“Trust us.” That’s the implicit message in the Myanmar military’s announcement this week of the creation of an “investigation court” to probe the state-backed mass violence targeted at the country’s Muslim Rohingya population in August 2017.
The announcement on the website of the Office of the Commander in Chief of Defense Services describes the court as consisting of three senior military (Tatmadaw) officials tasked to “further scrutinize” the bloodshed of August 2017. It reiterates the military’s long-discredited narrative that all military activity in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 were legitimate operations in response to attacks on police posts allegedly perpetrated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a non-state insurgent group.
The military’s motive in forming this so-called investigation court is nothing less than a brazen effort to counter the voluminous evidence compiled by United Nations investigators and international human-rights organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), that the Tatmadaw and other security forces organized and executed mass killings and forced relocations of northern Rakhine’s Rohingya community in August 2017. And Tatmadaw officials have reason to be concerned. UN-appointed investigators concluded last August that Myanmar’s state-backed violence against the Rohingya constituted the “gravest” crimes against civilians under international law, including genocide.
And that pool of evidence implicating the Tatmadaw in such crimes just keeps growing. The results of a quantitative survey conducted by PHR of 605 surviving Rohingya community leaders in Bangladesh published this week in The Lancet Planetary Health paints a grim picture of Myanmar security forces deployed in August 2017 to kill and terrorize northern Rakhine’s Rohingya population. The vast majority of respondents identified the Tatmadaw and the official Border Guard Police as the security forces who deployed “military assets, including helicopters, military trucks, and tanks” against defenseless Rohingya men, women and children in August 2017.
This week at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Myanmar’s failure to provide meaningful accountability for the abuses of August 2017 will get renewed scrutiny. In a resolution titled “Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,” the UN “calls upon the Myanmar authorities, in particular the Myanmar military and security forces, to end immediately violence and all violations of international law in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.”
Myanmar’s apparent gambit: that the announcement of a military inquiry into the events of August 2017 will quell international calls for an investigation into that violence and allow Myanmar to return to a ‘business as usual’ setting with the international community
The announcement of the investigation court is the Myanmar authorities’ idea of a solution to this growing international opprobrium about Myanmar’s defiant refusal to allow any meaningful international-standard probe into the slaughter of August 2017 aimed at providing accountability for those abuses. Myanmar’s apparent gambit: that the announcement of a military inquiry into the events of August 2017 will quell international calls for an investigation into that violence and allow Myanmar to return to a “business as usual” setting with the international community.
That’s unlikely. The Tatmadaw’s well-earned reputation for decades of murderous violence targeting Myanmar’s ethnic minorities with utter impunity makes its move to appoint itself as a self-styled impartial investigator into the violence of August 2017 as laughable as it is ironic – particularly since that scorched-earth campaign of mass killings, torture, and sexual violence was for longtime Myanmar observers a matter of brutal deja-vu “on steroids.” The government’s active complicity with the Tatmadaw in resisting accountability for past abuses, including those against the Rohingya in August 2017, render any official Myanmar investigation that does not involve meaningful participation of international investigators, particularly from the UN, a craven exercise in deception.
If the Myanmar authorities are serious about accountability for the violence of August 2017, they can demonstrate that by ending their stonewalling of international probes into the violence. They can start by lifting the prohibition on international organizations seeking to investigate the slaughter of 2017 from accessing the area.
The government should also stop blocking UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee, who is tasked with assessing the human-rights situation in Myanmar, from undertaking a credible, international-standard investigation into the violence of August 2017. In 2017, the government placed restrictions on an official fact-finding mission led by Lee that she described as an “affront to the independence of my mandate as Special Rapporteur.” That December, the government announced it was denying her access to the country, including to Rakhine state.
Myanmar authorities could also signal their sincerity about accountability for those abuses by supporting the work of the UN’s independent mechanism “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.”
Until these restrictions are lifted, expect the Tatmadaw’s “investigation court,” and the long-delayed justice for the Rohingya, to continue to go nowhere fast.