By Special Correspondent
New Delhi: The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has brought new evidence to prosecute the Myanmar’s military junta in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Rohingya genocide case.
The Commission presented the ICC with its report as fresh proof of Myanmar’s expulsion of the Rohingya people and efforts to conceal military operations from the international community. In the study, the results of a four-year inquiry on the genocide of the Rohingya people were documented. It demonstrates the systematic demonization of the Muslim minority and the military’s role in setting up militias that participated in operations against the Rohingya, shedding new information on Myanmar’s push to drive out the community. 25,000 official documents were gathered by a team of war crimes investigators, and they exposed Myanmar’s lies.
The Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh, a party to the ICC, which is why the prosecutor is looking into those crimes, including deportation, even though Myanmar is not a party to the court. An International Court of Justice complaint on Myanmar’s alleged genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, with a focus on military operations initiated in October 2016 and August 2017, is another component of justice attempts for the Rohingya people.During the 2017 expulsion of the Rohingya, almost 400 villages were partly or completely destroyed, mostly by fire, according to United Nations investigators. Myanmar security forces and Rakhine locals were responsible, according to the investigators.
In mid-2017, in a remote area of Myanmar, senior Burmese military commanders held secret talks about operations against the minority Rohingya Muslim population. They discussed ways to insert spies into Rohingya villages, resolved to demolish Muslim homes and mosques, and laid plans for what they clinically referred to as “area clearance.”
The discussions are captured in official records seen by Reuters. At one meeting, commanders repeatedly used a racial slur for the Rohingya suggesting they are foreign interlopers.
The “Bengalis,” one said, had become “too daring.” In another meeting, an officer said the Rohingya had grown too numerous.
The commanders agreed to carefully coordinate communications so the army could move “instantly during the crucial time.” It was critical, they said, that operations be “unnoticeable” to protect the military’s image in the international community.
Weeks later, the Myanmar military began a brutal crackdown that sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Ever since, the military has insisted the operation was a legitimate counter-terrorism campaign sparked by attacks by Muslim militants, not a planned program of ethnic cleansing. The country’s civilian leader at the time, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, dismissed much of the criticism of the military, saying refugees may have exaggerated abuses and condemnations of the security forces were based on “unsubstantiated narratives.”
But official records from the period ahead of and during the expulsion of the Rohingya, like the ones in 2017, paint a different picture.
For the past four years, these war crimes investigators have been working secretly to compile evidence they hope can be used to secure convictions in an international criminal court. Documents spanning the period 2013 to 2018 give unprecedented insight into the persecution and purge of the Rohingya from the perspective of the Burmese authorities, especially two “clearance operations” in 2016 and 2017 that expelled about 800,000 people.
The documents were collected by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a nonprofit founded by a veteran war crimes investigator and staffed by international criminal lawyers who have worked in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia. Beginning work in 2018, CIJA amassed some 25,000 pages of official documents, many related to the expulsion of the Rohingya, who since fleeing their homes have been languishing in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh with little hope of returning. Some of the documents relate to military actions against other ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. The group’s work has been funded by Western governments.
CIJA allowed Reuters to review many of the documents, which include internal military memos, chain-of-command lists, training manuals, policy papers and audiovisual materials. Some documents contained redactions, which the group said were necessary to protect sources. The organization also asked Reuters not to disclose the location of its office for security reasons.
The documents do not contain orders explicitly telling soldiers to commit murder or rape – such smoking-gun records are rare in the field of international justice. But key in the CIJA cache is the evidence of planning, said Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who now sits on CIJA’s board. “Everything in it points to this intention to engage in this kind of mass removal process,” he said.
Myanmar’s military junta didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.
The cache illustrates the obsession authorities had with reducing a population they viewed as an existential threat.
In a private meeting with officials in Rakhine, which CIJA said was held around the time of the 2017 expulsion, the then-army chief and current junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, told the Buddhist population to remain in place, and pointed to a demographic imbalance between Rohingya and the rest of the Rakhine population, the documents show.
Some of the officers who spearheaded the Rohingya expulsion and whose names appear in the documents have since been promoted.
Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, trace their roots in Myanmar’s Rakhine area back centuries, a reading of history supported by independent scholars. While they now comprise a slim majority in the north of Rakhine state, they are a minority overall compared to the ethnic Rakhine, a mostly Buddhist group. Nationalists from the country’s Buddhist majority see the Rohingya as illegitimate migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The August 2017 pogrom was carried out with a ferocity that stunned the world. Refugees described massacres, gang rapes and children thrown into raging fires. The nonprofit Médecins Sans Frontières estimated at least 10,000 people died. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were burned to the ground. In March this year, the United States formally declared that the military’s actions amounted to genocide.
Many in Myanmar, where about 90% of people are Buddhist, supported the military, which denied committing atrocities and said the Rohingya had burned their own homes. Burmese rallied around Suu Kyi, whose political party came to power in 2015 after half a century of military rule, as she dismissed reports of atrocities as an “iceberg of misinformation.” In 2019, she went to the Hague to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
But the military early last year toppled the democratically elected government under Suu Kyi, who has been detained since her overthrow.
The ICC set a legal precedent in 2019 by allowing its chief prosecutor to begin investigating crimes against the Rohingya population, including deportation, because they fled to Bangladesh, which is a party to the court.
Also in 2019, majority-Muslim Gambia brought a case against Myanmar for genocide at the ICJ, on behalf of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In July, the court cleared the case to proceed, rejecting objections filed by Myanmar.
The non-profit Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK also filed a lawsuit against both Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi in Argentina under “universal jurisdiction,” a legal principle that allows brutal acts to be tried in any court in the world.
However, legal experts say the chances senior military leaders will be tried soon are slim. They rarely leave Myanmar, and then only to friendly nations like Russia and China, which aren’t parties to the ICC.