Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET on 2020-07-01
Myanmar’s military said Tuesday that it had tried and convicted three soldiers in a secret court-martial for the massacre of hundreds of Rohingya villagers during an army-led crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017, only the second case in which troops have been held accountable for atrocities against the Muslim minority.
The verdict on the massacre near Gu Dar Pyin village came as the Myanmar military faces legal action in three international courts over its expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in late 2017, in which thousands died in indiscriminate killings, mass rape, torture, and village burnings.
In the massive displacement camps in Bangladesh, the refugees told rights groups about atrocities committed against them by soldiers, including the Aug. 27, 2017, massacre near the Buthidaung township village, where hundreds of bodies were dumped in five mass graves and burned with acid.
According to a statement by the army on the court martial, a high-ranking officer, a second officer, and an infantry soldier, whose identities and ranks were not disclosed, were convicted for the mass killing of civilians.
The investigation began in late November 2019, said the statement, which did not disclose details of the sentences or the number and names of witnesses called to testify by both the plaintiff and the defendants.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the statement.
The Myanmar military faces genocide-related charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and legal action involving individual criminal responsibility for alleged war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and in an Argentine court over the 2017 mass expulsion of the Rohingya in response to attacks on guard posts by Muslim militants.
Myanmar in testimony to the ICJ last year denied its troops committed genocide and pointed to military trials as examples that show the country can achieve accountability without outside interference.
Rights groups, however, say the military trial process has delivered no justice for the Rohingya and has been marred by procedural flaws and a lack of transparency.
‘Whole world is watching’
Military authorities did not allow villagers and others related to the case to observe and participate in the court-martial process, said Aung Thaung Shwe, a lower house lawmaker from Buthidaung township. He said he was invited to attend the final day of the tribunal, but was not able to go.
Human rights attorney Kyee Myint, who lives in Yangon, said details about the trial should be issued to the public because the military will have to present credible information to the international community.
“According to the law, the trial should have been conducted in a transparent manner,” he told RFA.
“The whole world is watching this process, [so] it should not be based on military secrets,” he added.
Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, lamented the secrecy, despite international scrutiny of Myanmar’s pledges to hold the military to account for abuses.
“The entire process has been done without any transparency,” he said.
No justice for the Rohingya
Rohingya activists said they have deep doubts about the court martial process and the outcome.
“This court-martial trial does not bring any justice,” said Khin Maung, an activist who lives in a displacement camp for Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh.
Soldiers should be sentenced by a civil court under the civilian government administration, he said.
“Only then can we say that justice has been served,” Khin Maung said.
Tun Khin, president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said he had no confidence in the sentencing of the guilty soldiers.
“These military court martial trials are just superficial actions to alleviate international pressure, so we don’t trust court-martial or the judicial system of Myanmar as a whole,” he said.
Tun Khin said the extent of the military’s crimes against the Rohingya will not be revealed until an independent international investigative commission conducts probes inside Myanmar.
But Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader, said the court-martial of the three soldiers is better than not holding anyone to account.
“They have admitted that the massacre happened,” he told RFA.
“As I have observed their procedures, they have taken strong and concrete steps,” said Aye Lwin, who once sat on a government advisory commission on resolving the religious and ethnic divisions in Rakhine state.
Military authorities conducted the court of inquiry before the hearing and the prosecutor presented evidence to support the accusations, he added.
“So, we should welcome this as positive sign, but it would be much better if there were transparencies,” Aye Lwin said.
Convicted, but pardoned
During the first court-martial in March 2018, four officers and three soldiers were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing a group of Rohingya men in Rakhine’s Inn Din village. The Inn Din incident resulted in Myanmar’s arrest of two Reuters news agency reporters whose photo essay of the killings went viral.
The troops convicted for the killings in Inn Din were later pardoned after serving less time in jail than the journalists.
This February, the military said it would probe a government-appointed commission’s findings on killings in Maung Nu and Chut Pyin villages, where about 300 civilians are believed to have died at the hands of soldiers during “clearance operations.”
As for legal action in the international courts, the ICC in November 2019 authorized the opening of an investigation into alleged war crimes within the tribunal’s jurisdiction committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya.
The ICJ issued provisional measures in January ordering Myanmar to protect the Rohingya from genocidal acts and refrain from destroying evidence of alleged crimes that could be used in later hearings.
The country also must submit periodic reports on its compliance with the measures until the ICJ issues a final decision on the case.
The Argentine court in early June requested more information from the ICC to ensure that its case would not duplicate other judicial efforts.
This report has been updated to note that the Myanmar military also faces legal action before the ICC involving individual criminal responsibility for alleged war crimes.