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Indiscriminate massacres, burned villages, minors hit, collective rapes of women …
These are the findings of United Nations investigators who accuse the Myanmar government of committing “the most serious crimes under international law.”
The UN conducted the investigation despite the fact that access to the country was denied to it by the Burmese government, which has rejected the report.
This is how the researchers came to their conclusions.
1. The preamble
On March 24, 2017, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) agreed to form an independent investigative mission in Myanmar to verify “alleged recent allegations of human rights violations by the army and security forces.”
Five months after the mission was completed, the Myanmar army launched a large-scale assault on Rakhine State in response to attacks by armed Rohingya on police posts.
The military campaign became the main focus of the investigation, which also included abuses of rights in the states of Kachin and Shan.
On three occasions, the mission requested the Myanmar government access to the country. He never received an answer
2. The testimonies
“The first rule was ‘do not do bad’,” says Christopher Sidoti, one of the three people who led the investigation.
“The people we talked to were severely traumatized and if our staff considered that an interview would exacerbate that trauma, it would not have happened,” he explained.
“No evidence is important enough to re-traumatize someone who has gone through all these experiences.”
At least 725,000 people have fled the Rakhine state in the past 12 months, many to neighboring Bangladesh.
That is why, despite not having access to Myanmar, the investigators were able to accumulate enormous amounts of testimonies from those who were victims of the violence before they fled.
They managed to talk with 875 people in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the United Kingdom, and they made the decision very early on that the most valuable testimonies would come from those who had not shared their stories before.
“We did not want to interview people who had already been interviewed by other organizations,” said Sidoti, an Australian expert on human rights law. “We did not want there to be a situation where the evidence was compromised.”
“We tried to find people from a wide variety of areas and, as we managed to focus more on one, we actively searched through a community network for others in that same area to have a better picture of what had happened.”
3. The evidence
“We never rely on a single testimony as proof,” says Sidoti. “We always look for corroboration of primary and secondary sources.”
These sources included videos, photographs, documents and satellite images, showing the destruction of the Rohingya villages over several months in 2017.
February 13, 2018
May 25, 2017
In one case, investigators received several reports of refugees assembled in the Cox market in Bangladesh, from a village that had been destroyed in particular circumstances during a particular period.
The investigators managed to obtain satellite images that corroborated those that the witnesses alleged.
This is what the satellite images showed:
- Some 392 villages were partially or totally destroyed in the north of Rakhine State
- Nearly 40% of all houses in the area -37,700 buildings- were affected
- Nearly 80% were set on fire in the first three weeks of the military campaign
Obtaining photographic evidence at the scene turned out to be a major challenge.
“When people left the Rakhine state, they were arrested, searched and their money, gold and mobile phones were taken away from them,” says Sidoti. “It was quite clear that this was an attempt to retain the evidence in video or photography that they had taken.”
“There was not much of this but we could use it.”
4. The accused
The report mentions six high-ranking military figures that he said should be prosecuted, including Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy.
But how could they point these individuals so directly?
The case was not based on a trace of papers or a recording, but on investigation.
The researchers relied heavily on the detailed knowledge of others about how the Myanmar government works . Among these was a military adviser who had cooperated with a war crimes tribunal in the past.
“We had extraordinary access to international advice on various aspects of the Myanmar army,” Sidoti said. “The conclusion we reached is that the army is so heavily controlled that nothing that has to do with the army in Myanmar happens without the commander-in-chief or his deputies finding out.”
While they have the names of the people who are believed to have received the orders, they are still working on identifying the members of the army who may have committed atrocities.
“We have a list of alleged perpetrators (of these facts) in the field, but they will remain confidential for now,” says Sidoti. “Their names have come up so frequently to be listed for further investigation.”
5. The one that says the law
Identifying what appears to be genocide and proving that what happened meets the legal definition of genocide are two different things.
“Evidence of crimes against humanity was obtained very quickly and was quite overwhelming,” says Sidoti. “Genocide in a legally more complex matter”.
As the report states, genocide occurs when “a person commits an act with the intention of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The keyword is “intention” . The investigators believe that the evidence of that intention on the part of the Myanmar army is clear.
In this regard, they cite statements from the commanders and those allegedly responsible, and the degree of preparedness required to perform such operations. However, the identification of genocide from a legal perspective took a significant amount of legal work.
“We reached a position that we did not expect at the beginning,” says Sidoti. “None of us thought that the evidence of genocide was as robust as it turned out to be, that was a surprise.”
6. The next step
The report states that six army officers should face a trial. It also condemns Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to intervene to stop the attacks.
The outgoing director of the HRC said this week that Suu Kyi should have resigned .
The report also makes a series of recommendations, which includes referring the investigation to the International Criminal Court or another new court, as well as the imposition of an arms embargo.
However, in the UN Security Council, where China has veto power, Beijing has so far opposed strong measures against Myanmar, its neighbor and ally.
Sidoti acknowledges that officials in Myanmar will most likely not investigate the allegations on their own.
Last year, an internal army investigation exonerated that institution of responsibility in the Rohingya crisis, and Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN told the BBC Burmese Service that the report was full of ” biased accusations against us” .
“We have made recommendations and it is up to others to take action,” Sidoti said. “I have high expectations that the Security Council will assume its responsibilities, but I am not naive.”