Aug 28th 2018
A year on from the start of the assault by Myanmar’s army on the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine state, the UN human-rights council has finally issued its verdict. It is as damning as it is comprehensive. It is unequivocal about the fact there is fully enough evidence to try Burmese army commanders for the most serious crime of all, genocide.
There have been many investigations from a plethora of respected human-rights organisations (Amnesty International, Fortify Rights) about what happened in Rakhine state last year. But this UN report goes further than most. For a start, it declares that the “crimes in 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.” And given the hundreds of interviews that the UN team carried out with the victims of these crimes now sheltering in refugee camps in Bangladesh, “there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s army] chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide…”
The UN report also says that previous estimates of the numbers killed in the army’s operations, about 10,000, were understated. Detailing the clear and premeditated patterns of violence visited upon the Rohingya, the report argues that “rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated on a massive scale.” Furthermore, the UN also sets the Rohingya violence in the context of the army’s other devastating campaigns against other ethnic groups in the country such as the Shan and Kachin, calling these “crimes against humanity”.
As to Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar and a Nobel peace prize-winner, the UN argues that although the army-designed constitution might have given her “little scope” for controlling operations in Rakhine state, nonetheless she did as little as possible to prevent it. Indeed, the UN team says that the civilian authorities colluded with the army to cover up their crimes, by spreading “false narratives” and blocking independent investigations of the facts. “Through their acts and omissions”, warns the report, “the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
The action now moves to the UN Security Council. That body alone can decide whether to refer these sorts of cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was set up specifically to prosecute and try those responsible for crimes against humanity or worse. The UN report has identified six Tatmadaw commanders, including the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who could be indicted. But this is a “non-exhaustive” list. Others could be added as the evidence piles up. Some think that Aung San Suu Kyi might ultimately have a case to answer, too. She could certainly help herself by supporting war-crimes prosecutions. As it is, this report leaves her international reputation in tatters.
However, China could well block any such Security Council recommendation. It is a close ally of Myanmar, with vital economic and strategic interests in its neighbour, and particularly in Rakhine state itself, where it has built an oil terminal and pipeline to pump crude to China. China also has a record of privileging economic self- interests over human-rights concerns, as in the case of the Sudanese government’s atrocities in Darfur in 2003-04, for instance. And at a time when President Donald Trump needs all the help he can get from China over North Korea, America is unlikely to put any pressure on China over Myanmar, a country in which Mr Trump has shown no interest. Russia could also block any move, if only to further frustrate the West; the ICC is seen as a creature of Western interests. If not the ICC, the UN report suggests that an ad hoc special criminal tribunal could be set up, as happened in the cases of Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
As the Security Council debates the report, it should soon become clear how far the West will push for a response, and how China and Russia are going to react. The report also argues that the Security Council should adopt sanctions against the six named individuals, and that all future transactions by member states with Myanmar should take into account human-rights concerns. That is something that Western countries will have to think about. Since opening up in 2011, Myanmar has been seen mainly as an investment opportunity; now it is a country that will have to be approached with a great deal more caution.