Petitions submitted to Myanmar's military chief led to the early release of seven Myanmar soldiers convicted of murdering 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers during a brutal crackdown on members of the ethnic minority group in troubled Rakhine state in 2017, a military spokesman said Thursday.
The freeing of the soldiers, who were serving 10-year sentences for the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Maungdaw township’s Inn Din village, has drawn heavy criticism from Rohingya activists and other prominent observers.
The soldiers were released in November 2018 under an amnesty by military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing after serving only eight months in jail, Reuters news agency said on Monday.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun from the Myanmar military's information team said the soldiers’ sentences were reduced after their family members and Buddhist monks submitted petitions to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
But he added that criticism of the decision to free the soldiers early is acceptable, given the brief amount of time they spent behind bars.
“Some people had written several letters to the commander-in-chief’s office,” he told RFA's Myanmar Service. “There have been several petitions from Buddhist monks who appealed for their release because their families are in trouble.”
“They remained in prison for nearly a year by the time the military commander-in-chief’s office pardoned them under the Defense Services Act,” Zaw Min Tun said. “Along with a reduction of the years of their sentences, they were released in November 2018.”
The Defense Services Act regulates military service and the armed forces in Myanmar.
The released soldiers will not be allowed to serve in the country's armed forces again, the military said.
Under Myanmar's 2008 constitution, the soldiers had legal protection and the right to submit petitions and appeals of a military court’s decision to sentence them in April 2018, Zaw Min Tun said.
The convicted soldiers had no intention of killing the villagers, but they acted wrongly and went against army regulations because they were influenced by local ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers who had called for retaliation against the Rohingya, he said.
In March 2018, Min Aung Hlaing’s office announced that four military officers had been dishonorably discharged from service for conspiracy regarding the killings, a civil offense under Section 71 of the Defense Services Act, and had been sentenced to 10 years with hard labor in prison.
The three other soldiers were demoted and permanently discharged from military service under the same charge and received the same sentence.
A local schoolteacher from Inn Din village who was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in assisting with the murders of the 10 Rohingya villagers was not included in the amnesty.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the convicted civilian has a legal right to submit appeals of his conviction to different levels of courts.
The soldiers spent less time in jail than did two Reuters reporters who uncovered the killings.
Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo spent more than 16 months in prison on charges of obtaining state secrets. They were released in a presidential amnesty on May 6, shortly after winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Inn Din murders.
‘Military will commit more crimes’
Activists and observers slammed the military for freeing the seven soldiers.
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said the move shows a lack of sincerity in sentencing the soldiers and that the near-impunity could lead to more crimes committed by military members.
“Far from giving the appropriate punishments for the crime, this action apparently encourages military members to commit more murders of the Rohingya population,” he told RFA. “The military will commit more crimes after the release of these soldiers.”
Myanmar political observer Than Soe Naing said the sentencing of the soldiers was only perfunctory to alleviate international pressure on the country over the killings, and that their early release amounts to injustice for those who were murdered.
“This clearly demonstrates the state of injustice in Myanmar,” he said. “They were sentenced to 10 years to reduce international pressure.”
“We all knew they would be freed at some point,” he added. “But it is fairly unjust to release them in less than a year. This is a very biased decision. It is proof of the military’s power which overwhelms the judicial system when it comes to the cases related to the military. ”
Attorney Thein Than Oo, a member of the Myanmar Lawyers' Network, said the military commander-in-chief’s decision to pardon the convicted soldiers could further damage the reputation of Myanmar’s armed forces abroad, despite already heavy condemnation by the international community for their brutal actions against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown.
“I have nothing to say since the military makes its own decisions handed down by its own court under the Defense Services Act, but it's no good for its reputation in the eyes of the international community,” he said.
“This case has made waves around the world,” he said. “For this murder case, two Reuters reporters were arrested and jailed. They were the first in Myanmar’s history to be sentenced for their news coverage. Now the military has sentenced their servicemen and then exonerated them.”
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun declined to comment on the criticism by activists and others at home and abroad.
The Inn Din killings occurred a month after deadly attacks on police outposts by a Rohingya militant group in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 triggered an army-led campaign of terror that included indiscriminate killings, rape, torture, and arson in what Myanmar called a counterinsurgency against Muslim terrorists.
The crackdown left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where most remain in sprawling refugee camps.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.