Myanmar’s military announced Wednesday that it will take legal action against servicemen accused of committing war crimes during a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslim communities in northern Rakhine state following the issuance of a report by a government-appointment commission that conducted an investigation into the accusations.
The announcement came a day before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s highest court, issues a decision on a request by Gambia for provisional measures to prevent further violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya, more than 740,000 of whom were driven into exile in Bangladesh during the violence
The small West African nation filed a lawsuit at the ICJ in November on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during the alleged expulsion of Rohingya to Bangladesh.
The announcement by the office of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said that the armed forces will investigate soldiers among its ranks who are said to have committed atrocities during the 2017 violence and during a smaller crackdown in northern Rakhine in 2016.
The trials will be held in military courts, it said.
“The Office of the Judge Advocate General will take action in conformity with military justice procedures if there is credible evidence of any commission of offence by members of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military],” the statement said.
The government and the military have largely defended the actions of soldiers, saying that they were conducting “clearance operations” during the two clampdowns in response to deadly attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group.
“The Tatmadaw in carrying out its duty to defend the sovereignty of the state and protect the life and property of the local people from terrorist attacks launched by ARSA and its collaborators did so spontaneously,” the statement said. “The action was not premeditated.”
It also said that the armed forces would review military-related suggestions by the ICOE and that the attorney general of the Defense Office would thoroughly review the entire report.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that those accused of rights abuses and atrocities in the report issued Monday by the country’s Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) will have the right to defend themselves.
Formed in 2018 to probe the violent clampdown, the ICOE in its final report concluded that security forces committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, but did not act with “genocidal intent,” despite extensive documentation of atrocities by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups.
The report prompted Myanmar President Win Myint on Tuesday to call on the military to investigate and punish soldiers and other security personnel who committed rights violations.
“If the court-martial finds firm evidence, it will take action against them according to the military justice system with responsibility and accountability,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“We will announce or speak out to the media about any investigation,” he said, adding that the military will consider granting the media access to the court-martial process depending on the security situation.
Cases must go to civil courts
Thar Aye, a Yangon-based Rohingya activist and politician, said accused soldiers should be tried in civil courts as well to ensure an independent ruling.
“It will not be enough to have only military tribunals because the court-martial handles military-related issues,” he told RFA. “It will be hard to get the truth for all people only from military tribunals. The cases need to be heard at civil courts that can protect civilians.”
The military has conducted only two rare courts-martial of officers and other soldiers accused of committing grave rights abuses in 2017.
In March 2018, four officers and three soldiers were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing a group of Rohingya men and boys in a village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, but were pardoned and freed about eight months later by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The military has held hearings since late November 2019 in a court-martial of soldiers accused of killing hundreds of Rohingya civilians and dumping their bodies in five mass graves in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township. The military has disputed the number killed, giving a much lower figure and saying that they died during fighting between government forces and ARSA.
In response to Thar Aye’s comment, Zaw Min Tun said that trials of soldiers cannot be held in civil courts.
“In which country do civilians get involved in the military justice system, or in which country does the military get involved in cases in civil courts?” he asked.
“Military courts cannot work on murder or rape cases and then transfer these cases to civil courts, because cases that occur when a person is on military duty would fall under [the jurisdiction] of a military court.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday said that Myanmar authorities must allow “independent international investigations probes into the role of the military chain of command if they want to address global skepticism about the government’s response to the atrocities.”
“The [ICOE] commission appears to admit just enough to try to placate international opinion, which has overwhelmingly concluded that crimes against humanity and even genocide occurred, while shielding senior military commanders who planned and ordered atrocities,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.
“Scapegoating a few low-ranking soldiers will fool no one,” he said. “The commission’s report is only meaningful if the military acknowledges responsibility and agrees to an independent international justice process.”
Myanmar leaders and top commanders also face legal action at the International Criminal Court at The Hague and in an Argentine court.
Myanmar’s Attorney General’s Office, at the behest of the president, said Wednesday that it will work with related departments to investigate and prosecute cases involving crimes committed in northern Rakhine state in late 2017, the online journal the Irrawaddy reported.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.