The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFMM), in its abbreviated report to the Human Rights Council released on 27 August, 2018, called for the investigation and prosecution of Myanmar military leaders for genocide in Rakhine State, and found that crimes against humanity and war crimes had been committed in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States since 2011. The IIFFMM called for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The IIFFMM’s recommendations on accountability, including ICC referral and interim measures to collect and preserve evidence, echo the calls of many others, including most recently 26 Rohingya organizations, a group of Myanmar and regional civil society organizations, and 132 Members of Parliament from ASEAN countries.
Over one million Rohingya refugees have taken refuge in Bangladesh, most of whom were forced to flee Myanmar by the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” in October 2016 and August 2017, with involvement of other security forces and Rakhine civilians, who systematically burned down Rohingya villages and committed serious international crimes on a massive scale. In parallel to the IIFFMM’s investigation, Rohingya refugees have been working for months on compiling the names of those killed since the October 2016 crackdown, including how they were killed. The list totals more than 10,000 people killed, higher than previous, limited estimates.
In a special session on the Rohingya crisis on August 28, the UNSC was briefed by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador, Cate Blanchett. Sweden called on the UNSC to discuss and consider referral to the ICC, and the Netherlands also called for an ICC referral unless there is progress toward accountability at the national level. Other countries like the UK, France and the US expressed support for the IIFFMM report, but did not echo its calls for an ICC referral. The Myanmar representative continued to deny the allegations and place blame on Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for the displacement, while Russia echoed the Government’s line that 81 of 88 recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s report had been implemented, while China called for a development-based approach to solving the conflict.
The IIFFMM report also drew attention to the disturbing prevalence of hate speech, including on social media. The report pointed out that while it is extremist Buddhist groups like the Ma Ba Tha that lead the spread of hate speech, the Myanmar government has not only failed to act to combat hate speech, but has also mirrored the “hate narratives” using less inflammatory language. Immediately following the IIFFMM’s Press Conference, Facebook announced that it had removed the accounts of 18 Facebook users, one Instagram account and 52 Facebook pages, for their role in spreading hate and disinformation – including the accounts of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Myanmar military-owned Myawady television company.
Despite mounting evidence and condemnation, the Myanmar Government – including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – continue to deny the allegations of military crimes and insist that alleged terrorism committed by Rohingya is the cause of displacement. Speaking in Singapore on 21 August, 2018, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that the threat of terrorism is still present in Rakhine State, but Myanmar was ready to receive returning refugees, and that the timing of return was up to Bangladesh.
Despite Myanmar Government platitudes, it is clear that the situation in Rakhine State is far from conducive to safe, dignified and sustainable return. As stated by a group of 26 Rohingya organizations, “Myanmar continues to impose a callous system of state-sponsored segregation that amounts to apartheid, which often confines Rohingya to ghettos and villages in virtual open-air prisons.” In addition to lack of progress on accountability as well as freedom of movement and citizenship, violations continue against Rohingya in Rakhine State. According to Rohingya interviewed by Human Rights Watch, returnees have been subject to arbitrary arrest and torture by the Border Guard Police, before being pardoned after a month of unlawful imprisonment. International NGOs and humanitarian organizations with operations in Rakhine State also released a joint letter describing the discriminatory policies and continuing human rights violations they have witnessed against Rohingya who remain in Myanmar and criticizing the Government’s development-based approach, stating that “[w]ithout citizenship rights and freedom of movement, Rohingya communities cannot equally benefit from improved development and refugees in Bangladesh will not feel safe to return.”
From the Myanmar Government’s continued denial, Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to even acknowledge the serious suffering of the Rohingya people, and the continuing detention of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on trumped-up charges motivated by their reporting on military crimes in Rakhine State, it is clear that any domestic measures claiming to seek accountability are simply meant as a shield for international criticism. Meanwhile, the domestic Commission of Inquiry cited by many international diplomats including the UK’s Minister for Asia as the focus of accountability efforts, and thus implicitly a reason to delay ICC referral, has already proven to be incapable of seeking accountability. For instance, its Chairwoman Rosario Manolo, a former Philippines diplomat, stated at a press conference that “there will be no blaming of anybody” in the Commission’s work.
Given the severity of the IIFFMM’s findings, the international community must act through the UN to immediately end the Myanmar military’s impunity. The recommendations of the IIFFMM related to accountability must be immediately implemented, including a referral to the ICC, the establishment of an International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to prepare for any future criminal proceedings, an interim mechanism to continue to document and collect evidence of international crimes and monitor and report to the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly on continuing crimes and efforts towards accountability. Furthermore, given the IIFFMM’s findings of international crimes committed by the military in all of its major fields of engagement since 2011, the UN must impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar to prevent weapons, skills and financial assistance from being used in atrocity crimes. UNSC Member States such as the UK, US and France must stop clinging to the hope of domestic accountability through a Commission that the IFFMM has already said “will not and cannot provide a real avenue for accountability.” Failure to support international justice at this point will come back to haunt those countries when violations are repeated.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 26 Rohingya organisations
By Action for Shan State Rivers
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By Burma Campaign UK
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”