In the wake of two soldiers’ confessions that they took part in Myanmar army atrocities against Rohingya in 2017, a military spokesperson questioned the authenticity of the admissions and said they were probably made under duress.
The confessions were reported by the New York Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Fortify Rights, based on the statements the men made on videos filmed in Myanmar this year by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group warring with the government.
On Wednesday, Myanmar military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy that their confessions were not in line with what really happened on the ground.
“How can we make sure that they are telling the truth?” he said.
The major general didn’t deny the fact that both men used to belong to the Myanmar army but said they were arrested by the AA in 2019. His comment was contrary to Fortify Rights’ claim that the two were deserters.
“Given the brutality the AA committed against their Rakhine people, you can guess the fate of the two soldiers. So, they probably made the statements under duress,” he continued.
The spokesperson said he didn’t have any further comment as the military is conducting court martials on the atrocities against Rohingya as recommended by the government-backed Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) in the issue.
The ICOE said early this year that the government security forces’ clearance operations in Rakhine didn’t have “genocidal intent”, contradicting the findings of UN investigators. But it admitted that “war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law took place” against Rohingya.
The credibility of the two Myanmar Army soldiers’ admissions of involvement in the army’s atrocities against Rohingya seems weak in the eyes of law, added lawyers, who questioned whether the confessions were made under duress.
U Thein Than Oo, a human rights lawyer said, “The credibility of witnesses is controversial and it is unclear how this information was ascertained,” citing the fact that the Arakan Army (AA) filmed the confessions.
“In the eyes of law, it is hard to consider them as independent witnesses,” he said.
“If it were a high-ranking official seeking protection and asylum in another nation who became a witness, that’s a different scenario,” said the lawyer.
Filmed by the AA in July and cited by Fortify Rights on Tuesday, the two former soldiers, Myo Win Tun, 33, from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 565 and Zaw Naing Tun, 30, from LIB 353, said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya women, men, and children in Taung Buzar and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in late 2017. The former also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village.
The military clearance operations, in which disproportionate force was used, followed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)’s coordinated attacks on 30 police outposts on Aug. 25, 2017, which killed at least a dozen security personnel. The military operations caused a mass exodus of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.
“This is a monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights.
He added, “These men could be the first perpetrators from Myanmar tried at the ICC, and the first insider witnesses in the custody of the court. We expect prompt action.”
Rights groups have made allegations against military generals regarding the atrocities against the Rohingya and are trying to bring them before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC can proceed with the UN Security Council’s intervention.
Fortify Rights urged the ICC, where the two men were reported to be in custody, to “swiftly prosecute two Myanmar Army soldiers,” and suggested “the court should facilitate witness protection for them.”
Fortify Rights said the two deserters arrived at Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in mid-August and asked Bangladesh authorities for protection. Bangladesh officials then notified the ICC about their presence, and says they are no longer in Bangladesh, according to the group.
But according to Reuters and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ICC spokesman Fadi el Abdallah denied the men are in the court’s custody.
U Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer who used to work with the Asia Human Rights Commission, said it is true the Netherlands government has provided visas and accommodation, as the two privates are currently under a global witness protection program in The Hague.
Besides the human rights groups’ efforts to bring the military generals to the ICC, Myanmar is facing lawsuits filed by Gambia alleging genocide against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi defended the country against the charges in December.
The lawyer said that as the ICJ rulings are not binding, an alternative is to continue trials at the ICC and bring justice to the victims of the human rights violations.
But he said the soldiers’ verbal testimonies alone are inadequate for criminal proceedings and the evidence from on the ground needs to presented.
“Unless there is more credible evidence, it won’t work,” he said.
He said the ICC could accept the case, and as Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, Myanmar can choose whether to cooperate or not.
Also, the observers said it is unclear whether these two soldiers’ confessions were obtained under duress.
No one, except the AA and the privates, knows whether they are deserters or AA prisoners of war, said the lawyers.
The AA, which is active along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in northern Rakhine State and southern Chin State, said the two men are deserters, and filmed their accounts in July. Myo Win Tun’s confession was made on July 23 and Zaw Naing Tun’s confession on July 8 after they deserted in May and June respectively.
The Irrawaddy viewed the privates’ videos shared on a video-sharing site but was not able to independently validate the soldiers’ accounts or ascertain whether they made their statements under pressure.
U Aung Myo Min, a human rights advocate and the director of Equality Myanmar said, “I won’t comment on whether these videos’ confessions are credible. But to get credible information, witnesses should be free from duress. Their admissions were made in a conflict zone, where they were questioned by their former adversaries, so there might be some pressure for their survival or to get acceptance. We have had a lot of experience of deserters, or those who changed sides, saying anything to save their lives.”
As a lifelong human rights defender, he added, “They should be freed from pressure. But if their families are left behind and face any pressure, they would feel pressure too. Therefore, it is very important to consider keeping their identities secret to protect their safety.”
However, even though they are only rank-and-file soldiers, this is the first time that Myanmar Army soldiers regarded as perpetrators have admitted wrongdoing, said U Aung Myo Min.
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