Myanmar: The Dark Side of the Rohingya Muslim Minority

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 Myanmar: The Dark Side of the Rohingya Muslim Minority
 By Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael G. Bouchnik-Chen —  BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 970, October 9, 2018.  

 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A UNHRC report has found Myanmar’s authorities responsible for “the gravest crimes under international law” against the Rohingya Muslim minority – crimes that led to a massive exodus to Bangladesh. The report concludes that the army must be investigated for genocide against the Rohingya. This blunt condemnation of the Myanmar authorities does not correspond to solid intelligence data proving terror attacks by Rohingya’s ARSA militants against government assets and the killing of military and police personnel, as well as Buddhist citizens. Several conclusions of the UNHRC Mission ought to be revisited.

In her book Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy (2010), Prof. Kelly M. Greenhill, a former US foreign policy consultant, argues that engineered migration is a strategy that has been used by governments and organizations as an instrument of persuasion in the international arena. In other words, manipulation of mass migration can be used as a weapon to exert pressure on governments for political ends.

The latest refugee case to have attracted international attention was the 700,000 Rohingya who recently fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh. A special UN fact-finding mission assigned by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) delivered its final report on September 17, 2018. “It is hard to fathom the level of brutality of Tatmadaw operations, its total disregard for civilian life,” Marzuki Darusman, the head of the Mission, told the UNHRC, referring to the nation’s military.

The report is a harsh indictment of Myanmar’s authorities. It describes indiscriminate killing, villages burned to the ground, children assaulted, and women gang-raped, which collectively caused an exodus of at least 700,000 people from Rakhine State since August 2017, many of them to neighboring Bangladesh. These atrocities were categorized as “the gravest crimes under international law.” Such was their extremity, the report said, that the army should be investigated for genocide against the Rohingya.

The report called for six senior military figures of the Myanmar military forces (the Tatmadaw), including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Based on the UNHRC report, on September 18, 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched a preliminary investigation into Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims.

The newly nominated UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet welcomed the ICC’s decision. “This is an immensely important step towards ending impunity, and addressing the enormous suffering of the Rohingya people,” she said. “I emphasize the imperative of justice for Myanmar.” Bachelet has called for the establishment of an independent body to collect evidence of international crimes committed in Myanmar, with a view to supporting national and international trials.

Notwithstanding the gravity of the accusations against Myanmar, the decisive wording of the UNHRC report warrants attention. Furthermore, it is relevant that Myanmar did not allow the UNHRC fact-finding mission into Rakhine State and has denounced any claim of atrocities against the Rohingya minority.

In its preamble, the UNHRC report states that “the Mission deeply regrets the lack of cooperation from the Government of Myanmar, despite repeated appeals from the Human Rights Council and the Mission. The Mission requested in-country access through letters of 4 September 2017, 17 November 2017 and 29 January 2018. It sent a detailed list of questions on 27 March 2018…No response was received.” The report is thus a strict verdict on a culprit who was absent at trial.

The Committee says it took the following to be sources of first-hand information:

  • Confidential interviews conducted by the Mission or its staff with victims, witnesses, victims’ close family members, perpetrators, or former Myanmar officials with direct knowledge of the issues brought before the Mission, where it was assessed that the source was credible and reliable.
  • Satellite imagery from reliable sources, authenticated video and photo material, and documents containing first-hand information from reliable sources.
  • Publicly available admissions of relevant facts by Myanmar officials.

By relying mainly on accessible data, the committee had a relatively easy task – that is, it didn’t have to verify victims’ testimony or challenge graphic descriptions of atrocities attributed to the Tatmadaw. This methodology should raise questions of objectivity, especially in light of the Mission’s verdict accusing the Tatmadaw of genocidal intent. The Myanmar authorities’ refusal to cooperate with the mission was an act of defiance, but that fact should not have affected the conclusion of the inquiry.

The world’s attention had already been raised by the Preliminary Report of the UNHRC Mission (A/HRC/39/64), released on August 28, 2018. This portion of the report is considered to be the executive summary of the final document released on September 17. The 20-page Preliminary Report (compared to the 444 pages of the final report) indicates the agenda of the international arena vis-à-vis the Myanmar government.

The report adheres fully to the Rohingya Muslim story while rejecting any contradicting evidence that could have balanced or at least raised doubts about the events in Rakhine. The Mission devotes a short paragraph to deploring “serious human rights abuses” by militant or criminal groups, first and foremost by ARSA (the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), known also as Harakat al-Yaqueen (HaY). It elides any need to confront the issue by contending simply that the matter “requires further investigation.”

In a separate chapter, the Mission admits that “it has not been able to verify these assertions.” Even when hard evidence was presented, the Mission concluded that it was unable to ascertain the authenticity of the recording or its source. 

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