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Myanmar military involved in Rohingya atrocities: AI

Srinivas Mazumdaru Interview
June 27, 2018

Senior Myanmar military officials should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, rights group Amnesty International said in a new report that reveals fresh evidence of atrocities committed against the Rohingya people.

Myanmar troops
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Amnesty International called for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer the findings of its new report, titled "We Will Destroy Everything," to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and impose a "comprehensive arms embargo" on the Southeast Asian country and financial sanctions against senior officials.

The rights group said its investigative team spent nine months gathering evidence of the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims in a crackdown that began in August last year after a radical Rohingya group attacked Myanmar security forces in the country's western Rakhine state.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have since fled to neighboring Bangladesh as a consequence of a crackdown that the UN has called a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

In an interview with DW, Matthew Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International and one of the lead researchers and authors of the report, spoke about the Rohingya suffering and how the international community could help resolve the humanitarian tragedy.

DW: What are the key findings of your latest report?

Matthew Wells: The report provides Amnesty International's most comprehensive account to date of the Myanmar military's devastating campaign of violence that forced more than 702,000 Rohingya women, men, and children — more than 80 percent of the Rohingya who were living in Rakhine state when the crisis started — to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Matthew Wells
Matthew Wells is senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International Image: Amnesty International

It presents in detail the murder, rape, torture, and village burning that the Myanmar security forces carried out in attacking the Rohingya in villages across Rakhine. Amnesty has now documented the security forces committing nine out of the 11 types of crimes against humanity listed in the Rome Statute of the ICC. For many of the atrocities, we have been able to identify the specific military or Border Guard Police units involved.

Our report also shows that the crimes against humanity implicate each level of the Myanmar military, from soldiers on the ground who committed the atrocities; to field commanders who ordered or directly oversaw the crimes; to ultimately the senior-most levels of the military, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Amnesty has identified 10 military and three Border Guard Police officials who we believe should face criminal investigations for crimes against humanity. There are undoubtedly many others.

Read more: Myanmar and UN sign deal on steps for Rohingya return

How did Amnesty come up with these conclusions? What were your sources, and how did you verify their credibility and veracity?

Our report is the product of nine months of research and more than 400 interviews in Bangladesh and Myanmar. We also draw from extensive corroborating evidence, including satellite imagery, verified photographs and videos, expert forensic and weapons analysis, and confidential documents on the way the Myanmar military is structured and operates.

In our research, we often prioritized looking in depth at what happened in specific villages. In villages where we have documented massacres by the Myanmar military, for example, we separately interviewed 15 to 30 victims and other direct witnesses from each village. They provided consistent accounts as to what happened. We also sent photographs of injuries that we saw in Bangladesh to forensic medical experts, who indicated that the wounds — most often gunshot wounds — were consistent with the survivors' testimonies.

This included young children who arrived in Bangladesh a week after their village was attacked with gunshot wounds that they said were from when the Myanmar military fired on them as they were running away. Forensic experts confirmed that the wounds were consistent with gunshots fired from behind.

We then further corroborated witness accounts of attacks on specific villages through satellite imagery that showed, for example, that the Myanmar security forces burned the Rohingya area in a systematic and targeted manner. Rohingya areas of villages were often razed in their entirety, while meters away the areas where other ethnic communities live were left untouched. We also received lists of those who were killed in specific villages — in some villages, it amounts to hundreds of women, men, and children — and the names on those lists line up with individual testimonies we have taken in which witnesses named all of their family members who were killed.

Finally, we were able to obtain confidential documents on the Myanmar military that allowed us to better understand its structure and, in particular, how units on the ground are overseen by more senior commanders during operations like those undertaken in Rakhine.

Again and again, the evidence points to the same conclusion: that the Myanmar military carried out a concerted campaign of violence against the Rohingya population, during which thousands of Rohingya were killed, hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped or subjected to other sexual violence, and several hundred villages were burned down.

Read more: Myanmar 'militarizing' razed Rohingya villages in Rakhine – Amnesty

Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing
'Our report shows that responsibility goes all the way to the top, to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing,' says AIImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

The Myanmar government and military have consistently pointed the fingers at the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and other extremist outfits for the conflict and bloodshed in Rakhine. What is your take on this?

The authorities persecuted the Rohingya long before ARSA's attacks on security force posts in Rakhine. The attacks in August 2017 were the immediate trigger to the ethnic cleansing campaign unleashed by the Myanmar military in the days, weeks, and months that followed. But the real backdrop to the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military is the longstanding state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya as well as the impunity with which the military has operated.

Our report shows that ARSA did commit crimes, including the unlawful killing of Rohingya men perceived to be informants as well as attacks on other ethnic and religious communities. In one instance, ARSA fighters massacred a Hindu community, in a village known as Kha Maung Seik. ARSA's crimes should likewise be subject to international investigation.

But the Myanmar military is overwhelmingly responsible for the crimes that were committed in Rakhine. The military made no effort to distinguish between armed ARSA fighters and the wider Rohingya population. Soldiers attacked Rohingya men and women, children and the elderly, and often entire villages. They must face justice.

The brutal campaign carried out by the Myanmar security forces was not perpetrated by rogue soldiers or units. This was a highly orchestrated attack on the Rohingya population, and responsibility goes to the highest levels of the Myanmar military.

Read more: Myanmar insurgents attack casino and security forces near Chinese border

Satellite images of a 'destroyed' Rohingya village
AI: 'Rohingya areas of villages were often razed in their entirety, while meters away the areas where other ethnic communities live were left untouched'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/DigitalGlobe

You say that given the gravity of the crimes and the national authorities' unwillingness to ensure justice, the UNSC should immediately refer the situation to the ICC. But under the present circumstances, how likely is it for the UNSC to vote for such a measure?

The politics of the Security Council pose a challenge, but the international community cannot use that as an excuse to allow the Myanmar security forces to get away with crimes of this magnitude. The long history of the Myanmar military operating above the law has set the stage for the crimes committed against the Rohingya — and against other ethnic minorities in other parts of the country. Countries should make their position clear, and call for an ICC referral to build pressure on those who, as of now, appear to stand in the way of justice.

In addition, there are key actions that can be taken right now, irrespective of a UN Security Council referral. Following the publication of the forthcoming report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission, UN member states should establish, through the UN Human Rights Council, an independent investigative mechanism with the mandate and capacity to collect and preserve evidence and to build criminal cases that can ultimately be used in international or internationalized courts or for domestic prosecutions under universal jurisdiction.

What can the international community, including the European Union and the United States, do to persuade the Myanmar government to change its policy and prosecute the military personnel responsible for committing atrocities against innocent civilians?

Past experience in Myanmar, and specifically in Rakhine, shows that the Myanmar authorities cannot be trusted to bring those responsible to justice. The Myanmar military has already published investigations that deny and whitewash the overwhelming majority of the crimes. The international community must send a clear message that this cannot and will not stand.

The European Union took an important step on Monday when it imposed targeted sanctions against seven Myanmar military and police officials. Six of the seven sanctioned individuals are people whom we have identified in our report as among those who should face criminal investigation. But the EU should go further. The sanctions it imposed do not reach to the senior-most levels of the military. Our report shows that responsibility goes all the way to the top, to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Read more: EU and Canada sanction Myanmar officials over Rohingya abuses

Rohingya Muslims face pain and despair

In addition, the European Union and other countries should increase pressure on the Myanmar authorities to allow access throughout the country to independent investigators, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission. The fact that, ten months after the military's campaign of violence began, the Myanmar authorities continue to deny independent access to Rakhine shows that the authorities are still choosing a course of denial and obstructionism, rather than engaging seriously with the mountain of evidence that exists.

What measures should be put in place to ensure that the Rohingya people live in peace and dignity, both inside and outside Myanmar?

The international community must act swiftly and in unity to address the challenges that exist for the Rohingya on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

First, there are enormous humanitarian needs facing the 900,000 Rohingya sheltering in camps or with host communities in Bangladesh. Countries around the world must act in concert to ensure their basic needs are met. The monsoon season has arrived in Bangladesh, which poses further threats to the safety and well-being of many refugees, including as a result of landslides and floods. The international community needs to increase its support for the humanitarian response.

Second, for the more than 150,000 Rohingya still in Rakhine, the international community must demand full and unfettered humanitarian access, to assess their needs and to ensure that essential aid can be delivered. While the restrictions on humanitarian aid organizations have lessened to some extent in recent months, they still exist. Ten months after violence erupted, that is simply unacceptable.

Third, the international community should demand that the Myanmar authorities dismantle the system of apartheid that has existed for years in Rakhine, by ending the arbitrary restrictions on the Rohingya population's ability to move and by ensuring that nationality is granted free of discrimination. The recommendations made by the Annan Commission provide an important starting point. Pressure must be exerted on the Myanmar authorities to ensure they follow through in implementing those recommendations without delay.

Fourth, and finally, the right of Rohingya to return to Myanmar safely, voluntarily, and in dignity must be respected and protected. Satellite imagery shows that the Myanmar authorities are bulldozing many Rohingya villages that were burned down. In some areas, they are building new security force posts and other infrastructure directly on top of where Rohingya used to live and farm. This must stop. Donor countries should swiftly and carefully review their support for projects in Rakhine, to ensure that development in the state is sustainable and that it does not assist in construction or other activity that makes repatriation more difficult or that entrenches discrimination and segregation.

Read more:Oxford withdraws Aung San Suu Kyi's 'Freedom of the City' award 

Matthew Wells is senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International and one of the lead researchers and authors of the report, "We Will Destroy Everything."

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.