The Irrawaddy

Myanmar Govt Faces Accusations of Whitewashing Army War Crimes

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attends a signing ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kham - RC17315D8610

YANGON – According to the recent UN fact-finding report, Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government has contributed to the commission of crimes of atrocity by covering up war crimes by the military in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states.

The report highlighted four points: civilian authorities being allowed to spread false narratives; denying military war crimes, blocking independent investigations, including of the fact-finding mission; and overseeing the destruction of evidence.

“Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes,” the report said.

The report said the state counsellor 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 her responsibility to protect the civilian population.

However, the report did not specify how the Myanmar government spread false narratives or how it was involved in destroying evidence of where crimes were committed.

The UN report said Myanmar’s top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide which took place in northern Rakhine State, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin and Shan states.

The investigators found patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses committed in those states which “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”, principally committed by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, but also by other security forces, the report said.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since last August, as a result of Myanmar military’s clearance operations which followed attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on military and security outposts in northern Rakhine State.

Despite the government signing an MoU with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the repatriation of refugees, human rights observers have said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the gross human rights violations in all conflict zones. The government did not cooperate with the UN and the international human rights community’s constant demands for access or to allow investigations in the conflict zones.

Instead, the government set up its own investigation team with international experts rather than relying on the UNHRC fact-finding team.

“Though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not involved directly in human rights crimes committed by Myanmar’s military, her position as the (de facto) leader of this country makes her sort of responsible for the crime,” said U Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist and director of Equality Myanmar, to The Irrawaddy.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused entry to members of a United Nations investigation team last year, saying the establishment of an international fact-finding mission would do more to inflame, rather than resolve the issues.

U Aung Myo Min said, “As a de-facto leader of the civilian government, she has the highest accountability for what her offices have done.”

So far, Myanmar has rejected two UN reports on human rights violations by security forces, one by former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee and the latest one by the UNHRC. The government also dissociated itself from the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution last year.

U Aung Myo Min explained the rejections therefore resulted in the government being accused of ‘overseeing destruction of the evidence’ in the recent UNHRC fact-finding mission report that says the government has hidden the truth about what they found on the ground.

An independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues in Myanmar David Scott Mathieson told The Irrawaddy, “I do not think the Daw Suu government is responsible for war crimes anywhere in Myanmar.”

“Blaming Daw Suu will have little if any impact, her government has consistently refuted reports of atrocities and their denials have been in line with military denials, but this doesn’t make them culpable, it makes the NLD complicit,” he said.

It rightly criticizes government and military investigations as whitewashes that lack credibility, he added.

Observers see the State Counselor’s information committee Facebook page as playing a major role in spreading news during the period of intensified conflict in Rakhine State.

The Rakhine State Information Committee was formed in 2016 at the request of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to release timely information on the on-going conflict in Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State. The State Counselor’s Office deputy minister U Khin Maung Tin took the position of chair of the committee, Major-General Soe Naing Oo from the Ministry of Defense as a vice chair and the President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay as secretary of the committee.

The team ran the Facebook page distributing up-to-date news and responding to international rights groups’ accusations of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses by security forces in Rakhine State. Later, the name was changed to ‘Information Committee’ after many critics pointed out the team is spreading one-sided news under the state counsellor’s name.

The UNHRC report pointed out the constitutional powers of the civilian authorities afford little scope for controlling the actions of the Tatmadaw but civilian authorities did not use their limited powers to influence the situation in Rakhine State. Under the 2008 Constitution, the military controls three ministries — Defense, Border Affairs and Home Affairs.

This grave international criticism is not the first for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she maintains stable relations with the military in order to move forward with national reconciliation and the peace process, constitutional amendments and other complex issues within the country.

“All the failings show the civilian government do not have full power in this country. They only have partial power,” U Aung Myo Min said.

“However, it is a lesson (for Myanmar’s government). The international condemnations will not end if you just deny requests [like the UN investigation] and there will be consequences and more pressure on us (Myanmar). At least, we need to collaborate with them for investigations if we have nothing to hide,” he said.