01, Sep 2018 | Mansi Mehta
Days after the first anniversary of a bloody crackdown by Myanmar security forces that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee the country, the United Nations released an in-depth report outlining the vast scale of human rights violations in the country. It is a damning indictment of the actions of the Myanmar authorities, even as thousands of Rohingya continue to languish in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
The report has been compiled by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, which is chaired by Marzuki Darusman, a lawyer, human rights activist, and a former Attorney General of Indonesia. The other two members are Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka, a lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and Christopher Sidoti, an Australian human rights consultant, specialising in the international human rights system and national human rights institutions.
Myanmar has previously barred UN officials from investigating within the country; for this report, the Fact-Finding Mission interviewed 875 victims and eyewitnesses. “The fact-finding Mission has concluded, on reasonable grounds, that the patterns of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law that it is found, amount to the gravest crime under international law,” Sidoti has said, as per UN News. “These have principally been committed by the military, the Tatmadaw,” he said, adding, “The Mission has concluded that criminal investigation and prosecution is warranted, focusing on the top Tatmadaw generals, in relation to the three categories of crimes under international law; genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
In November 2017, Myanmar’s military released a report “denying all allegations of rape and killings by security forces, having days earlier replaced the general in charge of the operation that drove more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh,” Reuters then reported.
How the current Rohingya crisis came to be
While the Rohingya crisis has gained international attention in recent years, the report provides context on how the minority has been systematically oppressed and persecuted in Myanmar. The country was ruled by multiple military regimes between 1962 and 2008, when a new Constitution establishing a government with civilian and military sections was adopted. The report explains, “The process of ‘othering’ the Rohingya and their discriminatory treatment started long before 2012. Their extreme vulnerability is a consequence of State policies and practices implemented over decades, steadily marginalising the Rohingya. The result is a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalised oppression from birth to death.” In particular, the report highlights the Rohingya’s lack of legal status, saying, “Successive laws and policies regulating citizenship and political rights have become increasingly exclusionary in their formulation, and arbitrary and discriminatory in their application. Most Rohingya have become de facto stateless, arbitrarily deprived of nationality.”
Violence in 2012
Violence sparked in June and October 2012, impacting 12 townships in the Rakhine State, and broke out again in Thandwe in 2013. The report notes that “the murder and alleged rape of a Rakhine women and the killing of 10 Muslim pilgrims are commonly presented as key triggers.” Vital to note is the report’s assessment of the characterisation of the violence. It says that although the Myanmar government portrays the violence as being “‘intercommunal’ between the Rohingya and Rakhine,” this is “inaccurate.” While it acknowledges that Rohingya and Rakhine groups clashed, it states that “these attacks were not spontaneous outbursts of hostility,” but “resulted from a plan to instigate violence and amplify tensions.” The report speaks of a months-long campaign “of hate and dehumanisation of the Rohingya” that it says was led by various groups, including the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), multiple Rakhine groups, radical Buddhist monk organisations, as well as officials and influential figures. According to the report, the campaign comprised of “anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim publications, public statements, rallies, and boycotts of Muslim shops,” and involved terming the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants,” “terrorists,” and painting them “as an existential threat that might ‘swallow other races’ with their ‘incontrollable birth rates'”.
Moreover, the report alleges that Myanmar’s security forces were “at least complicit,” saying they frequently “failed to stop the violence, or actively participated.” It alleges the wounding, killing and torture of Rohingya at the hands of security forces, saying witnesses have mentioned “mass arbitrary arrests, including of Rohingya NGO workers.”
2017’s crackdown and the Rohingya exodus
On August 25, 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) mounted coordinated attacks on a military base and up to 30 security outposts in the northern Rakhine state, “in an apparent response to increased pressure on Rohingya communities and with the goal of global attention,” the report says. 12 security personnel were killed. Within hours, the security forces responded; the report characterises their response as “immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate”. It explains that the security forces, purportedly working to “eliminate the ‘terrorist threat'” mounted “clearance operations” that affected several hundred villages, and prompted almost 725,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh by mid-August 2018. The report notes that although the “clearance operations” were spread across “a broad geographic area, they were strikingly similar”. It says, “The nature, scale and organization of the operations suggests a level of preplanning and design on the part of the Tatmadaw leadership consistent with the vision of the Commander-in-Chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, who stated at the height of the operations, ‘The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.'”
The report emphasises that the “clearance operations” amounted to a “human rights catastrophe,” with information suggesting that at least an estimated 10,000 people were killed. “People were killed or injured by gunshot,” homes were set on fire, and rape, as well as other forms of sexual violence, were committed “on a massive scale”. The report alleges “large-scale gangrape by Tatmadaw soldiers…in at least ten village tracts of northern Rakhine State”. Many men and boys were rounded up, and children, too, were witness to and victims of major human rights violations, including “killing, maiming and sexual violence”. The report says that satellite images and first-hand accounts indicate that Rohingya-populated areas were targeted and destroyed. At least 392 villages, or 40% of the settlements in northern Rakhine, were partially or completely destroyed. The report labels the “clearance operations” a “foreseeable and planned catastrophe,” and also highlights how, following the mass displacement of the Rohingya, there was the “systematic appropriation of emptied land”. The “clearance operations” were led by the Tatmadaw, but other security forces, mainly the Myanmar Police Force and the Border Guard Police, were also involved. It notes that ARSA “also committed serious human rights abuses, including the killing of dozens of suspected informants” and burning a Rakhine village on August 25, 2017.
Crimes committed under international law
The Fact-Finding Mission has concluded that “serious crimes under international law” have been committed in Myanmar. Significantly, the report notes that the crimes in the Rakhine State “and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights previously characterised recent violations against the Rohingya as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing“. The report further delineates other factors indicating “genocidal intent,” such as exclusionary policies and “the level of organization indicating a plan for destruction,” as well as “the extreme scale and brutality of the violence”. Given the various considerations regarding the inference of genocidal intent, the Mission has stated that “there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State.” The report also states that the Mission found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Myanmar’s Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states,”principally by the Tatmadaw.” It also alleges conduct amounting to war crimes.
The report says the Tatmadaw was “the main perpetrator of serious human rights violations and crimes under international law” during the period under review, but also mentions the Myanmar Police Force, the Border Guard Police and the NaSaKa (a border security force disbanded in 2013) as perpetrators in the Rakhine State. The Mission has compiled a “non-exhaustive list of alleged perpetrators of crimes under international law, indicating priority subjects for investigation and prosecution.” This list includes, among other names, that of Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing.
Violations by the Tatmadaw
The report details violations committed by the Tatmadaw, stating, “Attacks often occur in civilian-populated residential areas, in the absence of an apparent military objective, and in flagrant disregard for life, property and well-being of civilians.” It explains that civilians are frequently targeted for belonging to the same ethnic group, or because they are deemed to be of “fighting age,” an apparent attempt to dissuade them from getting involved with Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), which the report later notes have also engaged in committing violations. Other violations include torture and ill-treatment, forced labour, sexual violence against women, as well as arbitrary arrest and deprivation of property.
Key to note is the report’s section on the hallmarks of Tatmadaw operations, in particular its explanation regarding “exclusionary rhetoric”. The report discusses how the Tatmadaw “has historically cast itself as the protector of the nation, preserving ‘national unity in the face of ethnic diversity’, while prioritising Bamar-Buddhist identity and interests. Discrimination against ethnic and religious minority groups has been well-documented for decades. Military operations are often accompanied by deeply insulting slurs and outright threats linked to ethnicity and religion.” This is particularly damaging for the Rohingya, the report says, reiterating the fact of their “de facto statelessness”. It highlights that the Mission “was struck by the normalcy of deeply exclusionary and dehumanising rhetoric in Myanmar society, actively nurtured by the Tatmadaw. While other ethnic and religious minorities are, at least in theory, accepted as belonging to the nation under their ‘national race’ status, the Rohingya’s lack of status has dramatically increased their vulnerability. This contributes to the extreme scale and intensity of the violence against them.”
Hate speech in Myanmar
The report notes that the Mission has been “deeply disturbed by the prevalence of hate speech, offline and online, often including advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” and says that it “has accompanied outbreaks of violence, especially in Rakhine State.” According to the report, a campaign to “protect race and religion” has included “dehumanising and stigmatising language against the Rohingya, and Muslims in general”. Worryingly, it alleges that Myanmar’s authorities have “condoned these developments,” and while they employ “less inflammatory language, their rhetoric has mirrored and promoted the narratives espoused.” For instance, authorities have maintained that the Rohingya “do not exist or belong in Myanmar, even denying use of the term”. Overall, “The Myanmar authorities, including the Government and the Tatmadaw, have fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives, human rights violations are legitimised, and incitement to discrimination and violence facilitated,” the report states.
A key player in the hate narratives unfolding in Myanmar is Facebook, which the report says “has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet.” Earlier this year, in April, Darusman said that “social media had played a ‘determining role’ in Myanmar,” as Reuters reported, with Darusman saying, “It has … substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”. Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, echoed this, saying that Facebook is used by the government to circulate information.
This latest report calls for scrutinising “the extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence”. Its recent publication seems to have prompted Facebook to take down 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with Myanmar’s military, including that of the military’s commander-in-chief, the Guardian reported. These accounts and pages had followers collectively amounting to nearly 12 million.
This move comes soon after Reuters published a special investigation earlier this month, conducted alongside the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law, on how hate speech persists on Facebook in Myanmar. Reuters said it found more than 1,000 examples “of posts, comments, images and videos attacking the Rohingya or other Myanmar Muslims” on Facebook. It detailed how the “poisonous posts call the Rohingya or other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggest they be fed to pigs, and urge they be shot or exterminated. The material also includes crudely pornographic anti-Muslim images.” It noted that Facebook’s policies “specifically prohibit attacking ethnic groups with ‘violent or dehumanising speech’ or comparing them to animals”. In spite of Facebook’s prominence in Myanmar, it did not have a single employee in the country, and that it monitored hate speech remotely, with the project outsourced to another firm and based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to Reuters. Facebook’s director Asia-Pacific policy Mia Garlick acknowledged to Reuters in August that the company was “too slow to respond to the concerns raised by civil society, academics and other groups in Myanmar.”
In April, civil society organisations working in Myanmar released an open letter, criticising Facebook’s response to the Rohingya crisis, as per Vox, saying, “The risk of Facebook content sparking open violence is arguably nowhere higher right now than in Myanmar”. That same month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the US Senate that Facebook was working on measures to combat hate speech in the country, including “hiring dozens of more Burmese-language content reviewers”.
Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi
The report sharply criticises Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, saying she “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 a responsibility to protect the civilian population.” Instead, it alleges that “the civilian authorities have spread false narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations, including of the Fact-Finding Mission; and overseen destruction of evidence. Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.” Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” has garnered criticism from other quarters as well. Recently, she was stripped of the Freedom of Edinburgh award, which she was given in 2005 for “championing democracy while living under house arrest,” the BBC said.
The Fact-Finding Mission’s report proposes a host of recommendations to address the human rights crisis in Myanmar, including the establishment of a second fact-finding mission for a limited period to build on its own work. It recommends that the Security Council “ensure accountability or crimes under international law committed in Myanmar, preferably by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court or alternatively by creating an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.” It also calls for targeted sanctions against individuals, including travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo against Myanmar. The complete report may be read here: