Burmese troops and villagers were behind the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Rakhine state's Inn Din village, the military's commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, said Wednesday in a statement on Facebook.
The admission marks the first time that Burma's powerful military has acknowledged wrongdoing in the violence that gripped Rakhine last year. In just a few months, more than 650,000 members of the Rohingya minority fled across the border into Bangladesh. The crisis was labeled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations' top human rights official.
The military statement may also offer further hints to help address one of the most urgent questions in a crisis that is thought to have left thousands dead: Where are the bodies? Late last year, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya had died violently during the exodus last year, mostly from gunshot wounds. The government of Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, has blocked numerous attempts by outside groups to investigate on the ground.
“It's not as though there are human remains lying around everywhere,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “We have reason to suspect that authorities have disposed of human remains, whether maliciously to hide evidence or for other reasons.”
With access to the area limited, proof of killings has been hard to establish. U.N. human rights investigators and others have been denied access to the areas hit hardest by violence, while two Reuters journalists who were reported to be investigating evidence of a mass grave at Inn Din are on trial in Rangoon. Prosecutors are seeking charges that could impose a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, according to the reporters' attorney.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the human rights group Fortify Rights, said it was noteworthy that the grave referenced on Wednesday was the same being investigated by the Reuters journalists. “The authorities appear to have arrested them in order to halt the investigation while also sending a chilling message to other journalists and would-be truth tellers,” Smith wrote in an email.
After numerous accounts of massacres emerged from survivors, human rights groups resorted to using commercial satellite imagery to look for evidence of violence. Matt Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, said that although it was difficult to find mass graves using that technique, images seen by Amnesty had made it clear that Rohingya homes in the Inn Din area were burned down in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign.
“It is one of the most striking examples of how targeted the burning has been in the military's campaign,” Wells said in a phone call. “The Rohingya portion of the village has been completely burned to the ground, whereas non-Rohingya buildings very nearby have been completely untouched.”
In Wednesday's military statement, the office of the Burmese military's commander in chief said that villagers and security forces had acknowledged that they killed “10 Bengali terrorists” — a reference to the Rohingya whose bodies were found in Inn Din last year. The statement went on to claim that the soldiers involved were responding to provocations but added that they would be dealt with.
“The army will take charge of those who are responsible for the killings and who broke the rules of engagement,” the statement continued, according to an Associated Press translation. “This incident happened because ethnic Buddhist villagers were threatened and provoked by the terrorists.”
The Rohingya have been established in Burma for generations, but the government refuses to recognize members of the minority community as citizens and refers to them as Bengalis, implying that they are immigrants from Bangladesh who live in Burma illegally.
Though limited in scope, Wednesday's message appears to contradict previous denials of a Burmese military involvement in violence against the Rohingya. In a report released in November, the military exonerated itself of accusations involving several atrocities, including rape and killings.
The government has strongly denied suggestions of “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine. It has estimated that 400 Rohingya died last year but said that 376 of them were terrorists involved in an armed insurgency. Last year, a group of foreign journalists was flown into the country to see a mass grave in northern Rakhine that authorities said contained the bodies of Hindu villagers who had been killed by Rohingya insurgents.
Rights groups said that Wednesday's acknowledgment of involvement showed the need for Burma to allow outside investigators into Rakhine.
“This grisly admission is a sharp departure from the army’s policy of blanket denial of any wrongdoing,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. “However, it is only the tip of the iceberg and warrants serious independent investigation into what other atrocities were committed amid the ethnic cleansing campaign.”
Human Rights Watch's Sifton said of the Burmese military: “This is not an institution that has any credibility. That is precisely why you need international observers and investigators involved now.”
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