UPDATED at 10:59 A.M. EST on 2017-11-14
Myanmar’s army issued a report on Monday denying allegations of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims days after the top general in charge of military operations in volatile northern Rakhine state was replaced.
National security forces conducted a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya following deadly attacks by the militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25.
Soldiers have been accused of killing, torturing and raping Rohingya civilians and burning their homes in an operation that has driven more than 600,000 Muslims across the border to Bangladesh where they are living in mass displacement camps.
On Monday, the military published a 14-point post on Facebook on the findings of an investigation team led by Lieutenant-General Aye Win, inspector-general of the defense services, that examined the performance of the security troops during the attacks in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township region.
The team was tasked with ascertaining whether the troops had conducted their operations in accordance with their duty assignments during the time when the military was trying to restore regional peace and stability.
The investigation team toured Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships — the epicenter of the ARSA attacks and security crackdown — on Oct. 13-Nov. 7. It interviewed more than 3,200 ethnic Rakhine, Hindu, and Rohingya villagers and recorded the accounts of more than 800 witnesses.
“The findings of the investigation have proved that all security members up [sic] from the leaders to the privates were aware of and strictly abided by the orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement in connection with the rights of self-defense and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and antiterrorist operations,” said the statement posted on the Facebook page of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces.
It went on to say that security forces “abided by laws related to the wars in conducting area clearance operations” and “did not perform the use of excessive force.”
The accounts of the Myanmar military, which starkly contradict statements from Rohingya refugees interviewed after reaching Bangladesh, could not be independently corroborated because the military and government have limited access to the conflict zone.
The army’s statement also said that all subsequent clashes between security forces and Muslim militants occurred between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5 in contrast to assertions by Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh and by rights groups, which contended that attacks by security forces and Buddhist mobs were still occurring after that date.
The statement said that Rohingya villagers said security forces did not commit the crimes that some Muslims who fled to Bangladesh had accused them of, and instead asserted that Rohingya “terrorists” torched houses and fled across the border.
Failing to pass muster
This statement did not pass muster with human rights experts.
“Once again, Myanmar’s military is trying to sweep serious violations against the Rohingya under the carpet,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement issued Monday in response to the findings by Myanmar’s armed forces.
He noted “overwhelming evidence that the military committed atrocities against the Rohingya from stories of countless witnesses and satellite imagery showing burned villages in attacks that amount to “crimes against humanity.”
“The Myanmar military had made clear it has no intention of ensuring accountability; it’s now up to the international community to step up to ensure these appalling abuses do not go unpublished,” Gomez said.
The extent of the atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities will not be known until Myanmar allows a United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission and independent observers into the country to conduct an investigation, he said.
The U.N. assigned a three-member mission to Myanmar in March, but the government has refused to allow them to enter the country.
In London, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May echoed the sharp criticism that Myanmar, a former British colony once known as Burma, has received from rights groups.
“We’ve been appalled by the inhumane violence that’s taken place in Rakhine state,” the spokesman said, according to a report by CNN. “It’s a major humanitarian crisis. It’s been created by Burma's military and it looks like ethnic cleansing.”
The military issued the findings only days after Major General Maung Soe was transferred from his post as the head of Western Command in Rakhine, Reuters reported.
“I don’t know the reason why he was transferred,” Major General Aye Lwin, deputy director of the defense ministry’s Psychological Warfare and Public Relations Department, told the news agency. “He wasn’t moved into any position at present. He has been put in reserve.”
Meeting in Manila
Myanmar continues to face international scrutiny over the plight of its Rohingya Muslim community, though it failed to come under fire by leaders of other nations at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam.
But two countries, likely Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, did broach the subject on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Philippine capital Manila on Monday, newswire services reported.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi assured ASEAN nations that her government is implementing the recommendations of a commission on the situation in Rakhine led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
She also said that the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh would begin on Dec. 12, three weeks after Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh, the Associated Press reported, citing Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
On Sunday, U.N. official Pramila Patten, special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, said in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka that she would raise accusations of the Myanmar military carrying out organized rape with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Reuters reported.
“When I return to New York, I will brief and raise the issue with the prosecutor and president of the ICC whether they [Myanmar’s military] can be held responsible for these atrocities,” Patten was quoted as saying, after a three-day visit to Rohingya refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar region of southeastern Bangladesh.
“Sexual violence is being commanded, orchestrated and perpetrated by the armed forces of Myanmar, otherwise known as the Tatmadaw,” she said. “Rape is an act and a weapon of genocide.”
The developments come just before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Myanmar on Nov. 15 to address the Rakhine crisis and U.S. support for Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition with military officials and senior leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tillerson said in October that the U.S. holds Myanmar’s military leadership responsible for the brutal crackdown on the Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied Myanmar citizenship and access to basic services.
“The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Reuters reported.
“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening,” he said.
On Oct. 23, the U.S placed restrictions on Myanmar’s military for its abuse of Rohingya Muslims during the recent violence in northern Rakhine state. Some American politicians are now pursuing legislation to impose economic and travel sanctions on the armed forces and their business interests.
Pope Francis, who has spoken publicly about the “persecution of the Rohingyas” will visit Myanmar on Nov. 27-30 to have private discussions about the crisis with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw in Naypyidaw. He will also address politicians, members of civil society, and diplomats in a public meeting.
Later in Yangon, Pope Francis will with the Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), a government-appointed body of senior monks that regulated the Buddhist clergy, at Kaba Aye pagoda and with Catholic bishops at St. Mary’s Cathedral.