A U.N. report called Monday
for Myanmar’s military leaders, including the commander in chief, to be investigated and prosecuted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes over their actions in ethnic and religious minority states — the strongest international condemnation yet of the military’s actions following a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims last August.
The report, the culmination of interviews, research and analysis conducted by a U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission over more than a year, significantly challenges the Myanmar military’s decades-long assertions, in Rakhine state and elsewhere, that it is merely responding to security challenges.
It found “patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan state” that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” a statement announcing the report’s findings said.
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages,” the report said. “The Tatmadaw’s tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine State, but also in northern Myanmar,” the report added, using the official name for the armed forces in Myanmar.
The U.S. State Department is putting finishing touches on its own report on the events in Rakhine state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet Sunday that the United States would “continue to hold those responsible accountable.” He referred to the Myanmar military’s actions as “abhorrent ethnic cleansing.”
Earlier this month, the United States imposed sanctions on several military generals for their involvement in “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
The three-member fact-finding mission, led Marzuki Darusman, 73, a lawyer and human rights campaigner and former attorney general of Indonesia, concluded that there is “sufficient information” to open a genocide and war-crimes investigation of senior Myanmar generals. A spokesman for Myanmar’s armed forces could not be reached for comment.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, said his country rejects the mandate of the U.N. fact-finding mission and its report.
“Myanmar doesn’t need to accept the report,” Zaw Htay said.
On Monday, just after the U.N. report was released, Facebook took a rare step, removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages — including that of the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The accounts cumulatively had 12 million followers.
The U.N. report extends culpability for the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state to Myanmar’s civilian government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The civilian government, the report said, has failed to speak out against unfolding events, has spread “false narratives,” has overseen the destruction of evidence in Rakhine state and has blocked independent investigations.
“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes,” it said.
A European Commission spokeswoman said Monday in Brussels that Myanmar officials “responsible for alleged serious and systemic human rights violations must be held to account,” according to the Reuters news agency. The commission, the European Union’s executive arm, plans to meet this week with the authors of the U.N. report, Reuters reported.
“There cannot and must not be impunity” for atrocities in Myanmar, Britain’s Foreign Office said.
The report will “have a big impact internationally, coming from the main U.N.-mandated body investigating the violence against the Rohingya, and also covering armed conflict in Shan and Kachin states,” said Richard Horsey, a former U.N. diplomat in Myanmar and a longtime Yangon-based analyst.
The impact on the domestic narrative of what happened in Rakhine state, however, is less certain, he added.
Myanmar’s civilian leaders have defended their handling of the crisis, saying they are committed to resettling the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled in the wake of the crackdown and are working to improve humanitarian conditions in Rakhine state.
The report also noted that Myanmar authorities “do not tolerate scrutiny or criticism” and have used various laws to arrest, detain or harass human rights defenders and journalists. It pointed to a case against two Reuters journalists who have been jailed since December on charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act in the course of reporting on the killings of Rohingya men in Inn Din, in Rakhine state. A verdict in their case was widely expected Monday but was postponed until Sept. 3.
The fact-finding mission has drawn up a list of alleged perpetrators who it believes must be prioritized for investigation and prosecution. These start with the commander in chief, who has avoided any sanctions or specific condemnation from international governments, including the United States and European Union. The mission’s report also named deputy commander in chief Soe Win and four other military commanders who led divisions that carried out the operations in Rakhine state and elsewhere: Aung Kyaw Zaw, Maung Maung Soe, Aung Aung and Than Oo.
Maung Maung Soe was among the first to be sanctioned by multiple countries and was fired by the Myanmar military in June in a move widely seen as a way for more-senior leaders to show they are taking some responsibility for last year’s actions. He led the Western Command, which oversees Rakhine state, until November. According to a former high-ranking military official, the decision to fire him was made by Min Aung Hlaing himself but was unpopular among officers who believed he was made a scapegoat to protect more-senior leadership.
Min Aung Hlaing, meanwhile, has continued to host international visitors and leaders and has not been hit with sanctions from any foreign country.
The U.N. fact-finding mission, established by the U.N. Human Rights Council, recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, or create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal, and impose an arms embargo on Myanmar.
The U.N. Security Council meets Tuesday, but observers say it is unlikely that any decisive action will come from that body. China, a permanent member of the council and Myanmar’s northern neighbor, has defended Myanmar since the start of the crisis and pledged development aid in line with the government’s strategy in Rakhine, seeing it as a way to regain leverage lost since Myanmar embarked on warmer relations with the West. Min Aung Hlaing recently visited Russia — another of the council’s permanent members — where he shopped for arms.
The U.N. fact-finding mission will present a fuller report to the Human Rights Council on Sept. 18.
Wai Moe in Yangon contributed to this report.