by Nick Cummings-Bruce, ‘The New York Times,’ August 27, 2019
GENEVA — Myanmar’s army commander and other top generals should face trial in an international court for genocide against Rohingya Muslims and for crimes against humanity targeting other ethnic minorities, United Nations experts said on Monday after a yearlong investigation.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s army, is one of six generals named as priority subjects for investigation and prosecution by a United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar in a report detailing military campaigns involving atrocities that “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
The three-member panel leveled the most serious charge, genocide, over the ferocious campaign unleashed by the Buddhist-majority security forces against Rohingya Muslims a year ago. That campaign, in the state of Rakhine, sent more than 700,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar has rejected allegations of widespread atrocities, asserting that its security forces were simply responding to attacks by Rohingya militants on Myanmar police posts and an army station on Aug. 25 last year. But the panel said there was enough information to warrant investigation and prosecution of senior officers “so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide.”
In an 18-page report released on Monday, the panel described the Rakhine operations as a “foreseeable and planned catastrophe” building on decades of oppression of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar has long falsely classified the Rohingya as “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh, denying them citizenship and making them vulnerable to attack, including previous assaults in 2012 and 2016.
The panel found evidence of genocidal intent in the operation, citing the prevailing rhetoric of hate directed at the Rohingya and statements by military commanders as well as “the level of organization indicating a plan for destruction; and the extreme scale and brutality of the violence.”
The panel said estimates of 10,000 deaths in the Rakhine campaign were conservative and cited harrowing witness accounts of mass killings, gang rapes of women and young girls and the wholesale destruction of villages by the military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other civilian authorities “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” by failing to use their positions to stop them, the panel said.
Elsewhere, “scorched earth” operations by the military against Kachin and Shan ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar revealed similar patterns of attacks and sexual violence against civilians, the panel said.
The three-member panel — led by Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general — is to present its report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next month along with an annex that runs more than 400 pages and includes witness testimony of atrocities and detailed satellite imagery analysis.
The accounts, collected from victims and eyewitnesses, “will leave a mark on all of us for the rest of our lives,” Mr. Darusman told reporters in Geneva.
Myanmar refused access and cooperation to the investigation, which based its report on 875 interviews and documents compiled in numerous field missions to Bangladesh and neighboring countries. “Only verified and corroborated information was relied upon,” it said.
The panel report detailed attacks carried out by a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army,including the raids last August, and it reported abuses carried out by other ethnic armed groups in the north. But it said that “military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages.”
The Tatmadaw’s tactics were “consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats” in Rakhine State and in Myanmar’s north, it said.
The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has previously condemned the army’s actions as ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide, but the panel’s unequivocal assertion is likely to increase pressure for immediate international action.
The panel said the United Nations Security Council should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or set up an international tribunal like those that investigated genocide and atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It also urged the Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and penalize those most responsible for crimes with travel bans and a freeze on assets.
The panel members said on Monday that the Tatmadaw commander should resign as a first step toward achieving accountability for the military’s crimes, but there was no immediate sign of any change in his position of power.
Over the weekend, General Min Aung Hlaing returned from Russia, where he attended a military forum and shopped for weapons. Both Russia and China have shielded Myanmar from formal criticism from the Security Council.
In addition to the six generals named in the report, the United Nations panel is providing a “non-exhaustive” list of people accused of atrocities to the high commissioner for human rights. The list is to be made available to any international body pursuing accountability.
This month, the United States unveiled a new set of targeted sanctions against military officers who are believed to have directed the violence against the Rohingya. But no member of the country’s top brass, such as General Min Aung Hlaing, was named.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has set up several commissions to look at the root causes of the violence in Rakhine State, but none has resulted in any serious action or even an admission of the scale of the slaughter. Two foreign diplomats quit one panel, saying they did not want to take part in a whitewashing of serious crimes.
The United Nations mission said the dominant position of the Tatmadaw, which ruled Myanmar for nearly half a century and still enjoys absolute impunity even as it shares power with a civilian government, meant that yet another Rakhine commission formed by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi “will not and cannot” deliver a meaningful outcome. “The impetus for accountability must come from the international community,” it said.
A conspicuous failing of Myanmar’s civilian authorities identified by the panel was their failure to curb virulent hate speech by religious and national hard-liners on social media platforms, notably Facebook.
“Facebook’s response was slow and ineffective,” the report said, although a panel member, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said the company had since taken a more active role in policing hate speech in Myanmar, assigning more people to monitor it and take it down.
On Monday, Facebook announced that it was taking additional steps in response to criticism that it had done too little to stem hate speech and misinformation in Myanmar. Acknowledging that it had been “too slow to act,” the company said it was banning 20 people and groups, including General Min Aung Hlaing, linked to the crisis in Myanmar.
The U.N. panel’s report also calls for accountability within the United Nations, delivering a scathing assessment of its failure to respond to the abuses unfolding in Myanmar and calling for a comprehensive independent inquiry “as a matter of urgency.”
United Nations officials in Myanmar failed to put in place the organization’s policy on human rights, preferring to give priority to development and quiet diplomacy, the panel said, echoing criticisms of the United Nations in Sri Lanka during the bloody closing stages of its war against Tamil Tiger rebels.
“That approach has demonstrably failed; the United Nations as a whole failed to adequately address human rights concerns,” the panel said.
Even now, it added, the approach taken by United Nations agencies in Myanmar “displays few signs of any lessons learned.”