On March 9, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a news conference in Geneva that what he suspected were “acts of genocide” against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority should be referred to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.
Two days earlier, the UN’s point-person on human rights called for the creation of a new body tasked with preparing criminal indictments over alleged atrocities committed in Myanmar, similar to the panel created to document and deal with crimes against humanity perpetrated in Syria’s conflict.
To buttress the point, Zeid said: “Access for independent human rights monitoring is practically non-existent across Myanmar, but it appears clear that longstanding discriminatory policies and practices also continue against other groups. In Shan and Kachin states, civilian casualties continue to be reported as a result of attacks by the security forces.”
Yanghee Lee, the UN investigator on human rights in Myanmar who has not been allowed access to the country to probe alleged rights abuses, echoed Zeid by saying she was “increasingly of the opinion that the events bear the hallmarks of genocide” and that she would press for prosecutions for crimes committed against entire ethnic and religious groups.
“The government leadership who did nothing to intervene, stop, or condemn these acts must also be held accountable,” Lee said.
An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have fled from northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh since the military launched “area clearance” operations in response to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent attacks on police outposts last August 25.
Those military operations were by nearly all accounts disproportionate to the threat represented by ARSA’s ragtag, lightly armed fighters.
Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that 6,700 people were killed in the first month of the crackdown; the Myanmar government claims only 400 were killed, nearly all of whom they considered “terrorists.”
According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), citing data from the Bangladeshi government, 28,300 Rohingya children who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar have lost at least one parent, while an additional 7,700 children have reportedly lost both parents.
That puts the number of “lost” parents in the refugee crisis as high as 43,700, according to APHR, though the group added it is unclear how many of the children are siblings and may have lost the same parent.
Myanmar’s National Security Advisor, Thaung Tun, is leading the lobbying effort to deny the scale of the violence and improve the government’s badly tainted international image.
At a press conference this week in Geneva he said: “We often heard many accusations that there is ethnic cleansing or even genocide in Myanmar…it is not the policy of the government.”
He added: “Whenever there is clear evidence we will make sure that action is taken against those who have perpetrated any crimes or those who have caused human rights abuses.
“The very fact that Myanmar is willing to take back people who have crossed over the border” to Bangladesh indicates “we are not planning to have them out of the country,” he said, claiming a majority of Rohingya remain in villages in Rakhine and that if there had been an attempt at state-sponsored genocide they all would have fled to Bangladesh.
When asked queried about Thaung Tun’s remarks, Zeid said undiplomatically that Myanmar authorities were “serial deniers of the truth” and “to suggest that nothing serious has happened in Rakhine, I mean it’s preposterous, ridiculous. How can they say such a thing?”
Thaung Tun countered that the Rohingya fled largely because the ARSA armed group had sowed fear and loathing in their communities, accusing the insurgents of forcing villagers to join their attacks on the security forces and implementing a scorched earth policy of burning villages while in retreat.
Independent security analysts estimate the newly formed armed group has around 3,000-4,000 members, though that figure could by now be higher after a vigorous recruiting drive amid the deprivation and desperation in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.
However, Thaung Tun implausibly told the BBC in a recent interview that ARSA could have anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 members and that with sympathizers and family members the number could be as high as 200,000.
Whatever the figure, pressure is rising on Myanmar’s government to acknowledge the scale of the violence and accept accountability for the crimes. Officials have claimed any abuses were isolated incidents of wayward security forces, including the killings associated with a mass grave discovered at Rakhine state’s Inn Din village.
On March 12, the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar called directly on Myanmar authorities to stop dismissing reports of serious security forces perpetrated human rights violations committed not only Rakhine but also in conflict-ridden Kachin and Shan states.
“The body of information and materials we are collecting is concrete and overwhelming,” the three top experts on the FMM said in their interim oral report to this week’s 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council. “It points at human rights violations of the most serious kind, in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law.”
Still, the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice – in this instance the Myanmar military and its top commanders, including Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – will not be easy due to the geopolitics of the United Nations Security Council, where Myanmar allies China and Russia can veto any proposal to impose sanctions.
But the noose is nonetheless tightening on Myanmar’s government and military as the UN says the violence in Rakhine state likely constituted acts of genocide, a characterization that will cause many Western nations that recently dropped their previous sanctions against Myanmar’s chronic abuses to consider their re-imposition.