A United Nations panel has recommended that top Myanmar military officials “be investigated and prosecuted” for genocide and human rights atrocities against the Rohingya and other minority groups in Myanmar.
The report, issued by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, is the harshest indictment yet of the Myanmar military. It comes a year after authorities escalated their violent crackdown against the Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority group.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in the wake of the violence that spiked last August, following an attack by a small armed Rohingya faction on Myanmar security forces. Myanmar authorities used the attack to justify operations to root out terrorists, but this latest UN report dismisses that reasoning outright.
“Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages,” the reports states. “The Tatmadaw’s tactics are consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats.”
The UN report calls out specific top members of the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and blames those at the highest levels of the armed forces for perpetrating ethnic violence. It names Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Myanmar military, as well as five other military officers, including Maung Maung Soe and Aung Kyaw Zaw, both of whom had previously been sanctioned by the United States for human rights violations.
The panel said it will provide an even longer — but not exhaustive — list of people involved in crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Beyond naming officials, the UN report describes in wrenching and graphic detail the targeting of Rohingya civilians, carried out by authorities with “genocidal intent.”
It documents mass killings in a number of villages, where “in some cases hundreds of people died.” In one village, Min Gyi, boys and men were allegedly separated and killed, while the women were taken to nearby houses and gang-raped, then murdered or injured.
“Houses were locked and set on fire. Few survived,” the report states. “In numerous other villages the number of casualties was also markedly high. Bodies were transported in military vehicles, burned and disposed of in mass graves.”
The estimate of 10,000 Rohingya killed is likely a conservative one, the report said.
The UN takes aim at Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government — and Facebook
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that live mostly in Rakhine State, have long been marginalized by Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority (and military-controlled) government. Since the passage of The Burma Citizenship Act of 1982, they have been denied citizenship — and all the benefits and protections that come with it.
The Rohingya have faced waves of violent attacks in the past decade, including in 2012 and 2016, with this year-long campaign marking a wave of sustained brutality.
The government claims it is fighting extremism and terrorism and also falsely promotes the idea that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants” — rhetoric that the UN report says “fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives, human rights violations are legitimised, and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated.”
All this is also happening under the watch of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar.
Her silence on the plight of the Rohingya has garnered worldwide criticism. The UN report also emphasizes her inaction, saying that she and civilian authorities are basically complicit in the atrocities because of their role in promoting false narratives and preventing robust investigations.
According to the UN report, Suu Kyi “has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population.”
The UN panel also called out social media, specifically Facebook, for facilitating hate speech and feeding the violence in Rakhine State.
The social media platform has been called “the de facto internet” in Myanmar, skyrocketing in popularity in recent years, partly because the military eased up on censorship and because of the relative affordability of smartphones.
While Facebook has been used to document crimes against minorities in Myanmar, it is also manipulated by groups to promote hate speech and propaganda against the Rohingya.
Facebook says it has tried to tackle the problem in recent months. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, told Vox’s Ezra Klein in April that Facebook takes the issue “really seriously,” though some civil society groups on the ground in Myanmar suggested the company hadn’t done enough to crack down on violent rhetoric.
The UN panel conceded that Facebook’s response had “improved in recent months” but emphasized that the content on the platform transformed into “real-world discrimination and violence,” which warranted further examination.
Facebook responded on Monday by banning 20 individuals and organizations in Myanmar from the platform, including some of the top Myanmar military commanders identified by the UN panel for their role in atrocities.
Though Facebook and Suu Kyi were both criticized in the UN report, the bulk of the culpability for the atrocities in Myanmar was attributed to the military and its top officials.
The question now is what comes next, and how the international community will respond.
The UN report strongly suggests these top military commanders should be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity, either through the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal. The UN also plans to deliver a more robust report to the Human Rights Council on September 18, which will include detailed satellite imagery as documentation and likely more evidence of atrocities.
The United States has sanctioned members of Myanmar’s security forces, as well as individual units, for their “role in ethnic cleansing.” But those financial penalties haven’t yet reached the highest levels of the Myanmar military.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Myanmar military on the one-year anniversary of the Rohingya crackdown. “The U.S. will continue to hold those responsible accountable,” he wrote, without going into detail.
A year ago, following deadly militant attacks, security forces responded by launching abhorrent ethnic cleansing of ethnic #Rohingya in Burma. The U.S. will continue to hold those responsible accountable. The military must respect human rights for #Burma’s democracy to succeed.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) August 26, 2018
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