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Myanmar: Military commits war crimes in latest operation in Rakhine State

Following a recent investigation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Amnesty International has gathered new evidence that the Myanmar military is committing war crimes and other human rights violations. The military operation is ongoing, raising the prospect of additional crimes being committed.

The new report, “No one can protect us”: War crimes and abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State", details how the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, have killed and injured civilians in indiscriminate attacks since January 2019. The Tatmadaw forces have also carried out extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances.

The report examines the period of intense military operations that followed coordinated attacks on police posts by the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group, on 4 January 2019. The new operation followed a government instruction to ‘crush’ the AA.

“Less than two years since the world outrage over the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya population, the Myanmar military is again committing horrific abuses against ethnic groups in Rakhine State” said Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia at Amnesty International. “The new operations in Rakhine State show an unrepentant, unreformed and unaccountable military terrorizing civilians and committing widespread violations as a deliberate tactic.”

Amnesty International conducted 81interviews, including 54 interviews on the ground in Rakhine State in late March 2019 and 27 remote interviews with people living in conflict-affected areas. They included ethnic Rakhine, Mro, Rohingya and Khami villagers, belonging to the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim faiths. The organization also reviewed photographs, videos and satellite imagery, and interviewed humanitarian officials, human rights activists and other experts.

While ethnic Rakhine communities have long fostered political grievances against Myanmar’s central government, the AA is led by a younger generation of ethnic Rakhine nationalists. Today the AA is estimated to have a fighting force of up to 7,000 troops. Established in 2009, it has fought alongside other ethnic armed organizations in northern Myanmar and in recent years has clashed sporadically with the military in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State. Fighting intensified in late 2018.

Map of the Rakhine State

Newly-deployed units, same pattern of atrocities

Amnesty International’s new report uncovers evidence of abuses committed by military troops implicated in past atrocity crimes, including specific divisions and battalions under the Western Command. Amnesty International has further confirmed that newly-deployed units from the 22nd and 55th Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) are responsible for many of these fresh violations.

From interviews and other evidence, including satellite imagery, Amnesty International documented seven unlawful attacks which killed 14 civilians and injured at least 29 more. Most of these attacks were indiscriminate, and some may have been direct attacks on civilians. In one incident in late January, a seven-year-old ethnic Rakhine boy died after a mortar that almost certainly was fired by the Myanmar military exploded in Tha Mee Hla village, Rathedaung Township, during fighting between the military and the AA. Although the boy was severely injured, it took several hours before Myanmar soldiers gave his family permission to take him to a hospital. He died the following day.

In another incident in mid-March, a Myanmar military mortar exploded in Ywar Haung Taw village, Mrauk-U Township, injuring at least four people and destroying a house belonging to Hla Shwe Maung, a 37-year-old ethnic Rakhine man. He recalled, “I heard an explosion. It was very loud and there was a big fireball that fell around us… I grabbed my daughter in my arms… [when] we looked back half of our house’s roof was gone.”

Review of satellite imagery confirms the destruction of a building in Ywar Haung Taw village, as well as the presence of new artillery at the police base close by.

While ethnic Rakhine communities have borne the brunt of violations committed by the Myanmar military in this campaign, other communities, including the Rohingya, have also suffered. On 3 April 2019, a military helicopter opened fire on Rohingya labourers cutting bamboo, killing at least six men and boys and injuring at least 13 others. “The helicopter came from behind the mountain,” a survivor of the attack told Amnesty International. “Within minutes it fired rockets. I was running for my life thinking about my family and how I would survive.” Direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks which kill or injure civilians are war crimes.

Amnesty International also documented how the military has taken positions within ancient temple complexes of Mrauk-U and fired recklessly in the area. Satellite imagery confirms the presence of artillery close to the temples, and photographs show destruction of temple sites. While the organization has not been able to determine who was responsible for the attacks, by basing themselves close to the monuments, the Myanmar Army exposed historical and cultural property to destruction and damage, which violates international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International further documented seven cases of arbitrary arrest in Rakhine State since January 2019. These arrests were exclusively of men, usually ethnic Rakhine men of fighting age, and were often accompanied by torture and other ill-treatment aimed at obtaining information about the AA. A 33-year-old ethnic Rakhine man recalled, “[The soldier] asked, ‘Where do the AA keep their weapons?’ I replied ‘I don’t know, I’m not AA’… I remember a punch and a kick, then they hit my head with a rifle… I tried to cover my head with my hands but they started kicking and beating [me]. There was blood on my hands, face and head.”

Amnesty International also documented the enforced disappearance of six men – one ethnic Mro and five ethnic Rakhine – in mid-February. A witness said she last saw one of the men in military custody. Since then, families have had no information about their loved ones’ fate and whereabouts.

More than 30,000 people have been displaced in this latest violence, however the Myanmar authorities have blocked humanitarian access to the affected areas.

“The authorities are compounding the misery of civilians by blocking the supply of medicine, food and humanitarian relief to those in need, including children,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “Civilians in Rakhine State are paying the heaviest price from the military’s assaults and their aftermath – yet the government continues to choose to remain silent about this spiralling crisis.”

Arakan Army abuses

While the Myanmar military was responsible for the overwhelming majority of violations documented by Amnesty International, the AA has also committed abuses against civilians, including abductions, the report shows. On 3 May AA fighters abducted four ethnic Rohingya men from Sin Khone Taing village, Rathedaung Township. According to a source with direct knowledge of the incident, four were taken to a remote location in the forest. In early February, the AA abducted 53 people from a village in neighbouring Chin State. According to a credible source, the group of women, men, and children were taken to an AA base near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where men were forced to porter and build shelters. Two subsequently escaped, however the fate and whereabouts of the others remains unknown.

AA soldiers have endangered civilians, at times conducting operations in a manner that has placed civilian villagers at risk of harm. The AA has also threatened and intimidated village administrators and local businesspeople, warning them in letters against interfering with the group’s activities. The letters were each accompanied by a bullet and bore the AA’s official seal.

Threats to freedom of expression

As reports of military violations mount, the security forces have resorted to tried and tested tactics to silence critical reporting, filing criminal complaints in recent months against the editors of three local Myanmar-language news outlets.

“While earlier this month the authorities finally released Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo after arbitrarily detaining them for more than 500 days, the global indignation over their case hasn’t stopped the authorities using the same fear tactics to make an example of others,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

“The NLD-led government has the power to change this. It holds a parliamentary majority and must use it to repeal or reform the repressive laws so often used against journalists.”

Time to step up international pressure

The latest military operation in Rakhine State was launched less than 18 months after the Myanmar security forces perpetrated crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population. More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees are still living in camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and Amnesty’s new report provides yet more evidence that it is not safe for them to return.

This fresh evidence lends even greater urgency for the UN to act on the full range of atrocity crimes committed by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State and in northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan States. A UN Fact Finding Mission has called for senior military officials to be investigated and tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

In the absence of any domestic accountability, Amnesty International is calling on the UN Security Council to urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and impose a comprehensive arms embargo. Myanmar’s international partners must also rethink their relations with the Myanmar military leadership and implement targeted sanctions against senior officials through multilateral bodies like the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations.

“With Myanmar’s military committing atrocities as brazenly as ever, it’s clear international pressure needs to intensify,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “Again and again, the international community has failed to stop the Myanmar military’s crimes and protect the civilian population. The Security Council was established to respond to exactly these kinds of situations, it’s time it took its responsibility seriously.”