UPDATED at 3:25 P.M. EDT on 2020-09-09
Two Myanmar soldiers who deserted their army posts and were held captive by the rebel Arakan Army are now in the custody of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands after admitting that they committed atrocities against Rohingya Muslims three years ago, a human rights group said Tuesday.
The two privates were in battalions that were active in northern Rakhine state during military-led “clearance operations” against Rohingya civilians in 2016 and 2017, during which thousands were killed and roughly 840,000 others fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they now live in massive displacement camps.
The rare public confessions of soldiers followed witness accounts of military-led campaigns of violence targeting Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state, which included torture, mass rape, indiscriminate killings, and arson, prompting criminal cases to be filed at the ICC and other international courts.
Privates Myo Win Tun, 33, from Light Infantry Battalion No. 565 and Zaw Naing Tun, 30, from Light Infantry Battalion No. 353 confessed in video interviews to killing villagers during operations in Rohingya communities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, according to a statement issued Tuesday by Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights, which obtained and reviewed the recordings.
The Arakan Army filmed Zaw Naing Tun’s confession on July 8 and Myo Win Tun’s confession on July 23, Fortify Rights said.
Myo Win Tun said he was involved in killing Rohingya women, men, and children, and committed rape in Taung Bazar village and surrounding communities in Buthidaung township in September 2017, the statement said.
Zaw Naing Tun also said he participated in killings, buried bodies in mass graves, and committed other crimes against Rohingyas in five villages in Maungdaw township during the 2017 crackdown, it said.
The soldiers, who said they had acted on orders from senior commanders, implicated 19 perpetrators from the Myanmar Army, including themselves, and six senior commanders — including a lieutenant colonel, a colonel, and three captains — who allegedly ordered or contributed to atrocities against the Rohingya.
The orders were to “exterminate all” Rohingya, to “shoot all that you see and that you hear,” and to “kill all” Rohingya in specific areas, Fortify Rights said.
Based on their video testimonies, both soldiers could be directly responsible for killing up to 180 Rohingya civilians, the rights group said.
RFA has not seen the video interviews and cannot independently verify the soldiers’ accounts.
Myo Win Tun, and Zaw Naing Tun showed up on the Bangladesh border in mid-August and asked Bangladeshi authorities for protection, Fortify Rights said.
They were transferred to The Hague after authorities notified the ICC, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
RFA was unable to reach the ICC, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun, or government spokesman Zaw Htay for comment on the matter.
Army bullying of minorities
Private Myo Win Tun describes his involvement in the killings of several Rohingya civilians during the military’s clearance operation in 2017.
“By the order of Colonel Than Htike from the 15th Military Operation Command, I was involved in killing 30 Muslims, innocent men, women and children, and burying them in one grave in Taung Bazar village in Buthidaung township,” Myo Win Tun said in the video.
He goes on to say that he was arrested while sleeping at the Mohnyin train station in Kachin state and coerced to join the Myanmar military.
“I was bullied and racially discriminated against by Burmese officers because I am member of Shanni ethnic group,” he said. “And I had requested leaving, but they didn’t allow that. That’s why I have deserted and run away from Myanmar military forces.”
Rights activist Nickey Diamond from Fortify Rights told RFA on Tuesday that the confessions by Myo Win Tun and Zaw Naing Tun are credible because their statements match records, reports, and testimonies from survivors and witnesses to the specific atrocities.
“After all examinations, we have concluded that the confessions of these two soldiers are credible, so we released the statement,” he said.
‘A monumental moment’
AA spokesman Khine Thukha did not directly answer RFA questions about how the soldiers were shifted from AA custody to that of the ICC, but said that the rebel group has cooperated with the international community in order to find the truth and to fight against injustice in Rakhine state.
“These two soldiers are deserters from the Myanmar military,” he said. “They came to our troops after they deserted. We have interviewed them about what they had experienced on the ground and recorded them. We have released the recorded video of their testimonies.”
In early June, when RFA asked Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun about the video, he dismissed it as a fabrication created by the AA, suggesting that anyone in AA custody would say anything they were forced to say.
Fortify Rights called on the ICC to quickly prosecute the two soldiers and provide witness protection for them.
“This is a monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice,” said Matthew Smith, the group’s chief executive officers, in a statement.
“These men could be the first perpetrators from Myanmar tried at the ICC, and the first insider witnesses in the custody of the court. We expect prompt action,” he said.
Rights groups have collected extensive evidence of atrocities, survivor and witness accounts, and satellite images of burned villages indicating the extent of military-led clearance operations in Rohingya villages.
In a report issued in September 2019, a U.N.-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar found signs of genocidal intent in the 2017 crackdown and presented critical evidence that government security forces committed atrocities and serious crimes under international law.
The ICC, which tries individuals, in November authorized an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers against the Rohingya.
Myanmar also faces genocide-related charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s top court, which settles disputes between nations.
At an ICJ hearing last December, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the country’s defense, defended the military’s actions against the Rohingya, saying they occurred during operations to sweep northern Rakhine of Muslim insurgents who had attacked police. She also asked the ICJ to drop the case.
In January, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to prevent the killing or serious injury of the Rohingya, ensure that the military does not conspire to commit genocide, maintain evidence related to allegations, and file periodic reports about its compliance with the measures until the court issues a final decision on the case.
Canada and the Netherlands last week issued a statement in support of the case at the ICJ brought by The Gambia against Myanmar.
“The Gambia’s application shows the discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which created the conditions for Myanmar’s security forces to perpetrate targeted and systemic atrocities against the Rohingya,” the two countries said in a statement.
“In bringing this application to the ICJ, The Gambia took a laudable step towards ending impunity for those committing atrocities in Myanmar and upholding this pledge,” they said.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that there were two different confession videos.