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Myanmar democratic push at a 'standstill'

U.N. human rights investigators urged international justice for Myanmar's military-led crimes, which show its democratic transition is all but halted.

GENEVA (AN) — U.N. human rights investigators urged international justice for Myanmar's military-led "crimes that shock the human conscience," pointing to them as evidence that the democratic transition promised by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has all but ground to a halt.

Former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman, who heads a United Nations panel assigned to investigate the human rights situation in Myanmar, expressed horror and sadness at the findings contained in his panel's 440-page report.

Prepared for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the report documented genocide and other grave crimes against hundreds of thousands of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims.

"With a heavy heart and deep sadness we have drawn conclusions, on the basis of the facts, that we never expected would be as grave as they are," Darusman told the 47-nation council, which created the panel last year to carry out the fact-finding mission. "What we have found are not only the most serious human rights violations, but crimes of the highest order under international law."

Rebel attacks on security and police posts in Myanmar set off a military crackdown that drove an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into neighboring Bangladesh last year.

The panel identified six Myanmar military leaders that it said should be prosecuted for genocide against Rohingya Muslims. It called for the case to be handed to the International Criminal Court, or ICC, based at The Hague, Netherlands, or to a newly created "ad hoc international criminal tribunal.”

The panel recommended a five-point plan to achieve justice. The plan, it said, should include an international judicial mechanism; an independent mechanism to conduct criminal investigations and prepare for prosecutions; a properly resourced office to support the U.N. work; a trust fund to address the needs of victims; and a short-term mechanism for demanding accountability to ensure there is no gap.

Darusman said the core problems extend to the de facto civilian leadership of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent years under house arrest for her pro-democracy activism.

Suu Kyi met in Washington in September 2016 with President Barack Obama, and several months later his administration said the United States would suspend some sanctions on Myanmar due to its political reforms.

But more recently, amid growing evidence of crimes, there has been growing international consternation at her failure to condemn the Myanmar military's ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingya Muslims. She is the daughter of a top military leader herself: Myanmar's independence hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated during the transition period in July 1947, when Suu Kyi was only two years old.

Darusman said that democracy requires a government that accepts scrutiny and leadership, combats hate speech and harmful misinformation and is based on a legal framework guaranteeing these rights for all.

"In this regard, the democratic transition in Myanmar had barely begun and now it has come to a standstill," he said. "Repressive laws are being used to silence those that seek to scrutinize. We have verified instances of reprisals against individuals for sharing information with the United Nations."

He said that "voices critical of the government are muted by threats and arrest, hate speech is thriving, particularly against the Rohingya," and, if the international community takes a patient attitude towards Myanmar to allow it to reform, that "will only help those that seek to derail it, as it has for over 70 years."

'Widespread, systematic, brutal' killing

The report identified six Myanmar military leaders to be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against Rohingya Muslims. It said they oversaw soldiers who systematically led the killing of thousands of Rohingya civilians, including women and children, and forced disappearances, mass gang rapes and burning of hundreds of villages.

Some of the most serious and deliberately planned mass killings, or "clearance operations," were documented in the villages of Min Gyi, Chut Pyin and Maung Nu, where the report said “dozens and, in some cases hundreds of men, women and children were killed."

The report is based on 875 interviews in five countries and other documentation. Investigators were not allowed into Myanmar. Some evidence includes satellite images that corroborate information provided by victims and witnesses and show the transformation of northern Rakhine State, where at least 392 villages were razed to the ground.

“The horrors inflicted on Rohingya men, women and children during the August 2017 operations, including their indiscriminate killing, rise to the level of both war crimes and crimes against humanity”, said another member of the panel, Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka, who formerly was a special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.

“The crimes themselves, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, were found to be similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed for genocidal intent to be established in other contexts," she said.

Hundreds and possibly thousands of Rohingya women and girls were raped, including in public mass gang rapes, and many were killed or mutilated, the report said. "Rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorize or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war,” it said.

The experts expressed grave concern at the conviction and imprisonment of two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who they said had "engaged in legitimate work investigating the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din, an incident we have now independently corroborated."

“While the Reuters investigation brought this incident to light, regrettably it is just the tip of an iceberg of violent mass killings, others of which are detailed in our report," the experts said. They said Myanmar's government had little to no response to the findings, which were provided to it in advance.

Myanmar's new ambassador in Geneva, Kyaw Moe Tun, was being given the opportunity to speak at the Human Rights Council after the panel shared its findings. Myanmar’s government has rejected any cooperation with the ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, to which it is not a party.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council, the world body's most powerful arm, can vote to refer a situation to the ICC but it rarely uses the power. Myanmar's powerful neighbor, China, is one of the council's five permanent members that has veto power on the council. The others are Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

Military-led attacks

Myanmar’s foreign ministry said in a statement in April that “brutal attacks” by a terrorist group had “triggered the humanitarian situation unfolding today.”

“Myanmar categorically rejects the irresponsible labelling of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘state backed violence’ to describe events in Rakhine State," the ministry said in a statement. “The government has stated time and again that no violation of human rights will be condoned. Allegations supported by evidence will be investigated and action taken in accordance with the law.”

Military leaders cited in the report are Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing; Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win; Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw; Major-General Maung Maung Soe; and two brigadier-generals, Aung Aung and Than Oo.

“A longer list of names will be kept in the custody of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and can be shared with any competent and credible body pursuing accountability in line with international norms and standards,” the experts said in a joint statement.

The United States and European Union imposed sanctions on some Myanmar military leaders, but not the commander-in-chief.

International attention is focused on the situation in Rakhine state, but the report also found human rights violations in Myanmar's northern states of Shan and Kachin. The report said the military perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in both Kachin and Shan states since 2011.

The conflict in the north is ostensibly between the military and ethnic armed groups, it said, but in Kachin and Shan the civilians were targeted often for belonging to the same ethnic group as the military's opponents.

“As in Rakhine, civilians are targeted for killings, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, forced labour, torture and ill-treatment, and persecution based on ethnic or religious grounds,” said U.N. panel member Christopher Sidoti, a former Australian Human Rights Commissioner.

“To date, the long-standing conflicts in the north of Myanmar have received inadequate international attention," he said. "We hope our report will raise awareness of the critical situation in Kachin and Shan. We are seriously concerned that fighting is continuing in these regions, with new allegations of serious violations against civilians continuing to emerge."