Of course, the details never added up. But now, with recent confessions from two Myanmar Army soldiers, the truth hangs in the open air, exposing the blatant lies that government officials have told about their genocide against the Rohingya.
That truth was already clear to the dozen of us—human rights lawyers, activists, documentarians, former members of Congress and political aides—who took part in a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights expert delegation trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2018. We arrived in the country hoping to gain a detailed and updated understanding of the Rohingya crisis.
As part of that 10-day journey, we met with government officials, social organizations, community leaders, and refugees. This included officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs, where a dozen high-level military and police officials joined us in an unkempt meeting room one afternoon. Sitting before computers on one side of a long table, their faces obscured, they asserted that no massacres had taken place of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. They denied civilians were targeted or harmed, and they claimed the Rohingya had left Myanmar on their own initiative, burning their own homes in the process.
But, everything we heard from Rohingya survivors, both in the Bangladesh refugee camps and the Myanmar internment camps, pointed to genocide.
Walking through the spaghetti bowl of narrow alleys in Cox’s Bazar, which houses 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, we took scores of testimonies from refugees seeking shelter in thatched huts in the middle of monsoon season.
One after another, women told us the details of their terror, of soldiers and former neighbors who murdered and raped adults and children, set flames to mosques and threw bodies into mass graves. One woman was raped so brutally she still experienced chronic pain and bleeding.
A carefully documented 2018 report by Fortify Rights named 22 senior Myanmar military and police officers who deliberately prepared and then carried out the carnage on a colossal scale.
Starting in early 2017, the Myanmar military trained and armed local non-Rohingya citizens. In mid-August soldiers went door to door, confiscated weapons, taking anything Rohingya might use to defend themselves. They tore down fences around Rohingya homes, providing better lines of sight to facilitate attacks. They ousted international humanitarian groups who provided needed food and health care for a desperately poor population, weakening the Rohingya and removing witnesses to the crimes to come. In late August, Fortify Rights reported, 27 Myanmar Army battalions comprising up to 11,000 soldiers, along with at least three combat police battalions attacked. They burned villages, shot fleeing residents, gang raped women and girls as young as five years old, dumped bodies in mass graves, and forcibly exiled hundreds of thousands of people.
In recent days, the façade that the Myanmar government has tried to keep up has finally started to erode, as two Myanmar Army soldiers confessed to their involvement in massacres, rape, and other crimes against Rohingya Muslims. According to Fortify Rights, the soldiers provided the names and ranks of 19 direct perpetrators from the Myanmar Army, including themselves, as well as six senior commanders in the Myanmar Army whom they claim ordered or contributed to atrocity crimes against the Rohingya, including a lieutenant colonel, a colonel, and three captains.
Confirming the 2018 report, the two men separately claimed to be acting on orders from senior commanders to “exterminate all” Rohingya and to “shoot all that you see and all that you hear.”
It has been three years since Myanmar’s campaign of “clearance operations” and more than two years since our visit. Finally, the soldiers’ confessions show bigger cracks in the military than previously realized and provide hope that more perpetrators may come forward, and that the Rohingya may see accountability and justice, after all.
Yet, the wheels of change continue to move far too slowly. Even as an investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is underway, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—at Gambia’s request—has ordered provisional measures as it considers whether Myanmar violated its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the government of Myanmar continues to deny the occurrence of these serious human rights abuses and has not taken necessary measures to protect the Rohingya from the risk of future genocidal attacks.
Thousands of Rohingya remaining in Myanmar are being held in internment camps and urban ghettos that a United Nations investigator recently likened to those seen in Nazi-occupied Europe. Thousands—that we know of—have perished.
The Myanmar government continues to deny the Rohingya their fundamental rights to citizenship, to freedom of movement, to go to school or to the hospital, and even the right to marry. It has failed to comply with the provisional measures ordered by the ICJ, to protect the lives of the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar, to meaningfully investigate and try any of the senior commanders responsible for the mass atrocities committed in 2017, and to preserve evidence of those atrocities.
The Rohingya cannot yet live freely, safely, and fully in their home country, and the ongoing violations of their fundamental rights underscore the persecutory and genocidal intent of the Myanmar government.
We call on all countries to formally recognize that the August 2017 attacks against the Rohingya constituted a genocide and to demand accountability for their perpetrators. Further, the international community should follow the lead of Canada and the Netherlands and extend their support to the ICC to ensure victims receive justice for the horrors suffered, instead of undermining the ICC’s efforts to end impunity as the United States has just done with the imposition of sanctions against the ICC’s staff.
The ICC should prosecute the two Army deserters, Myo Win Tun and Zaw Naing Tun, who confessed to their involvement in the massacres. Getting their confessions on the record through a trial at the Court could have a powerful and positive impact on the ongoing ICJ case as well as other accountability efforts against the architects of the genocide.
More than 50 years ago, while speaking at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Robert F. Kennedy remarked that
everything that makes man’s lives worthwhile—family, work, education, a place to rear one’s children and a place to rest one’s head—all this depends on the decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people, and I mean all of its people. Therefore, the essential humanity of man can be protected and preserved only where the government must answer—not just to the wealthy; not just to those of a particular religion, not just to those of a particular race; but to all of the people.
We cannot condone the Myanmar government’s lies with silence. Experience told the Myanmar military that they could perpetrate mass atrocities without consequences. It’s our job to prove them wrong.
Image: A Myanmar soldier guards an area at the Sittwe airport as British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt arrives in Sittwe, Rakhine state, on September 20, 2018. British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt’s busy two-day visit comes the same week UN investigators released a damning and meticulous report detailing why six Myanmar generals should be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, who were chased out of Rakhine state after the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017. Photo by YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images