Myanmar's military accused of genocide in damning UN report

Mission concludes army has carried out ‘gravest crimes’ against Rohingya in Rakhine and minorities elsewhere

Myanmar’s military has been accused of genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in a damning UN report that alleged the army was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity against minorities across the country.

The UN report said it found conclusive evidence that the actions of the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, “undoubtedly amounted to the gravest crimes under international law” in Rakhine as well as in Kachin and Shan, states also riven by internal conflicts.

The UN investigators were denied access to Myanmar by the government but interviewed 875 witnesses who had fled the country. They found that the military were “killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages” in Rakhine, home to the Muslim Rohingya, and in Shan and Kachin. The Tatmadaw also carried out murders, imprisonments, enforced disappearances, torture, rapes and used sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and enslavement – all of which constitute crimes against humanity.

In northern Rakhine, the mission also found evidence of mass extermination and deportation.

“The fact-finding mission’s powerful report and clear recommendations demonstrate the obvious need for concrete steps to advance criminal justice for atrocious crimes, instead of more hollow condemnations and expressions of concern,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This report should eliminate any doubt about the urgency of investigating those responsible for mass atrocities.”

The mission, prompted by the UN security council visit in March, called for an investigation into the military’s actions in Rakhine. The campaign of violence against the Rohingya began a year ago. An estimated 25,000 people have been killed and 700,000 have fled over the border to Bangladesh.

Following the report’s publication, the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, tweeted that he would visit the country “to seek answers at the earliest opportunity”.

Commander-in-chief, Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing

Min Aung Hlaing has occupied the highest office of Myanmar’s military since 2011 and is described as the “most powerful man in the land”, with all military under his control. His hatred of the Rohingya is well-known and he spoke openly of solving “the long-standing Bengali problem” in Myanmar. He travelled to Rakhine before and during the military’s genocide of the Rohingya to oversee the violence and later said the tensions in Rakhine were “fuelled because the Bengalis demanded citizenship".

Deputy commander-in-chief, Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win

Soe Win has been has been in the position of commander-in-chief (army) since 2011. He has been dogged by allegations of corruption, accused of accepting bribes from companies dealing in jade, timber, and gold. As commander in chief of the army he oversaw successive “clearance operations” in Rakhine state and numerous human rights violations at the hand of the military in Kachin state over the past seven years.

Lt Gen Aung Kyaw Zaw

As commander of Bureau of Special Operations-3 (BOS 3) Kyaw Zaw controlled all military operations in Rakhine state from 2015 until January 2018. It was under his watch that the military enforced a regime of systematic oppression and domination against the Rohingya which eventually built up to the violence and genocide in 2017.

Maj Gen Maung Maung Soe

Maung Maung Soe was the commander of western regional military command, the unit who carried out the massacre in Maung Nu in Rakhine state in August 2017. The unit participated in other unlawful killings in at least several dozen other villages, raped and committed other sexual violence against women and girls, and burned villages across northern Rakhine state.

Brig Gen Aung Aung

As commander of the 33rd Light Infantry Division, it was under his command that troops carried out the massacre, torture, and rape and other sexual violence in Chut Pyin in August 2017 and he personally made threats against Rohingya leaders in the village. 

Brig Gen Than Oo

The 99th Light Infantry Division under Than Oo’s command carried out the massacre, torture, and rape and other sexual violence in Min Gyi on 30 August 2017. They burned other Rohingya villages in northern Maungdaw Township. In May 2018, he was quietly stripped of his command transferred to the “auxiliary forces”, which is believed to be a response to pressure from the UN to hold the military accountable for the actions in Rakhine. However, he has never been formally investigated or charged by the military.

Laying out the legal argument for genocide to have taken place, the UN report said: “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.”

Individuals singled out for investigation and prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity included Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, who has openly stated his intention to solve “the long-standing Bengali problem”.

“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 said.

Minutes after the report was released, Facebook removed 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with the Myanmar military, including that of Min Aung Hlaing. It comes in the wake of months of criticism of the company for failing to combat the spread of hate speech on Facebook in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw have often used their Facebook pages to spread disinformation and anti-Rohingya sentiment, such as photos of dismembered children posted to Min Aung Hlaing’s page, claiming they were killed by “Muslim terrorists”.

“We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” the company said. The pages and accounts that were removed had a total of almost 12 million followers.

The UN mission called for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to be investigated by the international criminal court (ICC). Although the country is not a signatory to the Rome statute, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the court, ICC prosecutors are deliberating whether they can investigate the violence in Rakhine.

The UN report also prompted Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights and Save the Children to push for Myanmar to be investigated by the ICC.

“The international community has the responsibility to act to ensure justice and accountability,” said Tirana Hassan, the director of crisis response at Amnesty International. “Failing to do so sends a dangerous message that Myanmar’s military will not only enjoy impunity but is free to commit such atrocities again.”

Michael McGrath, the country director for Save the Children in Myanmar, added: “Children and their families have been murdered, sexually assaulted and forced to flee burning villages, and they have not yet seen the justice they deserve. Establishing the facts through the fact-finding mission was a critical first step to achieving justice; however now there must be a move towards investigations for prosecution.”

The UN report is very likely to anger Myanmar’s military and government, which have denied genocide has occurred in Rakhine and claimed that the Rohingya – whom they regularly refer to as “illegal Bengali immigrants” – instigated the violence by attacking security forces and then burning their own villages to the ground. Both the military and the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, have stated that the actions of the armed forces were an appropriate response to “terrorists”.

The Tatmadaw’s own investigation, widely considered a farce, cleared the armed forces of all wrongdoing and the head of Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly established inquiry into Rakhine has said there would be no “finger-pointing, blaming, to say ‘you’re accountable’”.

The UN report criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s passive role over the past year. “[She] has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state,” it said.

The UN said that, with Myanmar’s repeated failure to admit genocide had taken place and with the legal impunity given to the military, it fell to the international community to hold those responsible to account.

Mark Field, the UK’s minister of state for Asia and the Pacific, said “there cannot and must not be impunity for such acts”, but stopped short of calling for Myanmar to be referred to the ICC.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi impassive as genocide hearing begins
World’s failure to act over Myanmar is ‘stain on collective conscience’, UN court told

Owen Bowcott in The Hague

10, Dec, 2019 @3:36 PM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi tells court: Myanmar genocide claims ‘factually misleading’
De facto PM defends actions of government, saying attacks were initiated by insurgents

Owen Bowcott in The Hague

11, Dec, 2019 @11:08 AM

Article image
‘Tied to trees and raped’: UN report details Rohingya horrors
UN investigators publish report detailing evidence for accusation of genocide against Burmese military

Michael Safi

18, Sep, 2018 @12:44 PM

Article image
UN tells of Myanmar genocide but are world powers listening?
Failure to act would not just let the generals off the hook - it could spell the end of the ICC

Simon Tisdall

27, Aug, 2018 @12:27 PM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi stays silent on UN report on Rohingya genocide
Myanmar leader uses first appearance since damning verdict to discuss literature

Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Libby Hogan

28, Aug, 2018 @12:24 PM

Article image
Factchecking Aung San Suu Kyi's claims over genocide allegations
Myanmar leader tells court in The Hague that civilian deaths were not genocide but part of a civil war

Michael Safi

11, Dec, 2019 @2:44 PM

Article image
Haul Myanmar’s military leaders before the international criminal court | Rushanara Ali
If Boris Johnson is serious about helping the Rohingya, he must push for the prosecution of General Min Aung Hlaing, writes Labour MP Rushanara Ali

Rushanara Ali

13, Feb, 2018 @10:26 AM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi pleas with court to dismiss genocide claims
Leader says a report from an internal inquiry into Myanmar soldiers was due soon

Owen Bowcott in The Hague

12, Dec, 2019 @3:31 PM

Article image
World's awkward silence over Rohingya genocide warnings
With no appetite for humanitarian intervention and no support for a powerful ICC, there is unlikely to be justice in Myanmar or elsewhere

Simon Tisdall

03, Jan, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Aung San Suu Kyi heads to The Hague for Myanmar genocide showdown
Peace prize winner will lead her country’s defence against claims at court in Netherlands

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

08, Dec, 2019 @9:48 AM