Court Martial Latest Accountability Sham: Convictions Obscure Widespread Military Impunity

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s court-martial conviction of three military personnel for crimes against ethnic Rohingya reflects ongoing government efforts to evade meaningful accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar authorities have repeatedly failed to adequately investigate and prosecute grave abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine State, including crimes against humanity.

On June 30, 2020, the Myanmar military announced that two officers and a soldier had been convicted for “weakness in following the instructions” during the “Gu Dar Pyin incident.” Rakhine State’s Gu Dar Pyin village was the site of a massacre by the military on August 27-28, 2017, part of its campaign of mass atrocities that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military did not provide any other information, such as the names and ranks of those convicted, their role in the massacre, or their sentences.

“Myanmar’s farcical court martial is the latest attempt to feign progress on accountability in an apparent attempt to influence the United Nations and international tribunals,” said Shayna Bauchner, assistant Asia researcher. “Foreign governments should demand Myanmar open its doors to truly independent and impartial international investigators.”

The Gu Dar Pyin court martial began in November 2019 following a military investigation led by Maj. Gen. Myat Kyaw that found “grounds to believe the soldiers did not fully comply with the rules of engagement.” Closed hearings were held in Buthidaung township through April 30.

Maintaining its characteristic lack of transparency, the military has not released details about the trial or the actions being taken. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the military, known as the Tatmadaw, was withholding information to avoid harming military morale. “We have to consider their dignity and service,” he said. “We don’t want this [case] to affect the morale of Tatmadaw soldiers in performing their duties and their spirit of comradeship.”

Human rights groups, the media, and UN investigators extensively documented the Gu Dar Pyin massacre. Rohingya witnesses said that hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police surrounded the town and shot villagers as they tried to flee. The UN-backed Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported that soldiers abducted women and girls from the village and gang raped them at a nearby military compound. The Associated Press identified at least five mass graves where soldiers piled the bodies, before burning their faces off with acid. An estimated 300 to 400 Rohingya were killed. Security forces burned down every structure in the village.

The Myanmar government has denied evidence of the military’s attack on Gu Dar Pyin. Instead, it claimed security forces were responding to an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an ethnic Rohingya armed group, and local villagers, during which 19 Rohingya “terrorists” died, their bodies “carefully buried.”

Authorities also announced that military investigations into the attacks in Chut Pyin and Maung Nu, other villages in Rakhine State, are ongoing.

For decades, Myanmar’s justice system has failed to address military violations of human rights and the laws of war. The military and its justice system remain outside civilian control and oversight, instead falling under the authority of the commander-in-chief. In the sole prior convictions handed down for the 2017 abuses, seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in killing 10 Rohingya in Inn Din village. Yet in November 2018, after serving just seven months, all were released and pardoned by the commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

This latest case underscores the Myanmar government’s longstanding efforts to conceal military crimes with hollow admissions of wrongdoing and claims of justice. Both the military and the civilian government have been unwilling to investigate widespread abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine State since 2012.

In response to international attention, the government has set up a series of commissions intended to stave off calls for action, rather than prosecute those responsible or advance justice. In January, Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry released a report that failed to hold senior military officials responsible or provide a credible basis for justice and accountability. It also upheld the military’s narrative on the Gu Dar Pyin massacre, reporting that 19 had died in counterterrorism operations.

The Myanmar government implausibly continues to claim, as it did at the UN Human Rights Council session on the Rohingya on June 30, that it “is willing and able to address the issue of accountability,” and that “the domestic justice system of a country must be respected.” If Myanmar is serious about accountability, it should grant access to Rakhine State to international investigators, including the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the new UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, and the International Criminal Court, which opened an investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation and other related crimes in November 2019.

In November, Gambia filed a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention. During ICJ hearings in December, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi cited the Gu Dar Pyin case as evidence of the military’s “will to accountability”: “I am encouraged by the Gu Dar Pyin court martial, and I expect the Office to continue its investigations and prosecutions based on reliable evidence gathered in Rakhine and from persons who witnessed what happened there.”

In reality, these court-martial proceedings reflect the military’s unyielding impunity and the government’s protection of it, scapegoating a few soldiers rather than seriously investigating the military leadership who oversaw the atrocity crimes.

On January 23, the ICJ unanimously ordered Myanmar to prevent genocide, preserve evidence, and regularly report to the court on its implementation of the order.

“The Gu Dar Pyin convictions merely highlight that those ultimately responsible for the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities, like Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are not being investigated and remain answerable to no one,” Bauchner said. “Concerned governments should recognize that Myanmar won’t credibly investigate itself, and should press the government to cooperate with international commissions and courts so that those responsible for grave crimes can be held to account.”

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