Myanmar will not destroy evidence related to allegations of genocide against Rohingya Muslims, a government minister from violence-ridden Rakhine state said Wednesday, nearly a week after the U.N.’s top court ordered the country to preserve evidence and take measures to protect the minority group from genocidal acts.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an order on Jan. 23 for Myanmar to take the provisional measures in response to a request by the West African nation Gambia, which filed a lawsuit against the Southeast Asian nation in November for alleged atrocities against the Rohingya during a military-led crackdown in Rakhine in 2017.
Thousands of Rohingya died during the campaign of violence, which included indiscriminate killings, mass rape, and village torchings, while more than 740,000 others fled across the border to Bangladesh.
Though a verdict in the ICJ case could be years in coming, the preservation of evidence is crucial for other legal action being taken against specific individuals accused of ordering the violence in cases at the International Criminal Court and in an Argentine court.
Colonel Min Than, Rakhine state’s minister for security and border affairs, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the central government has no reason to destroy evidence and has not issued any separate orders to take action with regard to the ICJ’s ruling.
“Our government will never eliminate the evidence,” he said. “Nobody would do that, so the order to preserve the evidence is totally unnecessary. We have never tried to destroy it.”
A statement issued by Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the day the legally binding ruling was issued said the ICJ must still reach a “factually correct” finding on the charges that genocide occurred in northern Rakhine state, but did not state whether the government would comply with the ruling.
On Wednesday, Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), said his party could only comment on the issue after the administration had made additional announcements.
“Currently, the statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed to accept the ICJ’s provisional measures order,” he said. “We will wait and see how it will implement these orders.”
Government will not act
But Aung Htoo, a Myanmar human rights attorney who lives in exile in Sweden, contends that the government has limited respect for the ICJ’s order.
“I think the Myanmar government will not act on anything,” he told RFA, adding that Kyaw Tint Swe, minister for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, previously said during an interview on state-owned television that the genocide had not occurred.
“The NLD government must have prepared for the ICJ’s ruling,” he added. “It issued a well-drafted statement on Jan. 23 in response to the ICJ’s ruling. The very title of the statement said there was no genocide in Rakhine.”
Aung Htoo also said Myanmar should revise the 1982 Citizenship Law and other laws that discriminate against the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh though many have live in Myanmar for generations.
The law excludes the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 legally recognized ethnic groups, thereby denying most of them Myanmar citizenship.
Aung Htoo suggested that the government enact four laws to comply with the ICJ’s ruling — one that prevents discrimination, another that prevents genocide, a third that would allow civilians to file lawsuits against crimes committed during armed conflicts, and an amendment to the Citizenship Law to recognize the Rohingya as citizens.
In the days following the ICJ’s decision, Myanmar government officials have said that the court’s order repeats what they have already been doing to hold to account those found guilty of committing atrocities by military courts, and that they will not take any additional measures.
The government has largely denied the accusations and defended the actions of the military, saying soldiers were carrying out a “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine following deadly attacks by a Rohingya militant group.
Demands are reasonable
Myanmar attorney Thein Than Oo said the ICJ’s demands are reasonable.
“Myanmar has denied committing genocide,” he said. “If it is not genocide, it should comply with the preventative measure anyway. Regardless of whether what happened in Rakhine state amounted to genocide or not, the court’s demands are reasonable. ”
Rohingya activist Thar Aye said that the government must go further than just complying with the ICJ’s order.
“In order to prevent genocide, the government needs to recognize that a particular ethnic group exists,” he said, referring to the Rohingya.
“It should allow the Rohingya to identify themselves as Rohingya,” he said. “The government should also take care of their security. If it takes such measures, it will improve everything.”
The online journal The Irrawaddy reported that the ICJ on Tuesday said that Gambia must submit its initial pleading in the genocide case by July 23, while Myanmar has until Jan. 25, 2021, to reply.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Khin Khin Ei. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.