigns drove roughly 800,000 Rohingya from the country and across the border into Bangladesh where they are now living in sprawling displacement camps.
The report is based on interviews with more than 250 eyewitnesses, survivors, military and police personnel, former and current members of ARSA, international and local aid workers, and physicians during a 21-month period.
“Genocide doesn’t happen spontaneously,” Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, said in a statement. “Impunity for these crimes will pave the path for more violations and attacks in the future. The world can’t sit idly by and watch another genocide unfold, but right now, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
The report identifies 22 Myanmar military and police officials responsible for ordering the “clearance operations,” whom Fortify Rights says should be criminally investigated and potentially prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Among those named are Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, deputy military chief Vice Senior General Soe Win, and the joint chief of staff of the army, navy, and air force General Mya Tun Oo.
The government and military have defended the “clearance operations” as a counterinsurgency against ARSA terrorists and have consistently denied that security forces committed most of the atrocities against the Rohingya, despite widespread reports and credible evidence, including multiple satellite images of burned-out villages.
Fortify Rights also takes aim at ARSA for its role in the violence, including the murders of six Rohingya civilians it believed to be government informants in the weeks and days leading up the August 2017 attacks, attempts to restrict the freedom of movement of fleeing civilians, and the intimidation of local residents with death threats if they did not support the militant group.
“Decades of persecution by the Myanmar Army doesn’t give Rohingya fighters a license to kill civilians,” Smith said. “Those responsible for these brutal killings should be investigated and prosecuted in line with international human rights standards.”
Atrocity crimes fit framework
The report says that the deliberate “preparatory actions” for genocide and crimes against humanity that Myanmar authorities had taken fit within the United Nations’ framework for the analysis of atrocity crimes for genocide and crimes against humanity.
These measures included training and arming local non-Rohingya ethnic citizens in northern Rakhine to prepare them for violence, tearing down fencing around Rohingya homes to give attackers greater access to civilians, depriving the Rohingya civilians of food and other aid to weaken them before the attacks, deploying high numbers of state-security forces, and committing human rights violations against the Rohingya prior to the assaults.
The Myanmar government said in May that it would form a three-person independent inquiry commission, including an international expert, to investigate human rights violations that occurred during the crackdown that began in Rakhine state in August 2017.
The report also calls on the U.N.Security Council to urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC, and on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Myanmar is a member to hold an emergency meeting to develop a plan of action to address the Rohingya crisis and ensure international justice and accountability.
“Rohingya communities know better than anyone that the authorities have been intent on destroying them for decades,” said Matthew Smith. “ASEAN has a particular role to play in ending these atrocities. Governments have the ability to persuade all members of the Security Council to support an ICC referral vote or at least abstain from blocking it.”
In April, an ICC prosecutor asked judges at the international tribunal to rule on whether the court could exercise jurisdiction over the “alleged deportation” of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Judges have set a July 27 deadline for Myanmar to respond to her request.
The Myanmar government has said repeatedly that the ICC cannot prosecute it because the country is not a member of the court.
Calls by other groups
Fortify Rights is not the only international group to accuse Myanmar authorities of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya during the crackdowns and to call for perpetrators of the atrocities to be brought before the ICC.
In June, London-based Amnesty International called for Min Aung Hlaing and 12 other military and border guard officers to be tried for crimes against humanity for their leading roles in a “highly orchestrated, systematic attack” on the Rohingya.
A 186-page report issued by the group documented the army-led campaign of terror against Rohingya civilians following the ARSA attacks in August 2017 and called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC for investigation and prosecution.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Global Center for Responsibility to Protect have also called on the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the ICC.
The U.N., the United States, and others have said that the campaign against the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.
In addition, the European Union, Canada, and the U.S. have imposed sanctions in the form of foreign-asset freezes and travel bans on several senior military and police officials deemed responsible for human rights violations against the Rohingya.