Myanmar’s army has shelled villages and burned domiciles in Rakhine state in recent months, killing and displacing civilians in “attacks that amount to war crimes” that should be tried by the top United Nations court, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

The coronavirus pandemic brought no pause in the 18-month conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in the western states of Rakhine and Chin, where civilians have suffered indiscriminate air strikes, arbitrary detentions, and torture, the London-based human rights group said in a new report.

“While Myanmar authorities were urging people to stay at home to help stop COVID-19, in Rakhine and Chin states its military was burning down homes and killing civilians in indiscriminate attacks that amount to war crimes,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

“The atrocities have not stopped — in fact, the Myanmar military’s cruelty is only getting more sophisticated,” Bequelin said.

“This relentless pattern of violations is clearly a matter for the ICC. The Security Council must act,” he said, referring to the International Criminal Court.

In November 2019, the ICC authorized an investigation in to alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims in 2016-17 during a crackdown that left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 the others into neighboring Bangladesh.

In January, the International Court of Justice, a sister court that settles disputes between nations, ordered Myanmar to guard the Rohingya from genocidal acts and refrain from destroying evidence of so-called crimes —  a ruling in an incident brought by the West African country of Gambia.

Accounts of mistreatment

Amnesty’s report is based on remote interviews in May and June with increased than two dozen ethnic Rakhines and Chins afflicted with military operations, including air strikes and shelling.

The report presents new satellite imagery of burned down villages and verifies video footage of rights violations carried out by the Myanmar military.

It also calls focus on the Myanmar military’s arbitrary detention of civilians in northern Rakhine state on perceived connections with the AA, and the use of torture and other kinds of ill-treatment throughout interrogations. RFA has previously reported numerous accounts of such mistreatment.

A yearlong online sites cutoff in the conflict zone, imposed to thwart AA communications, has left residents uninformed about COVID-19, the report said.

The fighting in northern Rakhine and Paletwa township in adjacent Chin state has killed 266 civilians and injured 576 the others during the period from December 2018 to June 29 of this year, according to figures compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Rights groups say as many as 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

Responding to Amnesty’s report, Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that the us government army has acted transparently by issuing  announcements whenever civilians are killed through the fighting and whenever it detains civilians for questioning.

“When we conduct military operations, we need to use appropriate force and air strikes, but we have been trying to identify those who are civilians and those who are insurgents,” he told RFA.

Civilians often get trapped in the fighting if the AA moves into villages and uses them as human shields when firing on Myanmar soldiers or detonating explosive devices, that he added.

“The government army is working as much as it can to not harm civilians,” Zaw Min Tun said.

Myanmar demonstrators hold a portrait of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a rally to support Myanmar’s military in Naypyidaw, Jan. 23, 2019.
Credit: Associated Press

Myanmar Army Actions in Rakhine State Should be Tried as ‘War Crimes,’ Says Amnesty

‘Problems since conflict began’

Amnesty said it absolutely was unable to document operations and abuses by the AA on account of COVID-19 travel restrictions and limited access to conflict-affected areas and witnesses.

But the rights group added that reports suggest the AA has continued a pattern of abuses it previously documented — “endangering the lives of civilians during attacks, intimidation of local communities, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that his force’s soldiers had not committed any abuses against civilians amid the hostilities.

“If an AA member does something like this, then we are ready to conduct an inquiry and take action against him,” that he said.

In a reaction to the report, Pe Than, a lawmaker from Rakhine’s Myebon township, said there were many cases of villages being burned by artillery fire and bombs from fighter jets.

“The military has stated its reasons for these actions, so I don’t want to say whether it is right or wrong,” that he told RFA. “We Rakhines have been having these problems since the conflict began.”

The Amnesty report came in the wake of an announcement by Britain on Monday that it was imposing immediate sanctions on two high-raking military officers deemed responsible for “notorious” human rights abuses in recent years, freezing their assets and banning them from traveling to great britain.

The list issued by the UK’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) includes Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in- chief of Myanmar’s military, and Vice Senior General Soe Win, deputy commander-in-chief of the military, for his or her involvement in rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017 and 2019.

The OFSI said they certainly were responsibility for commanding troops who committed unlawful killings, burnings of Rohingya domiciles, torture, forced labor, and systematic rape and other kinds of targeted sexual violence.

Soe Win was also cited for his involvement in financing the Myanmar military’s operations in Rakhine state at that time that the violations occurred and  was deemed in charge of other rights violations in connection with the army’s business interests in Myanmar’s extractive industries.

Ten other Myanmar officers, sanctioned by the UK government in 2018, remain on the list.

Politically motivated

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesman, said that Myanmar soldiers operate according to foibles and that the move by great britain was politically motivated.

“When the military is performing its duties, such as working on securing and protecting the country, we follow the [military] rules of engagement,” that he told RFA.

“The military has been addressing the Rakhine problem and human rights abuses with full accountability and responsibility,” he added.

Zaw Min Tun said the armed forces can be conducting its investigations in to incidents in which soldiers have been accused of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses during the army-led crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017, and has been transparent having its findings.

“Despite that we are working on these cases, we were hit with sanctions,” that he said. We have no one thing to say about it since it is what they [Western countries] usually do.”

Myanmar rights groups praised the UK’s decision to impose sanctions on the military top brass.

“We welcome the sanctions against the Myanmar generals, but it is not enough,” said Tun Khin, president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.

The British government still must pressure Myanmar to implement the guidelines of the U.N. fact-finding mission and to impose sanctions on companies that work with the Myanmar military, he added.

The 2018 U.N.-mandated investigation unearthed that Myanmar had acted with “genocidal intent” contrary to the Rohingya, although the government denied the accusation, saying that the military conducted a “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine in a reaction to terrorist attacks by a Muslim militant group.

The mission urged the international community to cut its ties to Myanmar’s military, saying that revenues the armed forces earned from domestic and foreign business deals enhanced its ability to execute gross violations of human rights with impunity.

Aung Myo Min, director of human rights education group Equality Myanmar, said other countries could impose sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win.

“The whole world is paying attention to human rights violations in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state, so there could be more sanctions against these two top generals,” he told RFA.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday that the move “will give the UK a powerful new economic tool to promote accountability for human rights abuse on a global scale.”

“The UK’s new powers will complement the efforts of the United States and Canada, further enhancing our ability to act together,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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