Asia - Pacific

Myanmar panel: Army committed war crimes in Rakhine

Rights groups discount Myanmar military courts as lacking credibility, transparency

Kyaw Ye Lynn   | 21.01.2020
Myanmar panel: Army committed war crimes in Rakhine

YANGON, Myanmar

A Myanmar government-sponsored commission has said that security forces committed war crimes against Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

The independent Commission of Enquiry set up to probe alleged rights violations in the country's western Rakhine state, submitted its final report to Myanmar President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi late on Monday.

Rights violations by multiple actors

The panel concluded that war crimes were committed by members and collaborators of an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), as well as by members of Myanmar's security forces and civilians during military operations in three townships across northern Rakhine on Aug. 25-Sept. 5, 2017.

“Although these serious crimes and violations were committed by multiple actors, there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of Myanmar’s security forces were involved,” the panel said in a statement on late Monday.

“The killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes were committed by some members of Myanmar’s security forces through disproportionate use of force during the internal armed conflict,” it said.

‘No genocide intent claim’ 

The panel, however, said it found no evidence supporting allegations that genocide was carried out against Rohingya Muslims.

“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,” the panel said.

The 461-page report of ICOE, which has not yet been made public, was swiftly condemned by rights groups including the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The HRW said in the statement that the entire ICOE investigation has been far from transparent.

“The ICOE seems willing to blame individual soldiers for abuses but not the commanders who the UN and other investigations have found were responsible for the numerous systematic atrocities against the Rohingya,” said the HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

“It is unsurprising the ICOE made public its conclusion, finding no indication of ‘genocide intent’ in Myanmar military’s attacks on Rohingya civilians in August-September 2017 ahead of the ICJ ruling later this week,” he said.

Myanmar is facing legal challenges over alleged atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims, with more than 723,000 Rohingya having fled to neighboring Bangladesh since 2017, in fear of the military’s brutal crackdown in Rakhine state.

The International Court of Justice is set to make a ruling this week on whether to approve Gambia’s request that provisional measures be taken against Myanmar to prevent the country’s Rohingya genocide attempt.

Further action for rights abuse by civilians 

Myanmar on Tuesday expressed sympathy for all affected people, including Rohingya victims, for the first time.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, Myanmar President Win Myint also assured the victims of his commitment to accountability, justice and professionalism of Myanmar’s security forces.

It said the president instructed the Office of the Judge Advocate General and the Union Attorney General to make further investigations and prosecution of any property destruction or looting or other serious crimes committed by civilians during the internal armed conflict in Rakhine state.

A senior member of the Arakan National Party, the biggest Rakhine ethnic party, agreed with the commission’s findings on civilians’ involvement in some atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, he said Rakhine villagers were encouraged by security forces to kill, destroy and loot during the chaotic situation shortly after the ARSA attacks in 2017.

“The situation was out of control at that time. In many cases, Rakhine villagers joined hand with police or soldiers,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the fear of reprisal.

The situation in northern Rakhine in the first five weeks after the ARSA attacks was the worst.

“[It was] the most chaotic moment I have ever seen in my life. Everybody was committing a kind of crime at that time,” he said.

Military prosecution 

The panel said these crimes included the killing of civilians, disproportionate use of force, looting of property, and destruction of abandoned homes of Muslims in the Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine.

It found a particularly high death toll in the villages of Min Gyi (Tula Toli), Chut Pyin and Maung Nu, where rights groups and investigators claimed massacres of Rohingya Muslims occurred.

Myanmar's president said he also instructed his military chief to ask the Office of the Judge Advocate General to extend its ongoing investigations and prosecutions for the security forces’ alleged crimes, in particular, the killings in these villages and failure to prevent the burning of homes in abandoned Muslim villages.

The military previously denied most of the allegations but began court-martial proceedings against individual soldiers in late 2019.

However, rights groups raised questions on the credibility and transparency of the martial court in Myanmar.

Phil Robertson told Anadolu Agency that the international community was fully justified in having little faith in Myanmar’s military justice system, given the military’s record of covering up its crimes.

“Just about everything involving Myanmar’s military court martials are as far from transparent as you imagine,” he said.

He said the military should clearly state the crimes of the accused, open all court-martials to the public and ensure free and fair trials for the cases referred by Myanmar’s president based on the recommendations of the ICOE.

“But this will not deal with the fundamental problem that the ICOE is failing to hold to account the senior Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] leaders involved in planning and enacting the massive clearance operations.”

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