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New suspects, ongoing abuses, and the Rohingya purge: Key takeaways from Myanmar rights probe

Unidentified men carry knives and slingshots as they walk past a burning house in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state in northern Myanmar on 7 September 2017.

Myanmar’s military is “out of control” and continues to commit “the gravest crimes” under international law against the Rohingya and other minority groups, according to a UN-appointed rights probe.

Investigators with the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar are scheduled to present their final report before the Human Rights Council on 16 and 17 September. It’s the culmination of more than two years of examining rights abuses in Myanmar, including the August 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In initial findings last year, the three-member panel called Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya campaign a genocide and urged international prosecution. Now, investigators say they have strengthened their initial assessment with new information, including interviews with members of non-Rohingya communities in Rakhine State and fresh evidence of “egregious” and ongoing abuses. 

They’ve also expanded their list of suspected perpetrators from six military generals to more than 100 people, including civilian officials. And investigators are warning of continuing rights violations against other minority groups trapped in conflicts elsewhere in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s government has denied nearly all allegations of abuse, including those levelled by the UN rights probe.

Here are six key takeaways from the investigation’s final report:

Abuses continue in Rakhine State

The violent purge of more than 700,000 people shrunk Rakhine State’s Rohingya population, but abuses continue against those who remain.

The mission says it has evidence that jailers committed sexual violence against Rohingya prisoners detained in Buthidaung, a northern township, as recently as 2018. Investigators say these abuses, which include beatings, rape, and genital torture, amount to crimes against humanity.

Rohingya continue to live amid severe movement restrictions and segregation, which investigators say is one of the clearest signs of ongoing persecution. Rohingya still in Rakhine face daily curfews, forced labour, extortion threats, and arbitrary arrest. Refugees who left Myanmar more recently reported being barred from working their land or having their crops or fishing gear destroyed – eliminating their only means of food and income.

“If anything, the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar is worse after another year of living in deplorable conditions,” investigators say.

Crises are worsening elsewhere

Much of the mission’s work has focused on the Rohingya purge, but it was tasked with investigating all abuses in Myanmar since 2011.

Investigators say “discrimination and marginalisation are the common thread” in conflicts across the country, including in Kachin and northern Shan states, where multiple ethnic armed groups have battled the military (and each other) for years, and more than 106,000 people are displaced. The mission says there is “significant new information” on military attacks, including a January 2018 airstrike in Kachin’s Tanai township, recent sexual violence and killings of displaced people, and the January 2015 murders of two Kachin teachers

Investigators say they have also corroborated evidence of abuse in this year’s crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in Rakhine State, where violence has displaced more than 32,000 civilians. This includes the torture and deaths of Rakhine civilians suspected of being insurgents, forced labour of minority Rakhine and Chin people, arbitrary arrests, and the military seizures of schools and monasteries.

The rights probe says restrictions on aid and movement are fuelling food insecurity: “The current protracted situation, already grave, could deteriorate further into a crisis.”

The mission says it has also collected allegations that the military shelled villages in Kayin State in the country’s east, though it says this requires further investigation.

‘Striking contrast’ in the use of sexual violence

Rights groups say the military has employed similar tactics across multiple battlefronts. But there’s a key distinction when it comes to sexual violence.

Investigators say sexual and gender-based violence against the Rohingya was so severe that it amounts to evidence of “genocidal intent”. They say sexual violence is still being used to “punish” minorities in Kachin and northern Shan – but notably not in the military’s ongoing conflict with the Arakan Army in Rakhine State.

“The highest levels of command appear to be able to control when their troops do or do not use sexual violence during attacks on civilians.”

“This is in striking contrast to the widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated against the Rohingya,” investigators say, concluding that “the highest levels of command appear to be able to control when their troops do or do not use sexual violence during attacks on civilians”.

The Rohingya are not included among Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic minorities, and the community has been denied citizenship and disenfranchised over generations. While army operations in other parts of the country often centre on neutralising insurgent groups and controlling territory and resources, Myanmar’s Rohingya purge, investigators say, was intended to “destroy the Rohingya population”.

Hate speech has proliferated

Misinformation and hate speech surged on social media before and after the August 2017 Rohingya purge. But the UN rights probe notes that hate speech continues to spread beyond the Rohingya, now targeting ethnic Rakhine as well as the Bamar, Myanmar’s dominant ethnic group.

"Facebook is the leading platform for hate speech in Myanmar."

The mission says Facebook – which it dubs “the leading platform for hate speech in Myanmar” – has removed some hateful posts, but urges the company to do more to quell messages before they spread.

At least three times over the past year, Facebook announcements of the removal of hate speech or fake accounts in Myanmar have coincided with the release of the UN rights probe’s reports or media investigations examining Facebook hate speech.

The growing list of suspects includes civilians

The investigation’s tally of suspected perpetrators has widened from a list of six top military generals to more than 100 people, including civilian authorities at the district and state levels.

The mission last year said military personnel were the main perpetrators of atrocity crimes, though the civilian government, headed by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “contributed” by defending the military, failing to prevent violence, and blocking investigations.

The list also includes members of ethnic armed groups. The list is confidential for now, but investigators separately say the Arakan Army in Rakhine has committed rights abuses, including forced labour of Chin minorities, and that there’s “credible but limited information” that armed groups in the north have failed to protect civilians in attacks and also forcibly recruited men and women. 

The mission has also collected information on violence by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the small insurgent group Myanmar blames for border attacks that came before the Rohingya crackdown.

Accountability is elusive, but there are options

The Security Council has not referred Myanmar to the International Criminal Court despite widespread demands from rights groups and Rohingya themselves. But investigators say there are still opportunities to push for prosecutions despite political roadblocks.

The mission says the top priority is for the ICC to take up the case with the backing of the Security Council. Alternatively, investigators say the Security Council can establish an ad hoc international criminal tribunal along the lines of previous courts set up for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which preceded the ICC’s creation.

The rights probe says the UN General Assembly – convening this week in New York – can also push for an ad hoc tribunal if the Security Council refuses, though some legal analysts say it’s unclear whether this would be within the UNGA’s powers. Investigators are also urging countries to pursue a parallel case at the International Court of Justice, or through the controversial legal concept of universal jurisdiction – essentially using domestic courts to investigate international crimes.

Separately, the ICC’s prosecutor has bypassed Security Council inaction by opening an examination into the Rohingya purge; the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is asking the court to sanction a formal investigation. But the UN rights probe notes that the would-be ICC case has a narrow focus on the crime of cross-border deportations – and wouldn’t cover war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly taking place elsewhere in Myanmar.

For now, the UN-appointed investigators say they’ve handed over more than two years of work to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, a separate body created by the Human Rights Council to preserve evidence and prepare for any eventual prosecutions. The body, headed by a veteran war crimes prosecutor, began its work this month.

(TOP PHOTO: Unidentified men carry knives and slingshots as they walk past a burning house in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine State in northern Myanmar on 7 September 2017.)


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