Myanmar Soldiers’ Confessions to Killing Rohingya to Be Part of Genocide Case

By Feliz Solomon

Two men described as Myanmar army deserters told authorities in neighboring Bangladesh they were ordered by superior officers to kill Rohingya civilians during security operations in 2017, according to a lawyer involved in a genocide case against Myanmar at the top United Nations court.

Paul Reichler, a partner at U.S. law firm Foley Hoag LLP who leads the legal team in the case against Myanmar, said the two deserters crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh and gave statements to Bangladeshi authorities during a formal interrogation process there. Mr. Reichler said he had seen the statements.

Bangladesh authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Wall Street Journal hasn’t seen the statements.

Mr. Reichler said in an email that he would present those statements to the International Court of Justice as additional evidence supporting the claim that the Myanmar military acted with genocidal intent.

“Until now, it was reasonable to assume that the genocide was ordered by senior military commanders. Now we have confirmation from the participants that this was the case,” he said.

The 2017 military offensive forced more than 720,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they shared stories of mass killings, gang rapes and the destruction of entire villages. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have faced decades of persecution in the majority-Buddhist country.

The Myanmar government and army have denied mass atrocities and said the military was carrying out a legitimate counterterrorism operation in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents. They didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Mr. Reichler’s statement came a day after Fortify Rights, a nongovernmental organization that investigates human-rights abuses, said it had obtained videos in which the two deserters are seen admitting to brutal crimes on the command of superior officers. In the videos, seen by the Journal, one of them says soldiers were ordered “to exterminate” Rohingya and to “shoot all you see and all you hear.”

Mr. Reichler said the statements the men gave to Bangladesh authorities were consistent with the videos. The Journal couldn’t independently verify the authenticity of the videos or the information they contain. The statements broadly match testimony from refugees and evidence collected by the U.N. and other independent investigators.

Fortify Rights said the videos were filmed by members of the Arakan Army, an insurgent group that says it is fighting the Myanmar military for the rights of the ethnic Rakhine community, before the men traveled to Bangladesh seeking the protection of Bangladesh authorities.

A spokesman for the Arakan Army, Khaing Thu Ka, said the videos were filmed by the group. The “two men were deserters and we did not hold them as POW,“ he said, using the abbreviation for the term prisoners of war. “We are committed to justice for all victims of the Myanmar army,” he said.

Fortify Rights said it has reason to believe the two men, identified as Private Myo Win Tun and Private Zaw Naing Tun, were sent from Bangladesh to The Hague, where the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice are located. The Journal couldn’t verify their whereabouts.

Fortify Rights said it has reason to believe the two men, identified as Private Myo Win Tun and Private Zaw Naing Tun, were sent from Bangladesh to The Hague, where the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice are located. The Journal couldn’t verify their whereabouts.

The International Criminal Court investigates and tries individuals charged with grave crimes, while the International Court of Justice, where the genocide case is being heard, decides on disputes between countries. The ICC’s prosecutor has also opened an investigation into allegations of crimes against the Rohingya and declined to comment, citing the need for confidentiality in investigations.

ICC prosecutions typically target much higher-ranking officials than the two deserters, and it is unlikely that they themselves would be tried, experts said. But if they provide information or corroborate that which already exists, their testimony could provide crucial leads or evidence, experts said.

“The devil is in the details,” said Priya Pillai, an international lawyer and head of the Asia Justice Coalition Secretariat. “It’s going to be about what information they’re providing, how relevant it is, and how truthful it is…Specifically where it concerns the internal higher-command structure, orders coming from above, that’s really where this could be quite important.”

The genocide case at the International Court of Justice—which is separate from the ICC investigation—was brought by Gambia, a West African country. That case, which Mr. Reichler is a part of, seeks to determine state responsibility for the crime of genocide rather than the prosecution of individual perpetrators. It is still in a pretrial phase and is expected to last several years.

“What the defectors add to the case is testimony about the orders they received from their superior officers, which were to kill all the Rohingya, including women and children,” Mr. Reichler said. “They confirm that the intent was to commit genocide.”

At least five of the six villages named by the two deserters in the videos obtained by Fortify Rights were mentioned in a 2018 report by U.N. investigators. One of them, Kyet Yoe Pyin, was singled out as an area that “saw a particularly brutal level of sexual violence,” where the report said women and girls were subjected to mass gang rape and other forms of sexual assault.

In one of the videos, Zaw Naing Tun is recorded saying he served as sentry while superior officers raped women in Kyet Yoe Pyin. He also detailed the alleged killing of at least 17 Rohingya in Zin Paing Nyar village.

In the other video, Myo Win Tun is seen describing a nighttime raid on a village called Taung Bazar, in an area where he said his battalion killed 30 people and buried them in a mass grave. Soldiers raped women before shooting them, he said, adding that he personally committed one rape.

The two men named a total of 25 military personnel involved in the alleged atrocities, including themselves and several senior officers who gave the orders.


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