At the Myanmar President’s request, the Union Attorney General’s Office announced on Wednesday that it will cooperate with related departments to investigate and prosecute cases involving the killing of civilians, property destruction, looting and other serious crimes committed in Rakhine State in late 2017.
The Attorney General’s Office said it “will conduct criminal investigations in the cases as per the recommendations of the Independent Commission of Enquiry [ICOE] report,” which was published on Monday, and “will prosecute … with sufficient supporting evidence” crimes allegedly committed by security forces, civilians, and members and collaborators of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Most of the mass killings in late August 2017 were committed in Min Gyi Village in Maungdaw Township, Chut Pyin Village in Ratheduang Township and Maung Nu and Gutar Pyin villages in Buthidaung Township during armed clashes between security forces and ARSA. At least 900 people were killed in these villages, according to the ICOE report.
The military’s court-martial proceedings have so far only covered the Gutar Pyin case. Its own inquiry found that the soldiers there did not fully comply with the rules of engagement.
The report said there was no proof of gang rapes, but that military troops used torture against civilians. It also noted that local thugs and security forces looted livestock and other property from homes abandoned by Muslims.
It said arson was reported in 13 areas that the ICOE was able to access. Min Gyi Village was completely burnt to ashes, while parts of Chut Pyin and Gutar Pyin villages were set on fire by security forces and their allied thugs. The report also cited witnesses as saying that ARSA members were among the arsonists in some cases.
The Myanmar government formed the ICOE on July 30, 2018 to investigate allegations of human rights violations during military clearance operations in northern Rakhine State in October 2016 and August 2017 with a view to seeking accountability and formulating recommendations on steps to be taken to ensure peace and stability in the area. The clearance operations were launched in response to coordinated attacks by ARSA on security outposts in Rakhine State.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in late 2017. Those who fled recalled arbitrary killings, rape and arson against their property by Myanmar security forces. UN investigators said the operations had “genocidal intent”. Both the Myanmar government and military have denied that claim.
The ICOE submitted its final report with 22 recommendations to Myanmar President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday. The 461-page document denied that killings and displacement of Rohingya Muslims during security forces’ clearance operations there had “genocidal intent”, contradicting the findings of UN investigators. But the commission admitted that “war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law took place.”
The ICOE said the government and the military “must continue their respective investigations, taking into account the ECVT’s findings,” referring to its Evidence Collection and Verification Team.
It highlighted that more than a dozen case files “provide a basis for the requisite further investigations by the Union Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Judge Advocate General” under the report’s 31 annexes.
According to advocate U Aung Thein, finding evidence to support prosecutions of alleged human rights abuses will be the key to legally proving that the rights abuses happened. He said there “may still be some challenges” to prosecution given that many of the local residents had fled to Bangladesh.
“It is important that the prosecution should be right and systematic,” he told The Irrawaddy, because the Attorney General’s Office has taken account of the cases, which are no longer merely domestic affairs, but have become matters of international concern involving Bangladesh and the UN’s International Court of Justice.
On Tuesday, President U Win Myint said he concurred with the commission’s recommendations, and had forwarded the ICOE’s report to military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for use in investigating and prosecuting the military personnel responsible.
Thet Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services (Army Chief’s Office) also said on Tuesday that the military cooperated with the ICOE and was committed to following its recommendations, including that further investigations be conducted.
The ICOE report was released just two days shy of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on whether to approve The Gambia’s request that provisional measures be taken against Myanmar. The small African nation filed a lawsuit with the court accusing Myanmar of committing genocide against the Rohingya.
During public hearings at the court in December, Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told the judges there would be more courts martial after the ICOE submitted its final report.
U Thein Than Oo, another advocate, said that while he welcomed the fact that the government is taking seriously the issues in northern Rakhine State, any further investigations and prosecutions by the Attorney General’s Office needed to be “transparent”, adding that “the cases need to be brought before tribunals made up of respected individuals.”
“In Myanmar, we have many ongoing cases under investigation, before both civilian courts and courts martial, and the question is how accurate and independent these enquires are,” he added.
U Thein Than Oo told The Irrawaddy that, “as an independent lawyer, I reckon the ICOE is not so trustworthy … as the Myanmar government appointed the members. Even if the findings were accurate, it does not have independence. Therefore its image is not good.”
The ICOE’s findings proved that there were human rights abuses and action needed to be taken against the perpetrators, he added.
“I don’t think all military men were involved in rights abuses, but those who did commit crimes deserve to be prosecuted,” he said.
“Besides, the government needs to enhance international cooperation, especially with the UN’s independent Fact-Finding Mission, instead of only working together with those who support it,” he said.
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