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Genocide, hate speech, and the Rohingya: Key takeaways from UN probe on Myanmar

Investigators say Myanmar’s top generals should be prosecuted for atrocities against minority groups

Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees staged angry protests for "justice" on 25 August 2018 on the first anniversary of a Myanmar military crackdown that sparked a mass exodus to camps in Bangladesh.

A UN rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top military commanders to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for the violent purge of more than 700,000 minority Rohingya last year. It also points a finger at the UN itself.

Last August, Myanmar’s military swept through Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State, pushing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Nearly one million refugees now live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, where aid groups say they’re hampered by continuing funding shortages.

The fact-finding mission says there’s enough evidence to investigate and prosecute Myanmar’s top military generals for genocide.

In a report released today, the fact-finding mission – set up in March 2017 by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged abuses in Myanmar since 2011 – says the rights violations in Rakhine “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”.

Investigators also accuse the UN of prioritising development and humanitarian access in Myanmar while failing to address long-term rights violations that saw Rohingya minorities disenfranchised, segregated, and eventually driven away.

Here are six key takeaways from the probe:

Using the G-word

The fact-finding mission says there’s enough evidence to investigate and prosecute Myanmar’s top military generals for genocide – a loaded term that foreign governments, UN officials, and even outspoken rights groups have been cautious about using to describe the Rohingya purge. This goes a step further than previous statements from UN officials, some of whom have used the word, though not in such unequivocal terms.

The rights probe is urging the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, or to create a separate tribunal to investigate possible crimes. So far, there has been little appetite to do so at the highly politicised Security Council. But a conclusion of likely genocide from a UN-mandated probe puts the spotlight back on Security Council members, who are scheduled to discuss Myanmar on 28 August.

Military actions “foreseen and planned”

Myanmar’s military and government says its crackdown was a direct response to attacks on border posts by a group of Rohingya militants. But the fact-finding mission concludes that Myanmar’s military built up troop levels across northern Rakhine State in early August 2017 – weeks before the 25 August attacks.

“This build-up was significant, requiring logistical planning and time to implement, indicating that the subsequent operations were foreseen and planned,” the probe concludes.

Top generals most responsible, but civilian leaders “contributed”

The fact-finding mission places the blame primarily on the shoulders of the military, which it says was the “main perpetrator of serious human rights violations and crimes under international law”. But police and border guards, local authorities, and civilian militias also participated, the investigators say. At the same time, the Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, committed “serious human rights abuses” by allegedly killing dozens of suspected informants, the probe says.

The investigators conclude that the government, headed by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, did not plan or implement the military operations and had “little scope” to control the army. But it also did little to prevent violence, instead defending the military and blocking investigations.

“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes,” the UN investigators said.

The UN itself should be investigated

The fact-finding mission also says that in the years before last August’s Rohingya exodus, UN agencies in the country “failed” to address well-publicised human rights problems. The mission is calling for an urgent inquiry into the UN’s work in Myanmar since 2011.

Tensions have been reported between UN agencies in Myanmar, where some have urged UN officials to speak out more forcefully on rights abuses. Internal reports have called the UN in Myanmar “glaringly dysfunctional”.

The UN investigators conclude that, even a year after aid groups were sidelined as Myanmar’s military launched its crackdown, problems about holding the Myanmar government to account still exist today. They note that there’s scant mention of human rights in recent agreements UN agencies have signed with Myanmar’s government – and some UN entities also refused to cooperate with the fact-finding mission.

Fanning the flames on Facebook

The fact-finding mission says social media was used to spread hate speech, but the response from Facebook was “slow and ineffective”. It’s calling for an investigation into whether hate messages spread on the social network led to “real-world discrimination and violence” – but Facebook hasn’t provided the needed country-level data.

Internal reports have called the UN in Myanmar “glaringly dysfunctional”.

Facebook is widely used in Myanmar. In fact, the UN investigators cite statements by Myanmar’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, published on his own Facebook page, as evidence of “genocidal intent”.

Patterns of atrocity

The Rohingya are one of several minority communities facing rights abuses in Myanmar. The fact-finding mission draws parallels between military abuses in Rakhine State and violations in northern Myanmar, where a long-standing conflict against armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states has trapped civilians and largely flared out of view.

The UN investigators say there’s evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in northern Myanmar as well as Rakhine. While anti-Rohingya violence and the conflict in the northern borderlands aren’t directly related, the fact-finding mission says there are common patterns in which the military functions: targeting civilians, sexual violence, exclusionary rhetoric, and impunity from justice.

(TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees stage protests on 25 August 2018, the first anniversary of a Myanmar military crackdown that sparked a mass exodus to camps in Bangladesh. CREDIT: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP)


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