(New York) – The Burmese military’s latest claim that its forces did not commit abuses during recent operations against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State is contrary to a large and growing body of evidence, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 13, 2017, a Burmese army “investigation team” issued a report finding that there were “no deaths of innocent people,” while at least 376 “terrorists” were killed during fighting.
The Burmese authorities’ failure to credibly and impartially investigate grave violations amounting to crimes against humanity demonstrates the need for the government to allow the United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission into the country to conduct independent investigations.
“The Burmese military’s absurd effort to absolve itself of mass atrocities underscores why an independent international investigation is needed to establish the facts and identify those responsible,” said Brad Adams. “The Burmese authorities have once again shown that they can’t and won’t credibly investigate themselves.”
Extensive witness accounts, satellite data, and other sources have shown that Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses during a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim population. The campaign began following August 25 attacks on government outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Government forces have responded with mass killings, rape, arbitrary detention, and arson since. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch found that more than 288 primarily Rohingya villages were either substantially or completely destroyed since late August.
The Burmese army investigation team, led by the defense services inspector general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, said that it interviewed 3,217 villagers from October 13 to November 7, collecting 804 witness accounts. Those interviewed reportedly included “Bengalis,” a derogatory term used to describe the Rohingya, whom the Burmese government considers to be foreigners from Bangladesh. There is no indication that the investigators conducted interviews in Bangladesh, where more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled following the beginning of security force operations.
The report says that the military acted in accordance with “orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement [ROE] in connection with the rights of self-defence and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.” It denies allegations that security forces indiscriminately shot Rohingya villagers fleeing their homes, rape and other sexual and gender-based violence, looting, destruction of homes and mosques, and threats to drive Rohingya from their homes. It also denies that security forces deployed “heavy weapons” in its operations, such as grenades and “launchers.”
The military’s denials and conclusions stand in stark contrast to the findings of the UN, Human Rights Watch, other human rights organizations, and the international media. In September, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” A subsequent investigation found evidence of arson, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and attacks on places of worship.
In late 2016, Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses against the Rohingya following an ARSA attack on three police outposts on October 9, 2016. A report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on February 3, concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity. In response, in March the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. Since then, the Burmese government has not granted access to the country to the members of the commission.
The Burmese government has since established a number of separate commissions to investigate the violence that erupted in Rakhine State since October 9, none of which have been credible or impartial. A previous army-led investigation into allegations of abuses late last year by its forces led by the same general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, found only that two minor incidents of abuse occurred during security operations.
The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council and concerned governments individually should impose targeted economic sanctions and travel restrictions on military leaders implicated in the violence. UN member countries should also pursue processes at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly for gathering criminal evidence to advance prosecutions in the ICC and other courts.
“The military’s grave crimes committed with impunity are exactly what the International Criminal Court was created for,” Adams said. “The UN Security Council should refer Burma to the ICC, but until that happens UN member states should ensure investigations take place and evidence is preserved for future criminal proceedings. If the Burmese military continues to operate with impunity, we are likely to see future rounds of violence against the Rohingya.”