August 25, marked the first anniversary of the most recent assault by the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw), against the Rohingya people as well as other ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar
“The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.” (Desmond Tutu Nobel Peace Prize laureate)
“The Mission called for the situation in Myanmar to be referred to the International Criminal Court or for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to be created. In the interim, it called for an independent, impartial mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations. It also recommended targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible.” (OHCHR)
August 25, marked the first anniversary of the most recent assault by the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw), against the Rohingya people as well as other ethnic minorities in northern Myanmar. The recent campaign was ostensibly in retaliation for attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants against about 30 police posts and an army base in the region in August 2017.
Over twelve months ago human rights groups including Human Rights Watch called on the international community to address this campaign of rape, destruction and murder being carried out by the military against a completely defenceless civilian population.
“Burmese security forces are committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya and disregarding the condemnation of world leaders. The time has come to impose tougher measures that Burma’s generals cannot ignore.” John Sifton, the organisation’s Asia advocacy director said at the time.
Amnesty International also attempted to end the silence surrounding the ongoing atrocities. In doing so they documented “extensively the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign, which included targeted burning of Rohingya villages, the use of landmines and the commission of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, torture, forced starvation and forced deportation as well as other serious human rights violations against the Rohingya.”
By the end of September 2017 Human Rights Watch and other bodies were interviewing Rohingya civilians deliberately targeted by the Burmese military as a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide was recognized as being underway.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, even told the media that the apparently government-approved military clearance operations in Rakhine State was “unfinished business” dating back to the Second World War:
“The security forces’ response to the ARSA attacks in August 2017 started within hours, “was immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate”, suggesting “a level of preplanning and design” consistent with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s stated vision to finish “the unfinished job” of solving “the long-standing Bengali problem”. (OHCHR)
Reports beginning to surface at that time documented unimaginable brutality:
“Momena, a 32-year-old Rohingya woman from Maungdaw Township, said that she fled to Bangladesh on August 26, a day after security forces attacked her village. She first hid with her children when the soldiers arrived, but returning to the village she said she saw 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and elderly people: ‘All had knife wounds or bullet wounds, some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father – I just fled.’”
Tabarak Hussein, 19, also reported:
“The local police had been harassing us, mistreating us for at least six months before this. They would take away our cows, for example. We were angry about this but we didn’t protest; we knew protesting would come to nothing. Then on the Friday [August 25] before the attack, four people were killed in my village [by the police]. I don’t know exactly how it happened. They were all Rohingya men. We left the village that day and hid in the hills, but came back because the police seemed to back down and leave. We thought it was all over, but it was not.” (HRW, 2017)
Now, finally, 12 months later, with the publication of the recent UN report calling for prosecution of the Myamanar military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, we see that the list of “gross human rights violations and abuses” against the civilian population are extensive. They include:
Murder, including mass killings.
The scorching of Rohingya settlements.
Large-scale gang rape and other sexual violence by Tatmadaw soldiers. (“The poignant testimony of one survivor laid bare the monstrous extent of sexual violence: “I was lucky, I was only raped by three men,” she said. Rapes were often in public spaces in front of families, including children.”)
Many children injured by being shot, stabbed or burned.
The burning of villages – “Rohingya populated-areas were burned down with nearby ethnic Rakhine settlements left unscathed”.
Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and detention.
Estimates of the total number of people killed to date remain uncertain. While Doctors Without Borders estimated 6,700 Rohingya deaths “in the first month of violence alone” recent figures estimate that figure could now increase to over 50,000 as 43,000 Rohingya parents have been reported lost, presumed dead in the six months to the end of 2017. Myanmar’s military official death toll still stands at 400.
Eventually up to three quarters of a million refugees ended up having to flee across the border into Bangladesh.
By mid-September 2017, Human Rights Watch was calling for urgent action to stop the killing:
“The United Nations Security Council and concerned countries should impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the Burmese military to end its ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch said today. Since August 25, 2017, after attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Burmese military forces have carried out mass arson, killing, and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing nearly half a million Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.”
Now, 12 months later, the United Nations Report publishes documentation of its own findings:
Report of the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar – A/HRC/39/64 (Release Date 27 August 2018)
…And its findings, once again, make for difficult reading, including in its content page “the targeting of civilians, sexual violence, exclusionary rhetoric, impunity, crimes under international law, genocide, crimes against humanity”, and “war crimes”…
In their Press Release to the Report they state:
“GENEVA (27 August 2018) – Myanmar’s top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in the north of Rakhine State, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States…
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages. The Tatmadaw’s tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats, especially in Rakhine State, but also in northern Myanmar…
“They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them. The Tatmadaw’s contempt for human life, integrity and freedom, and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population.
“The Mission also concluded “there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State.”
In simple terms and in other words, it is now time for the Burmese military to face the music…
The UN Office identified a list of alleged perpetrators “as priority subjects for investigation and prosecution”. These include:
The Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing;
The Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Vice Senior-General Soe Win;
The Commander, Bureau of Special Operations-3, Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw;
The Commander, Western Regional Military Command, Major-General Maung Maung Soe;
The Commander, 33rd Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Aung Aung;
The Commander, 99th Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Than Oo.
The civilian authorities of Aung San Suu Kyi while unable to control the military also must share the blame “through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
“The State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State…” the investigators concluded.
It is now time for this reign of murder and violence:
“to be referred to the International Criminal Court or for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to be created. In the interim, it called for an independent, impartial mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations. It also recommended targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible.”
Responding to the publication, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response Tirana Hassan, said:
“This report, which adds to a mountain of evidence of crimes under international law committed by the military, shows the urgent need for independent criminal investigation and is clear that the Myanmar authorities are incapable of bringing to justice those responsible.
“The international community has the responsibility to act to ensure justice and accountability. Failing to do so sends a dangerous message that Myanmar’s military will not only enjoy impunity but will be free to commit such atrocities again.
“The UN Security Council must refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court as a matter of urgency. Until it does, it’s vital that countries establish a mechanism through the UN to collect and preserve evidence for use in future criminal proceedings.”
Despite being denied access to Myanmar, The UN Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017:
“…amassed a vast amount of information from primary sources, including through 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, satellite imagery and authenticated documents, photographs and videos. Specialist advice was sought on sexual and gender-based violence, psychology, military affairs and forensics. Only verified and corroborated information was taken on board. The Mission travelled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the United Kingdom.”
Following this publication a more comprehensive report, “containing detailed factual information and legal analysis” will be published and presented to the Human Rights Council on 18 September.
For far too long, too many have perpetrated too many crimes against innocent civilians with impunity and with no fear that they will be called to account for their crimes.
We now wait. For justice to be done. And for the world to see it has been done.
Myanmar, are you listening?
A Footnote to Human Tragedy
As a sad footnote to the unfolding tragedy in northwest Myanmar, in September 2017, in the midst of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1984) wrote to his fellow laureate (1991) Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of standing up to the power of the military, now State Counsellor of Myanmar in the almost-civilian government that has assumed power:
“My dear Aung San Suu Kyi
I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.
In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.
Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.
We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.
My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.
It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.
As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness.
God bless you.”
So once again, and in a world with no shortage of unspeakable outrage, we, ourselves, as concerned citizens, are left almost without words adequate to give voice to this seemingly-endless violence perpetrated by one section of our human community on another; less words even to adequately explain the why of this hatred and violence, leaving us, in the end, with a desperate need to find words (along with a practice yet to be discovered?) to at least challenge the enormous silence, confront the perpetrators and begin the almost hopeless task of finding a way through the maze of so-called civilised history to a place where we are allowed to build a world based on compassion, co-operation and mutual respect for difference..?
Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh after being driven out of Myanmar, 2017
By Zlatica Hoke (VOA) (Screenshot from the source video) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fact-finding Mission in Cox’s Bazar, 17-18 July 2018
Burma: Rohingya Describe Military Atrocities (Human Rights Watch)
Rohingya Tell Horror Stories of Rape, Killings by Burmese Army (Human Rights Watch)
Myanmar: Are crimes against humanity taking place? (BBC Newsnight)
Report of Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar
The Rohingya Crisis: Past, Present, and Future (APHR)
Burma: Security Forces Raped Rohingya Women, Girls
Same Impunity, Same Patterns – SEXUAL ABUSES BY THE BURMA ARMY WILL NOT STOP until there is a genuine civilian government (WOMEN’S LEAGUE OF BURMA – January 2014)
Other Human Rights Watch Reports