The Rohingya exodus of 2017 was one in a number of displacements prompted by abuses inflicted by Myanmar’s military.
On September 15, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague opened a preliminary examination into Myanmar’s alleged crimes against its Rohingya minority. The initial probe, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensoude said, could lead to a formal investigation focusing on “coercive acts” resulting in the “forced displacement” of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, acts that might include “deprivation of fundamental rights, killing, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, destruction and looting.”
Hours earlier, United Nations (UN) investigators presented a 444-page report detailing apparent violations committed by Myanmar military against the Rohingya, a report the Myanmar ambassador to the UN called “one-sided” and “flawed.”
According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh in 2017 after Myanmar forces attacked the minority Muslim community, a migration Jewish World Watch has called “one of the greatest mass exoduses in human history,” second only in recent years to the Rwandan displacement.
Doctors Without Borders estimates that at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children, suffered violent deaths from late August to late September 2017. Thousands of women and girls were raped by the military and police in Myanmar, known also as Burma.
Hundreds of Rohingya settlements were razed as security forces attacked with rifles, machetes and flamethrowers, many obliterated altogether and paved over, the structures replaced by government barracks.
The Rohingya exodus of 2017 was one in a number of displacements prompted by abuses inflicted by Myanmar’s military.
“The increasingly stringent laws targeting Rohingya from the 1970s through the 1990s,” the Yaqueen Institute reports, “led to mass violence against and abuse of this minority group at the hands of the Burmese Buddhist majority. The state’s open targeting of the Rohingya eventually led to 200,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in 1978, and another wave of 250,000 between 1991-1992.”
“In both instances,” the report reads, “the Bangladeshi government sent most of the fleeing Rohingya back to Myanmar only to return to lands that had been confiscated and re-appropriated, forcing many to become laborers on lands they had once owned.”
More than one million Rohingya refugees are currently living in camps in Bangladesh, overcrowded, suffering from disease and lack of health care, an absence of schools, heat and amenities. Although they have lived for generations, possibly centuries, in Rakhine State, the Burmese government sees them as squatters and has denied them citizenship.
In a landmark ruling in January, the UN International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to “take all measures within its power” to protect the Rohingya from genocide, describing the 600,000 or more Rohingya remaining in the country (many held in barbed wire enclosures) as “extremely vulnerable” to military violence.
Taking steps to ensure accountability
Myanmar has repeatedly denied any orchestrated campaign against the Rohingya. Government officials claim that the Rohingya burned and razed their own villages to garner international attention.
A Burmese official recently said that the country and military are “taking steps to ensure accountability, including opening courts-martial to prosecute those involved in atrocities.” In a statement issued early this year, Myanmar’s government-sponsored Independent Commission of Inquiry said government security “clearance operations” acted without “genocidal intent,” contradicting the findings of UN investigators.
Myanmar admitted nonetheless that “war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law took place” against the Rohingya.
Formerly a British colony, Burma gained independence in 1948, a year after the assassination of its nationalist leader General Aung San. It began as a parliamentary democracy, like its newly independent neighbors, but was plagued from the outset by ethnic strife. Ethnic Burmans formed close to two-thirds of its population, while the remainder comprised a hundred or more groups, including the Shan, Karen, Rakhine and Mon, along with significant numbers of Indian and Chinese.
Last December, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the murdered general and presently Myanmar’s civilian leader, defended her country against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice. The case was filed by the Gambia on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation and is now supported by the Maldives, Canada and Holland. Although a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to support her nation’s military and refused to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya.
A panel of 17 judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) voted unanimously early this year to order Myanmar to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide, including prevention of killing or “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to members of the Rohingya, and to preserving evidence of the genocide that has already occurred.
Perpetrators confirm stories of victims
Last month, in a striking development, video testimony emerged from a pair of Burmese soldier-deserters, confirming accounts by witnesses and Rohingya survivors of alleged atrocities.
The men described military-led campaigns targeting Rohingya communities, which included torture, mass rape, indiscriminate killings and arson, prompting criminal cases to be filed at the ICC and other international courts.
Private Myo Win Tun, of the Light Infantry Battalion Number 565, and Private Zaw Naing Tun, of the 353rd Light Infantry Battalion, seated in uniform before cameras, answered questions, apparently not under duress, regarding military operations in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017.
They confessed to killing villagers in Rohingya communities, according to Fortify Rights, a human rights watchdog group, which reviewed and verified the recordings. Private Myo said the order from his commanding officer was clear and direct: “Shoot all you see and hear.”
Private Myo obeyed, participating in the killing of 30 Rohingya, burying the bodies in a mass grave.
Private Zaw said he and his comrades were given similar directions. “Kill all you see, whether children or adults,” his officer ordered.
“We wiped out about 20 villages,” he said.
“We indiscriminately shot at everybody,” Private Myo said in his testimony. “We shot the Muslim men in the foreheads and kicked the bodies into the hole.” He raped a Rohingya woman as well, he admitted.
Private Zaw, a former Buddhist monk, said he and other members of his battalion stormed through 20 villages in Maungdaw Township. He didn’t rape villagers, he said, because he was too low-ranking to participate. He stood sentry instead as his superiors raped Rohingya women and girls.
The soldiers’ statements, recorded by a rebel militia, are the first to come from perpetrators, rather than victims.
First insider witnesses
Zaw and Myo are apparently not under arrest but have been placed in ICC custody and could provide testimony in court under witness protection. They may themselves be tried and, according to sources, have “been questioned extensively by court officials in recent weeks.”
The ICC typically investigates high-level figures accused of crimes against humanity, not rank-and-file soldiers.
The soldiers’ accounts will help solidify the case at the International Court of Justice, where Myanmar is accused of trying to “destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages.”
“It is the kind of information likely to bolster the case, made by several investigators and human rights advocates, that the violence was co-ordinated and ordered from above,” Canada’s CBC reports.
“This is a monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice,” Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, observed. “These men could be the first perpetrators from Myanmar tried at the ICC, and the first insider witnesses in the custody of the court.”
Will the US step in?
Promising as the situation may seem, support from larger global players has been absent where it is most crucially needed. China, with its ambiguous track record concerning Indigenous rights and ethnic minorities, has weighed in on the side of Burma. The United States has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council and questioned its legitimacy. It has not only challenged the ICC and withdrawn support but has imposed sanctions on its chief prosecutor and another staff member.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in September, President Donald Trump said that “the United States will provide no support IN recognition to the International Criminal Court. As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.”
The US, among other nations, is currently under investigation by the ICC for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.
Human rights advocate Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late senator, has called out the Trump administration for its “unprecedented effort to undermine and dismantle global efforts to fight impunity,” including the Kennedy Center’s work to “prosecute members of the Myanmar military who recently admitted involvement in the slaughter of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.”
“Our international team of lawyers, too, has had to alter research, and its ways of helping victims of atrocities, due to fear of these ridiculous sanctions,” Kennedy added.
Less promising yet, November’s coming election, Myanmar’s first since 2015, will necessarily be “fundamentally flawed,” according to Human Rights Watch. “The election can’t be free and fair so long as a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military, access to state media isn’t equal, government critics face censorship or arrest, and Rohingya are denied participation in the vote.”
What recourse do the Rohingya have, given all this? The UN Security Council has remained noncommittal for years, failing to condemn Myanmar. The US and European Union (EU) have imposed sanctions on members of Burmese security forces but have done little to pressure its leadership.
“They have also refused to use the term ‘genocide,’” Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, has said, “in part because that would bring with it some legal obligations to act.”
Impunity is not an option
The soldiers’ testimony, unprecedented and damning as it appears, could propel efforts to secure accountability if the US chooses to take action. The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act (S. 1186) has passed in the US House of Representatives multiple times but has yet to appear on the floor of the Senate.
“What we see in Myanmar,” according to William Pruitt, Chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice and Security Studies at Endicott College, “is the power of genocide ideology.”
“While there was hope Aung San Suu Kyi could speak out and protect the Rohingya, she has failed to do so,” he told TMS. “To maintain some power in the country she has turned her back on genocide.”
Pressured by the US and others, Myanmar could be obliged to create conditions needed for the return of the refugees, along with guarantees that they will live in dignity and safety. “Expressions of solidarity are not enough,” according to António Guterres, secretary-general of the UN. “[T]he Rohingya people need genuine assistance.”
Payam Akhavan, an attorney representing Bangladesh in the case against Myanmar at the ICC, has called for accountability to prevent further atrocities against the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.
“Impunity is not an option,” Akhavan said. “Some justice is better than no justice at all.”
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