Myanmar military leaders should be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya for the army campaign that killed thousands and drove some 700,000 of the Muslim ethnic minority into Bangladesh, investigators for the U.N.'s top human rights body said Monday.
Three-member fact-finding mission, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, said the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, naming Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, and five other generals for prosecution.
“Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” said the report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which cataloged abuses in Rakhine, home to the Rohingya, as well as Kachin and Shan states in the north where the army has waged war against ethnic armies for decades.
“They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them,” said the report.
"The military's contempt for human life, dignity and freedom — for international law in general — should be a cause of concern for the entire population of Myanmar, and to the international community as a whole," said fact-finding mission chair Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney-general, at a news conference in Geneva.
The investigators called for the U.N. Security Council to place an arms embargo on Myanmar and impose targeted sanctions on officials. They faulted de facto civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to protect civilians.
Suu Kyi "has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population,” said the report, issued in Geneva.
The report was issued just after the first anniversary of attacks on guard posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, on Aug. 25, 2017, that triggered a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine.
The Myanmar government has largely denied the national military’s involvement in atrocities against the Rohingya and has defended its activities as part of a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against ARSA.
The U.N. report says ARSA “also committed serious human rights abuses” but says Myanmar’s military action was "grossly disproportionate to actual security threats."
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages," the report says.
The 2017 campaign against the Rohingya followed years of abuses and hateful rhetoric, and displayed organization and planning that pointed to “genocidal intent,” the group said.
"The crimes in Rakhine state, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts," said the U.N. panel.
“Factors pointing at such intent include the broader oppressive context and hate rhetoric; specific utterances of commanders and direct perpetrators; exclusionary policies, including to alter the demographic composition of Rakhine State; the level of organization indicating a plan for destruction; and the extreme scale and brutality of the violence,” said the report.
The campaign of August 2017 was preceded by a major build-up of military forces in Rakhine state, with airlifts of troops and equipment into area and the recruitment of ethnic Rakhine villages into security forces, it said.
“This build-up was significant, requiring logistical planning and time to implement, indicating that the subsequent operations were foreseen and planned,” said the report.
In the aftermath of the military campaign, the report said, “the mass displacement and burning of Rohingya villages was followed by systematic appropriation of emptied land.”
“Bulldozers flattened burned, damaged and even surviving structures and vegetation, erasing every trace of the Rohingya communities – while destroying criminal evidence,” added the report.
Human rights groups estimate that between 6,000 and 10,000 people died in the military campaign, in which soldiers were aided by Rakhine Buddhists in attacking the Rohingya.
Buddhist-ruled Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group, denying them citizenship and work opportunities and has pejoratively described them as “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
There was no formal response from Myanmar to the report, an advance copy of which was given to the government. Myanmar has refused to cooperate with UN and other international efforts to investigate the exodus of the Rohingya, and its own government probes of the violence exonerated the military.
Myanmar's Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Hau Do Suan, echoed his government’s rejection of UN investigations into the Rakhine crisis.
“Myanmar doesn’t recognize the fact finding mission and the resolution of UN Human Rights Commission. Therefore, we’re not cooperating with them. Also, we won’t allow their visit to Myanmar,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Myo Nyunt, an official of Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, repeated Myanmar’s call for more evidence of atrocities. The government has prevented investigators from entering the conflict zone, while repeatedly rejecting evidence, including satellite imagery of burned villages and the vivid testimony of hundreds of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
“We have been asking for concrete evidence for a long time, but they can’t provide evidence that shows army burned down all these villages,” he told RFA.
Time for action?
The U.N. panel, set up in March 2017, interviewed 875 victims and witnesses in Bangladesh and other countries, and studied videos, photographs and satellite images.
Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer at the Asia Human Rights Commission, was dismissive about the likelihood that Myanmar generals would be prosecuted.
“I think that the UN fact-finding team released it because of international pressure, but it could be a warning to Myanmar generals not to do the same things in the future.” he told RFA.
“The UN needs much concrete and hard evidence to prosecute Myanmar at the ICC. Oral evidence alone will not work,” he added.
In addition to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, other generals named in the report included Brigadier-General Aung Aung, commander of the 33rd Light Infantry Division; army deputy commander-in-chief Vice Senior-General Soe Win; the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations-3, Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw; the commander of Western Regional Military Command, Major-General Maung Maung Soe; and the commander of 99th Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Than Oo.
Representatives of a Rohingya group and a group from Kachin State in northern Myanmar, where abuses by Myanmar’s army were also condemned in Monday’s report, welcomed the findings.
“As the UN released a report, it means this is the time that UN should make an important decision,” said Tun Khin of the Myanmar Rohingya Organization UK.
“We have released and received a lot of statements and reports during these years, especially within these two years, but have seen no action. This is the time for action,” he told RFA.
Khun Ja, a leader of northern Myanmar’s Kachin Peace Network, also welcomed the prospect of prosecuting military leaders.
“For generations, top military generals who have ordered the crimes and violated human rights haven’t been punished properly. The highest punishment they have is economic sanction and these sanctions don’t affect them directly, but affect the people,” she told RFA.
“All ethnic groups have been suffering since 1988 and this ICC thing can control Myanmar military so they do not repeat the same crimes,” added Khun Ja.
Rights groups demand justice
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Bangladesh Foreign Ministry official said the government had yet to give an official statement on the UN report, but added, "Our position is the same as the international community's. We want justice for Rohingyas who were tortured and who were victims of ethnic cleansing. We also want them to be able to return to their homes with full citizenship rights."
Dipu Moni, a former Bangladesh foreign minister and current MP who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Dhaka should support the U.N. position on prosecution of Myanmar military officials responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
“Of course, we should call for prosecution of the generals. We have always been demanding accountability. Unless the persons responsible for genocide, torture and ethnic cleansing are made accountable, the rights of the Rohingya will not be guaranteed, and they will not feel safe to return to their homeland,” she told BenarNews, an RFA-affilated online news service.
Rohingya Abdul Motaleb, a community leader at Leda Refugee Camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, thanked the UN for the report.
“We hope that the Security Council will act quickly to prosecute the crimes of Myanmar army officers. We also want to see prosecution of those civilians who were involved in genocide and supported genocide."
Last week, Myanmar rejected cooperation with the ICC, to which it is not a party. China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with veto power over whether the issue will be brought before the ICC, has largely backed Myanmar throughout the Rakhine crisis.
Rights groups welcomed a move by the UN that they had long been calling for.
“This report, which adds to a mountain of evidence of crimes under international law committed by the military, shows the urgent need for independent criminal investigation and is clear that the Myanmar authorities are incapable of bringing to justice those responsible,” said Tirana Hassan, director of crisis response at Amnesty International.
“The international community has the responsibility to act to ensure justice and accountability. Failing to do so sends a dangerous message that Myanmar’s military will not only enjoy impunity but is free to commit such atrocities again,” added Hassan.
Human Rights Watch called for immediate steps to set up a body to preserve evidence and assist in investigations.
“The Fact-Finding Mission’s powerful report and clear recommendations demonstrate the obvious need for concrete steps to advance criminal justice for atrocious crimes, instead of more hollow condemnations and expressions of concern,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“U.N. member states should step up efforts that include the urgent creation of an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to ensure those most responsible for grave crimes do not escape prosecution.”
The U.S. social media giant Facebook responded to the report by removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages linked to the Myanmar military, as part of its work to "prevent the spread of hate and misinformation" on its networks.
“Specifically, we are banning 20 individuals and organizations from Facebook in Myanmar — including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military’s Myawaddy television network,” it said in a statement.
“We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” added the statement.
Myanmar meanwhile postponed until Sept. 3 a verdict expected on Monday for Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28.
The journalists, whose reporting revealed atrocities in the village of Inn Din where 10 Rohingya boys and men were killed, were arrested last December and are being tried on charges of violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act.
Reporting by Khin Khin Ei, Khet Mar, Nay Rein Kyaw and Tin Aung Khine for RFA's Myanmar Service and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.