Myanmar President Win Myint on Tuesday said the military must investigate and punish soldiers and other security forces who committed rights violations during a 2017 crackdown on Muslim Rohingya communities in the country’s northern Rakhine state, based on the findings of a report issued a day earlier by a government-appointed commission that investigated accusations of army-led war crimes.
The report by the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE), formed by Myanmar in 2018 to probe the violent clampdown that killed thousands of Rohingya and forced more than 740,000 others to flee to safety in Bangladesh, concluded that war crimes and serious human rights violations were committed, but did not have “genocidal intent.”
A 2018 United Nations-mandated investigation of the violence found that Myanmar had acted with “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya, though the government denied the accusation, saying that the military conducted a “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine in response to terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group.
The President’s Office announced that Win Myint sent the full report to military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing to investigate and take action against servicemen and other security forces responsible for atrocities cited in the report.
In a 15-page executive summary of the report issued Tuesday, the President’s Office concurred with the ICOE’s suggestion that investigations against those deemed responsible for human rights abuses should be conducted and that military courts should proceed with prosecutions if there is sufficient evidence.
“According to the evidence offered by the ICOE, war crimes and serious human rights violations may have occurred in the form of disproportionate use of force by some members of Myanmar’s Defense Services and Police Force in the course of internal armed conflict against ARSA,” the summary said.
“This must be further investigated, verified, and thereafter prosecuted by Myanmar’s natural legal processes, in particular its military justice system,” it said.
The summary also said there was not enough proof that genocide had occurred.
“There is insufficient evidence to argue, much less conclude, that the crimes committed were undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole, or in part, a national ethnical, racial or religious group, or with any other requisite mental state for the international crime of genocide,” it said.
RFA was unable to reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the executive summary, but he said Monday when the ICOE presented the report to Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi that he had nothing to say because he hadn’t yet read the report.
The military said previously that it would take legal action against and punish those among its ranks who had committed atrocities if the ICOE recommended it.
The executive summary notes mass killings of 500-600 civilians in Maungdaw township’s Mingyi village during fighting between ARSA and government troops on Aug. 29, 2017, based on eyewitness accounts.
It also mentions mass killings in Maung Nu, Chukpyin, and Gu Dar Pyin villages, the same three communities also cited in the report by the U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
The summary puts the official death toll during the military’s “clearance operation” in Rakhine at 376 ARSA fighters, two Myanmar soldiers, 11 police officers, two government employees, and 13 civilians. It also tallied 181 people missing, more than 40,000 homes destroyed, and more than 410,000 villagers who fled to Bangladesh.
RFA could not reach Zaw Htay, director general of the President’s Office, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
Human rights activists meanwhile slammed the ICOE’s investigation.
“In the ICOE report, the [commission members] said they didn’t find any genocidal intent, but they don’t deny that there was evidence of war crimes and other serious human rights violations, and that killings and forced migrations took place,” said Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education group.
“The report suggests further investigations, but it doesn’t suggest anything about taking effective measures against those who were responsible,” he added.
“So, the report is not satisfactory because it only focuses on investigations and doesn’t tackle anything about taking responsibility,” Aung Myo Min said. “The report would have been more reliable if it included suggestions to take action.”
A statement issued Monday by the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK (BROUK) called the ICOE’s investigation “deeply flawed” and “another attempt to whitewash the military‘s brutal violence against the Rohingya.”
“It is simply another attempt by the Myanmar authorities to sweep the Rohingya genocide under the carpet,” BROUK president Tun Khin said in the statement.
But Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar who was a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority to prevent further violence in Rakhine state, said the ICOE’s report is more forward-looking and closer to the truth than reports on the findings of previous investigative bodies.
“The ICOE’s investigative report is more progressive,” he said. “It uses words like ‘war crimes’ and ‘serious’ human rights violations. It seems to better reflect reality compared to the previous reports. It is a development that gets closer to the truth.”
“The military has stated that if its service members are found guilty, it will take action against them, so I think this report is an experiment for the military to see if it really means this,” he added.
So far, Myanmar’s armed forces have conducted only two rare courts-martial of officers and other soldiers accused of committing grave rights abuses during the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya.
In March 2018, four officers and three soldiers were each sentenced 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, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief pardoned and freed them.
The military has held hearings since late November 2019 in a court-martial of soldiers accused of killing hundreds of Rohingya civilians, dumping their bodies in five mass graves, and burning the corpses with acid near Buthidaung township’s Gu Dar Pyin village.
The military has disputed the number killed, giving a much lower figure and saying that they died during fighting between government forces and ARSA.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.