In Person

UK Wants Accountability for Crimes Committed in Rakhine State

By Nyein Nyein 19 October 2018

YANGON–After a trip to the refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border in the second week of October, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Myanmar Daniel Chugg spoke about his experiences there, Myanmar-UK relations, the UK’s policy on Myanmar and his views on the ICC referral in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here are excerpts from the interview.

As the new ambassador posted in here since May, how do you find Myanmar? 

Myanmar has a lot of problems and is facing a lot of challenges. These are not easy challenges and lots of them have roots which are decades old, so quick solutions and quick fixes are not going to solve these problems. It’s difficult.

The UK wants to be a friend of Myanmar and the Myanmar people and we want to be as helpful and supportive as we can. Part of my job is to try work out how we can do that while at the same time upholding our own principles.

Though I haven’t been to Kachin State yet, I plan to go there in a couple of weeks.

I have been to Rakhine State a couple of times. One trip with the UK’s foreign secretary was very much a government-arranged trip and we did not get to see very much. But when I went there a couple of weeks before that trip to look at some of the DFID projects, which are both in Sittwe and northern Rakhine, it was a lot more interesting. I got to see Rakhine and Muslim villagers and to talk to people and see some of the projects that DFID is doing there—mainly distributing food aid and seed bags to some of the poor villagers.

As the UK has been active in joining actions being taken against the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, regarding the Rakhine State issue, how does it affect your relationship with the military as well as the government? 

We used to have some engagement with senior military people but that stopped at the end of last year as a result of what happened in Rakhine. As you know, it is difficult to separate the military from the government because the military is part of the government.

What we are keen to see happening is for those people who are guilty of terrible crimes to be brought to justice. It is also important for the rule of law and accountability in Myanmar as a whole because it sends a message that in the future you cannot just get away with doing anything you want with impunity. We are not targeting the whole of the system in our actions. What we want to see is those people who are guilty of the crimes brought to account.

The UN fact-finding mission report talked about crimes, not just in Rakhine State, but in Kachin and Shan states as well. While on this trip this week, I was talking to people from Karen groups and Karenni groups and they talked about how similar things happened to their communities in the past as well. What we see here is a culture within the Tatmadaw of terrible crimes being committed by some people, but those people not being held accountable.

So yes, the UK is keen, as part of the international community, to try and help the system here so it can stop those things happening because it will be very difficult for Myanmar, in our opinion, to have a democratic, sustainable and peaceful future if these kinds of crimes continue to be committed with impunity.

Was your trip focused on assessing the refugee situation at the Thai-Myanmar border only? 

It has also been an opportunity to talk about the peace process with some of the parties and some of the signatories and non-signatories. It has been an opportunity for me to learn a lot about their issues and what is happening at the moment, both in terms of the IDPs and refugees but also some people’s thoughts on the peace process.

From your meeting with the commander-in-chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing do you think the Tatmadaw is genuine about trying to change and improve themselves from the previous decades as they claim they are doing?

I think the military is keen to become a more professional army. They had been doing some professional training to get experience and expertise from modern professional armies. I think that is one of their objectives.

But of course with what’s happened in Rakhine, the Tatmadaw is going to find that much more difficult because the professional armies around the world will not want to train or engage with them. So if it was their objective to become a more professional army, I think they have undermined their own objective through what happened in Rakhine.

Isn’t it best to work directly with the Tatmadaw if you want something to change in society? The UK stopped military-to-military engagement last year.  Doesn’t that affect the UK’s efforts in helping the Tatmadaw to understand the processes of a good and professional army?

Undoubtedly, I think if they want to become a professional, modern military, they need to engage with other professional, modern militaries. They need to learn how other militaries do things; their techniques, tactics, strategies and equipment. If they don’t have opportunities to learn from them, it will be much more difficult for them to modernize.

I think that conflict has been going on in Myanmar for so long and this is partly because the military tactics are not working. Yet they are still using the same tactics—the idea of the four cuts—that they have been using for a very long time. I think most people recognize that if you do something over and over and it still doesn’t work, you need to make changes to what you’re doing. They do the same thing over again and what we saw in Rakhine is the same thing they have been doing elsewhere for a long time, using the same tactics of burning and murdering and raping and terrorizing entire villages. We know it doesn’t work and they know it doesn’t work, but they don’t really know what else they can do.

Have any of the UK government’s policy on Myanmar changed because of the Rakhine issue?

I wouldn’t exactly say it has changed but it has made it more difficult and complicated. For 30 years our policy on Burma has been to support democracy and freedom of expression and to support the people who are the most vulnerable, really. That policy continues. But because of what happened in Rakhine, it has become more complicated and difficult to do that, because we can’t be supporting the Tatmadaw in any way, any longer. Some parts of the [UK] government disagree with the policy which has been implemented and feel maybe not enough is being done. So we want to continue to support the government and the state counselor but it has just become a much more complex situation.

We continue to give a lot of aid to Myanmar. Last year we gave $200 million in development and humanitarian assistance. That makes us the second largest bilateral donor after Japan.

Does that money include funding the cross-border aid or is it only for peace and development projects in Myanmar? 

That [money] would also include the money that is spent in the camps on the border and peace support [through the Joint Peace Fund]. That is everything we spend. We will use a similar amount this year as well. A lot of that money goes into big programs like LIFT (Livelihood and Food Trust) which we fund more than 50 percent of, and 3MDG, which is all about health, and we fund more than 50 percent of that.

A lot of this money is spent on working with the government to support their policies. We’re not throwing money around, we are really trying to support Myanmar’s government. We want to continue doing that and we will but it does make it more complicated when there are things happening which we are feeling very unhappy about. If we are happy with what’s happening here, we can easily continue supporting.

When the UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt visited last month, he was denied a meeting with the army chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. What do you think was the reason for that?

We are not sure. There was a lot of confusion in advance about whether we would have the meeting or not. At the last moment, we were told the meeting was not going to happen. The commander-in-chief is under a lot of pressure. There are all sorts of damning reports written about his military and he is responsible for them so I’m not surprised if he doesn’t want to meet foreign visitors who are going to give him a hard time.

The foreign secretary made clear what he would have said to the commander-in-chief had they met. He would have said to the commander-in-chief that terrible things have been done by his soldiers. He was going to ask him what he is going to do to make sure his soldiers don’t do terrible things in the future and to make sure those who have done terrible things are held properly accountable for those crimes so that justice can be brought about for the victims.

The UK’s foreign secretary was at the UN general assembly a couple of weeks ago. He was certainly talking to his foreign colleagues in the UN asking about their views and opinions on the Security Council’s [referring of Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to the International Criminal Court (ICC)] and that there are other mechanisms that could be used to hold people to account.

I should emphasize that the ICC is a court of last resort. It only sits when [a country] doesn’t have any kind of domestic accountability process. Actually, if the government in Myanmar were to set up an accountability process that people around the world thought was credible and going to bring justice to the victims, then the ICC would refuse to look at the [Myanmar] case anyway.

The government has repeatedly said Myanmar is taking responsibility to investigate the alleged crimes against humanity by the Tatmadaw. The government spokesman even said there is no need for the ICC to do that because the government does not deny anything, and is actually looking into it themselves. Myanmar is not an ICC signatory, so is it really effective to put pressure on the government through this ICC approach? 

[Myanmar’s own investigation] process has to be credible. If the ICC thinks it’s credible, then it will say “we can’t [investigate] Myanmar as they’ve got a credible process themselves.” If the ICC finds an investigation process to be not really credible because the [investigators] are not independent and they are not using international standards for gathering evidence, the courts are not independent and there is no conceivable way that the Tatmadaw will be brought to justice because the constitution prevents members of the military from being tried in civilian court. Then they will investigate Myanmar. So the issue for the Myanmar government is not whether they have an investigation process, it’s whether the process is credible.

The government tries to include foreign experts in their advisory boards and investigation commission. Does that mean it’s still true that the commission and advisory board are not credible? 

Part of the problem is we don’t really know what the terms of reference are for the Commission of Enquiry. It was very unhelpful that the chairperson of the Commission of Enquiry said that there will be no finger pointing and no making people accountable because that rather undermines her own position. It is a little bit peculiar that they got Professor [Aung Tun Thet] on the Commission of Enquiry, given that he’s got another role in the UEHRD (Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine).

Why does the UK play an active role in pressuring the Myanmar government and military over the Rohingya issue? 

I would say there are a couple of reasons. One is that the UK is what’s called, “the pen-holder” in the United Nations. That means when Myanmar is discussed in the UN, it is the UK which is responsible for drafting papers or resolutions, because different countries “hold the pen” for different portfolios. It is our international responsibility in the UN to be chairing these meetings and discussions on Myanmar. That is one thing.

Another aspect is that we are strongly in favor of people being held accountable for terrible crimes, because over the last many decades, our experience is that when terrible things happen, there needs to be a process to deal with those things. The accountability could come in different ways, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a court case and putting people in prison.

In South Africa they had a truth and reconciliation process which didn’t find a lot of people guilty or put lots of people in prison. But it is a way for the crimes to be recognized and justice to be brought about for the victims of these crimes and it created a culture and condition for people to move on. That is really important for the society. I think in Myanmar, where there is the first newly-elected democratic government in such a long time, it’s really important that you don’t have democracy on one hand and crimes against humanity on the other. That really undermines the democratically elected government. It really makes life very difficult for the state counselor. Those are the two reasons why the UK supports pressuring the government.

There are concerns inside Myanmar that harsh international pressure on the Tatmadaw could be counter-productive, that it could encourage the military to stay in power and will be an obstacle in national reconciliation. What is your take?

These are very, very complicated issues and it’s certainly true that international actions and criticism could have unintended consequences. That is something that we are very aware of and why we think very hard about what we do and why we do it and the implications those actions might have. We don’t want to do anything that undermines the peace process, the state counselor or democracy.

But at the same time, terrible crimes are being committed and they have been committed in Rakhine and they have been committed by the Tatmadaw. We know that not just the Tatmadaw, but other people have done terrible things as well.

But it is the Tatmadaw’s actions that have led 700,000 people to leave the country. The international community feels that we can’t just sit back and let those things happen and not saying anything, because it is not fair on people who are being murdered and raped. It is not fair on the people who might be murdered and raped in the future if this culture of impunity continues.

Can you clarify who you mean by “other people”? 

The events in Rakhine were sparked by the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attack and everybody knows that. They killed people on the security posts and that was a coordinated, planned murderous attack. There is no doubt that it was criminal and those people should also face justice. Nobody knows exactly what happened at the end of August and September last year but it’s undoubtedly the case that there were villagers who were involved in some of the attacks as well as soldiers. So it would be wrong to say this was 100 percent the Tatmadaw, but the evidence certainly shows that they are the most culpable.