Authorities in Myanmar made preparations for attacks against the Rohingya with “genocidal intent” in the weeks before last year’s purge, a rights watchdog has claimed. A report by Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based organisation, alleges that officials carefully planned a systematic assault on the Rohingya community. Rohingya militants provided an opportunity for attack when they conducted a series of coordinated strikes on border police outposts in August last year, claiming the lives of 12 security personnel. The ensuing military-led crackdown, during which the army allegedly committed rapes, massacres and arson attacks, drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. The report, They Gave Them Long Swords, identifies more than 20 army and police officials responsible for alleged atrocities. These include figures at the highest level of the military command structure such as Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and joint chief of staff, Mya Tun Oo.
The study, published on Thursday following nearly two years of research, contains legal analysis and hundreds of interviews with survivors of violence, Rohingya insurgents, and government and military officials in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Security forces armed non-Rohingya civilians in the months before the 2017 violence, claim the researchers, even as steps were taken to make Rohingya communities more vulnerable to the coming assault. Among the alleged measures were moves to disarm civilians, suspend humanitarian aid, impose curfews and substantially increase troop numbers. Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, said Myanmar’s failure to hold senior military officials to account for their deliberate targeting of civilians meant the country should be referred to the international criminal court, which could act as a deterrent against future crimes. “The ICC was created precisely for situations like this when a government fails to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities. The preparations and the crimes themselves – massacres, mass rape, atrocious attacks – all speak to genocidal intent,” Smith said. “So long as impunity continues, we’re likely to see more atrocities.”
The Rohingya, a stateless, predominantly Muslim community, have resided for generations in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where they endure restrictions on basic rights such as freedom of movement. The group has been subjected to a series of military crackdowns over the past six years, the worst and most recent of which began last August. Coordinated attacks on border police by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) were answered with a counter-insurgency campaign that prompted an estimated 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. The violence claimed 6,700 lives in its first month, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières. The UN’s human rights chief has said he believes “acts of genocide” may have been committed during the conflagration. The government and military of Myanmar have strongly denied accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity, claiming the “clearance operations” that began last August were a justified response to acts of “terrorism” by Rohingya insurgents. A military inquiry into the conduct of soldiers released its findings in November 2017, exonerating the army of all alleged atrocities. But the military did acknowledge the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya men at the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine state after a mass grave was discovered. The soldiers convicted of involvement in the murders were sentenced to 10 years in jail “with hard labour.”
The government has denied visas to a UN delegation tasked with investigating alleged abuses and barred Professor Yanghee Lee, the UN’s rights envoy to Myanmar, from entering the country, claiming that she has made “biased, one-sided and unfair accusations.” Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, and president of a rights advocacy organisation that bears his name, concluded visits to Myanmar and Bangladesh with a high-level delegation this week. She said the time had come for the international community to hold perpetrators of “genocide” accountable. Kennedy said, “The only question before us now is, will we allow the latest round of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people to go unpunished once again, or will we finally stand together against genocide in Myanmar?” The Guardian was unable to reach government spokesperson Zaw Htay or military representatives Maj Gen Aye Lwin and Maj Gen Soe Naing Oo by phone, despite repeated attempts. Win Htein, a senior member of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy, told the Guardian: “Genocide never happened, so don’t ask me that question,” before hanging up the phone. He did not answer further calls.
Credit: Emanuel Stoakes for The Guardian, 19 July 2018.