Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, has just completed an internal investigation into its conduct in the last three months of violence in Rakhine state. Its conclusion: outright rejection of the overwhelming evidence collected by the United Nations, rights groups and journalists of widespread human rights violations that have driven an estimated 600,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
In the face of this overwhelming evidence of systematic abuses perpetrated by the army and Border Guard Police, including the use of ethnic Rakhine civilians to burn villages, rape women and young girls, and shoot at Rohingya fleeing on foot and in boats, the report by the Kafkaesque-sounding Tatmadaw True News Information Team has predictably exonerated all security personnel of any wrongdoing.
An announcement on Monday of the report’s key findings, headed by the Inspector General of the Defense Services Lieutenant General Aye Win, stated that: “security forces did not commit shooting at innocent villagers and sexual violence and rape cases against women. They did not arrest, beat and kill the villagers. They did not totally destroy, rob and take property, gold and silver wares, vehicles and animals of villagers from the villages and displaced villages. They did not set fire to the mosques in Bengali villages.”
This is refuted by extensive satellite imagery which shows thousands of destroyed dwellings in hundreds of villages in Rakhine state. Cox’s Bazaar, across the Naf River in Bangladesh, is now home to teeming camps of hundreds of thousands of people who fled one of the fastest and most violent population expulsions in recent decades.
The report also claims that security forces strictly followed rules of engagement, abided by the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war, and placed all the blame on what it refers to as ‘Bengali terrorists’ of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group that attacked 30 police and army outposts on August 25.
A previous report on the violence that occurred after October 9, 2016 which involved widespread arson and reports of human rights violations in northern Maungdaw after ARSA attacks against police outposts plunged the region into insecurity, was released in May and adopted the same tone of Monday’s report: the Tatmadaw is not responsible for anything.
The military investigation took place between October 13 to November 7 and claims to have interviewed 3,217 villagers from ethnic minority, Hindu and Bengali villages who remain in Maungdaw township, scene of much of the violence over the past three months.
The report claims that the ‘area-combing operation’ of combined military and police units took place over 12 days from August 25 to September 5, resulting in 94 engagements and 27 arrests of suspects.
The forces did not shoot “any innocent Bengali” and when attacked by alleged large numbers of ARSA “terrorists”, made sure to only shoot at the last minute between the foot and the knee to make sure no suspects were killed.
Nevertheless, security forces did find in addition to large numbers of weapons including firearms, “376 bodies.” The military and civilian government have attempted to assert culpability of alleged massacres of Hindu civilians on ARSA. They have painted a picture of brutal executions of Hindu men, women and children, and Islamophobic stories of forced conversions of Hindu women to Islam and forced marriages.
The virulent rubric of counterterrorism, which has fueled anti-Muslim feelings and a culture of denial over reports of the scale of the violence and human flight throughout Myanmar, is fed throughout the Tatmadaw’s narrative that claims ARSA forces attacking security installations included between 6,200 and 10,000 terrorists, and that in some attacks there were over 500 attacking men.
These are likely inflated numbers to justify a heavy-handed security response. Even if accurate, these estimates would likely be men armed with rudimentary farm tools, not automatic weapons.
Figures released in the state-run media on November 11 claim that there are still 98 ARSA suspects in custody, with one recently arrested suspect named Mohammed Jawi, who is reportedly being prosecuted using the little utilized 2014 Counter Terrorism Law.
Yet just like the denials of overwhelming evidence, the figures don’t always add. The latest list of dead and missing released on Saturday claim that in in the recent months of violence, 13 security personnel were killed, 19 ethnic Rakhine, Mro, Daignet and Myanmar people killed, and 52 Hindus dead with another 176 ‘missing’. Yet in the “innocent civilians” column, “Muslim villager” boxes are all empty.
The Tatmadaw’s denials ring hollow after decades of identical patterns of counter-insurgency operations in other conflict-ridden ethnic areas. The same tactics, the same impunity, the same plodding atrocity that sees all civilians as the enemy and encourages a culture of objectification and cruelty has been the hallmark of Myanmar military pacification, tactics that have prolonged seven decades of civil war.
In recent years the Defense Services have opened marginally to admit isolated infractions, including admission to and discharging of illegally recruited under-age child soldiers from its ranks, and admitting that on occasion its personnel perpetrate sexual violence against women and young girls, although these figures are way below what women’s rights claim is an extensive practice perpetrated with almost total impunity.
Following the brutal torture and extrajudicial execution of five civilian men in northern Shan state in June 2016 (another two were shot off a motorbike and the military refused to acknowledge their involvement) seven Tatmadaw officers and men responsible were sentenced to five years in prison, an exceedingly rare admission and public punishment.
The same light infantry division (LID) in the Shan state killings has reportedly deployed elements to the Rakhine operations.
Soon after the Shan State killings, in a speech to assembled troops after an exercise, military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said: “Local people have become victims in conflicts. All of you are to perform your duties in accord with the military code of conduct, especially when we cannot identify whether someone is a friend or enemy. We cannot designate someone as an enemy just because they are in a military zone.”
And yet, reports out of Rakhine state indicate that the majority of the Muslim population was targeted for collective punishment. Yesterday’s reports that claim that all troops universally observed the military’s codes of conduct have no credibility whatsoever.
The civilian government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been castigated worldwide for its simpatico with the Tatmadaw’s denial over the scale and ferocity of its northern Rakhine state ‘area combing operation.’
The United Nations Fact Finding Mission (FFM), which has been established to investigate the security forces throughout Myanmar dating back to 2011, may still be denied entry to gather evidence, but the Tatmadaw is an unlikely ally in their investigations by driving out eyewitnesses and victims of abuses to accessible Bangladesh.
Reports produced by the True News Information Team exonerating security forces of all wrongdoing are the Tatmadaw’s bad comb-over for their culpability in ethnic cleansing.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst