Two Myanmar soldiers have detailed a campaign of blanket killings, rape and mass burials of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in video testimony that could be used as evidence of crimes against humanity in the international criminal court (ICC).
The confessions, seen by the New York Times and the human rights organisation Fortify Rights, reportedly show Pte Myo Win Tun and Pte Zaw Naing speaking about what they say were orders for them to “kill all you see”, as well as destroying dozens of villages.
Myo Win Tun said: “We indiscriminately shot at everybody. We shot the Muslim men in the foreheads and kicked the bodies into the hole.” He said he had raped a woman, and buried eight women, seven children and 15 men in one mass grave.
Zaw Naing Tun described how he had been ordered by his commanding officer to “exterminate” Rohingya people. He said he had kept watch while more senior soldiers raped Rohingya women.
Described as the world’s most persecuted people, 1.1 million Rohingya people live in Myanmar. They live predominately in Rakhine state, where they have co-existed uneasily alongside Buddhists for decades.
Rohingya people say they are descendants of Muslims, perhaps Persian and Arab traders, who came to Myanmar generations ago. Unlike the Buddhist community, they speak a language similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and suffer from systematic discrimination. The Myanmar government treats them as stateless people, denying them citizenship. Stringent restrictions have been placed on Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services.
Violence broke out in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, when militants attacked government forces. In response, security forces supported by Buddhist militia launched a “clearance operation” that ultimately killed at least 1,000 people and forced more than 600,000 to flee their homes. The UN’s top human rights official said the military’s response was "clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks and warned that Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority appears to be a "textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
When Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar's entrenched ethnic divides. But she has been accused of standing by while violence is committed against the Rohingya.
In 2019, judges at the international criminal court authorised a full-scale investigation into the allegations of mass persecution and crimes against humanity. On 10 December 2019, the international court of justice in The Hague opened a case alleging genocide brought by the Gambia.
It is the first time Myanmar military personnel have confessed to carrying out a campaign of violence against the minority ethnic group starting in August 2017, a campaign the UN and human rights organisations have said had genocidal intent.
Their testimony corresponds with individual accounts given by Rohingya refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom who fled over the border to Bangladesh as their families were attacked and homes set alight, and with reports by a UN fact-finding mission and Amnesty International.
The two soldiers had reportedly deserted the military and crossed over into Bangladesh, where they were held by the Arakan Army, an insurgent group fighting against Myanmar government troops in Rahkine state. This week the soldiers were transported to The Hague in the Netherlands.
The soldiers would be questioned there by ICC officials who are investigating whether Myanmar committed crimes against humanity by the mass persecution and forced deportation of Rohingya Muslims. Their testimony could be used as evidence or they could be called as witnesses.
Myanmar is already facing charges of genocide at the international court of justice (ICJ), also based in The Hague.
The soldiers’ testimony contradicts the repeated denials by Myanmar’s military and government, including the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, that genocide occurred in Rakhine. They have argued that the military operation was only targeting Rohingya militants who had attacked police border posts.
The case against Myanmar opened at the ICJ in December, where graphic accounts of mass murder and rape by the military were relayed to the court. Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel peace prize, addressed the court, asking for the case to be dropped and pledging to court martial any personnel who had committed human rights abuses.
However, few military figures have been put on trial for their role in the violence and those who have, and have been found guilty, have only received short prison sentences.
The 750,000 Rohingya people who fled the country have still not been able to return to their homes because of continued fears for their safety, despite promises by the Myanmar government to repatriate them safely. They continue to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where they are denied the right to work.
The ICC told Reuters the soldiers were not in its custody. A statement from the ICC prosecutor’s office said: “The office does not publicly comment on speculation or reports regarding its ongoing investigations, neither does the office discuss specifics of any aspect of its investigative activities.”