Myanmar guilty of Rohingya ‘genocide’ says UN

Military leaders could face prosecution while Aung San Suu Kyi criticised for failing to prevent crimes against humanity

A Rohingya performs prayers at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh
(Image credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar’s military has been accused of genocide against the Rohingya in a damning UN report that alleges the army is guilty of crimes against humanity, and which recommends several of its top leaders face prosecution for war crimes.

UN fact-finders, who were denied access to Myanmar but interviewed 875 witnesses who had fled the country, said the all-powerful armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, were “killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages” in the northern state of Rakhine, home to the Muslim Rohingya, as well as in the Shan and Kachin regions.

The Tatmadaw also carried out murders, imprisonments, enforced disappearances, mass exterminations, deportation, torture, rapes and used sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and enslavement – all of which constitute crimes against humanity – which the UN called “the gravest crimes under international law”.

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At least 700,000 minority Rohinhya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh over the past year following a large scale military operation in Rakhine, instigated on the pretence of cracking down on deadly attacks by Muslim militants.

Conservative estimates put the death toll in the tens of thousands.

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Amnesty International said security forces were guilty of a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning”, and now the UN has agreed.

The report, “is the strongest condemnation from the UN so far of violence against the Rohingya”, says the BBC.

In an unusual move, the UN specifically singled out several high-profile figures within Myanmar’s army and government; calling for the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, Min Aung Hlaing, to be investigated for genocide and crimes against humanity, and criticising the country’s de facto political leader, Nobel peace prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, for her “passive role” over the past year and her failure to use her “position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state”.

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The Guardian says the report “is very likely to anger Myanmar’s military and government”, which have denied genocide has occurred in Rakhine and claimed that the Rohingya instigated the violence by attacking security forces and then burning their own villages to the ground.

“Genocide is the most serious charge that can be made against a government, and is rarely proposed by UN investigators,” says BBC Southeast Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head.

The UN has led calls for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to be investigated by the international criminal court (ICC), but “that’s going to be very difficult”, says Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom.

Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the court, so a referral to the ICC would need the backing permanent five Security Council members “and China is unlikely to agree”, argues the BBC.

Even if the Security Council were to unanimously back Myanmar’s referral to the ICC, it is hard to see anyone being convicted.

As Sky News notes, “despite numerous ongoing investigations, the ICC has convicted only three living people, none of whom for genocide”.

Alternatively, the three-person UN panel that compiled the report has suggested setting up an international tribunal like those that investigated genocide and atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It also urged the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and penalise those most responsible for crimes with travel bans and a freeze on assets.

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A conspicuous failing of Myanmar’s civilian authorities identified by the panel was their failure to curb virulent hate speech by religious and national hard-liners on social media platforms, notably Facebook.

The report prompted an immediate response from the social media giant, who announced it had taken down 18 accounts and more than 50 pages associated with Myanmar’s military, including that of Min Aung Hlaing.

CNN says international experts have pointed to Facebook as being a major source of misinformation and hate speech fuelling violence against minorities in Myanmar.

A Reuters investigative report published earlier this month found that Facebook was “failing” to end hate speech against the Rohingya and other Muslims.

In a statement released following the UN report, Facebook admitted it had been “too slow” to prevent the spread of misinformation but defended its progress in a country where many people use it as a primary source of news and communication.

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