Dozens of Rohingya Muslims, including two children, appeared in court in Myanmar, the latest group to face charges after attempting to flee conflict-torn Rakhine state throughout the week.
The group of about 20 were among 54 people from the Rohingya minority arrested on Wednesday on the outskirts of the commercial capital Yangon while trying to leave for Malaysia, according to judge Thida Aye.
“The immigration officer submitted the case because they found no identification cards from these people,” she said.
Some were barefoot, others clothed in colourful head-scarfs, as they were ushered into the small courtroom in Yangon. A small boy was naked from the waist down.
Defence lawyer Nay Myo Zar said they had fled Rakhine state, the western region where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions and have come under increasing pressure as government troops battle ethnic rebels.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017 to escape a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators have said was carried out with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings and rapes.
Myanmar says the army was fighting a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign against militants who attacked security posts.
Some 600,000 Rohingya remain in the country, confined to camps and villages where they are unable to travel freely or access healthcare and education. The vast majority lack citizenship.
The government says it is working on a national strategy to close camps and that Rohingya would not face movement restrictions if they accepted a so-called national verification card, which many reject, saying it labels them foreigners.
Rakhine state has for the past year been rocked by increasingly intense clashes between government troops and fighters from the Arakan Army, an insurgent group comprised of ethnic Rakhine, another mostly Buddhist minority.
Taslima was dreading the day. It was SweTinSit, an annual population census conducted by Myanmar government officials in northern Rakhine state. Military, police and customs officials would be sweeping through, collecting data on Rohingya families – monitoring the birth of children, photographing family members and listing their names. This was in 2016, when tensions in Rakhine were escalating.
For many Rohingya people, like Taslima and others in her village of Tula Toli, the SweTinSit (or “Map Record Check,” in Burmese) was a mandatory and intense audit, and always unpredictable. If one is absent during a SweTinSit, their relatives can be subject to extortion, imprisonment, arbitrary taxation, or worse. The year before, a relative of Taslima’s was raped by a military officer.
In the SweTinSit of 2016, Taslima’s brother-in-law had gone to work outside the village, to repay a debt. Fearing that he would be arrested for his brother’s absence, Taslima’s husband disappeared for the three days it took for the census to be completed in Tula Toli. Taslima paid a fine of 300,000 kyats (US $208) for her brother-in-law and a further fine of 200,000 kyats (US $138) for her husband.
Officers warned her that if her husband did not return while the census was still underway, there would be further consequences. In the early hours of the very next day, Taslima says that four men, including the village chairman Aung Ko Sein, entered her hut and raped her in front of her two young children.
More than two years since the expulsion of the majority of the Rohingya population from Myanmar, Rohingya are still not being adequately informed or engaged on issues of vital importance to their lives and futures. The government of Myanmar continues to deny citizenship and representation to the few hundred thousand Rohingya still living in Myanmar. The Rohingya there face ongoing, severe human rights abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to livelihoods and education. Bangladesh deserves great credit for providing refuge to 1 million Rohingya. With the support of UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and donor countries, it has led a massive humanitarian response that has saved many lives. Bangladesh also refuses to recognize Rohingya as refugees however and has been increasing restrictions on that population. Moreover, Rohingya voices have been virtually absent from high-level discussions about their possible repatriation to Myanmar or relocation within Bangladesh, as well as decisions about matters of everyday camp life.
Key actors—including the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar and UN agencies—all have made official statements that the ideal solution to the Rohingya displacement crisis is their repatriation to Myanmar. However, none of the three repatriation agreements that have been signed between these actors formally include the Rohingya or even mention the name Rohingya. Engagement with the Rohingya community has been limited to poorly coordinated, last-minute information campaigns rather than genuine consultations, and have left its people largely uninformed and unprepared for any possible return. The dangers of this approach were clear in two repatriation exercises that led to widespread angst among Rohingya refugees. The first attempt, in particular, resulted in panic, spikes in mental health consultations, and even reported suicide attempts. The second, although better managed to avoid the same levels of panic, still led to extensive anxiety and uncertainty.
Similarly, plans by the government of Bangladesh to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, have created confusion and fear among them. Bangladeshi authorities in the camps have collected and added Rohingya names to relocation lists, reportedly without those individuals’ consent. Rumors abound about what those who do volunteer to relocate might receive for relocating. UN officials and NGO representatives have warned about serious unanswered questions over safety guarantees and the logistical capacity to host refugees on the island. Plans for assessment by a UN technical team have been delayed. Under current circumstances, no transfers should take place. An independent assessment and outreach to the Rohingya community will be essential to ensure that any relocations are truly safe and voluntary.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday discussed the International Court of Justice’s order that Myanmar do all it can to prevent genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, but failed to agree on a statement.
China, an ally of Myanmar, as well as Vietnam, which is a member of the regional Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) along with Myanmar, objected, diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a closed-door meeting.
Instead, the European Union members of the council urged Myanmar in a joint statement to reporters afterwards to comply with the measures ordered by the UN’s top court, stressing that they were “compulsory under international law.”
France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia along with former council member Poland also urged Myanmar “to take credible action to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations.”
“Myanmar must address the root causes of its conflicts, in Rakhine State, but also in Kachin and Shan States,” the EU members said.
“Accountability of perpetrators of human rights and humanitarian law violations is a necessary part of this process.”
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown on the Muslim minority in August 2017 in response to an attack by a Rohingya armed group. More than one million Rohingya refugees are currently living in Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingya are suspected to have been killed in the crackdown which has been described by UN investigators as a genocide.
Refugees reported widespread rape and arson in Rakhine state by Myanmar’s military and local Buddhist militias.
Myanmar has put in place measures to protect Rohingya Muslims, a spokesman for the ruling party said on Friday, shrugging off an order from the International Court of Justice a day earlier to stop genocidal acts against the ethnic minority.
The Hague-based court-ordered Myanmar to protect the persecuted Rohingya against further atrocities and preserve evidence of alleged crimes, after mostly Muslim Gambia launched a lawsuit in November accusing Myanmar of genocide.
“The government is already doing most of the orders,” Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy, told Reuters by phone, without elaborating.
“One more thing we need to do is submit reports,” he said, referring to one of several measures approved by the court requiring Myanmar to write regular summaries of its progress.
But he said the civilian government, who rule jointly with the military in an awkward constitutional arrangement that reserves great powers for the commander-in-chief, could not control troops.
“Under the current political circumstances, we have difficulties solving some issues – such as the (order) that the government must ensure its military or armed insurgents do not commit genocide or attempt to commit genocide against Rohingya or Bengali,” he said.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled western Rakhine state for neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 to escape a military-led crackdown that the U.N has said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar says the military campaign was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation launched in response to militant attacks on security forces.
Some 600,000 Rohingya remain inside Myanmar, confined in apartheid-like conditions to camps and villages, unable to freely access healthcare and education.
While thousands rallied in Yangon in December to support Myanmar’s government as it contested allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice, the public response to the first of the court’s rulings has been decidedly more muted.
The ICJ imposed a series of provisional measures on Myanmar last week, ordering it to take certain action to prevent future acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The judges also rejected Myanmar’s motions to dismiss the case, which means the trial will now proceed to hear arguments on the alleged genocide itself.
The decision brought criticism from officials. Than Htay, the chairman of the military-aligned opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed “all 52 million people” in Myanmar would disagree with it, according to The Standard Time Daily, a local newspaper.
But on the streets of the country’s biggest city, the ruling barely registered.
Two students who spoke to Al Jazeera separately both said neither they nor their friends particularly cared about the ICJ. “Yes I know about it, but I don’t really follow it,” said one.
Another woman, from Rakhine but living in Yangon, said the result was “as expected”. When asked if she agreed with the ruling, she said: “Yes. It should be.”
The ICJ case against Myanmar was brought by the Gambia accusing the country of committing genocide in its actions against the Rohingya and a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine in 2017 that sent 740,000 people fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
ICOE report comes days before UN’s top court issues ruling on whether urgent measures are necessary to stop genocide.
A commission set up to investigate the 2017 crackdown in Rakhine that led hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya to flee Myanmar, has concluded that while some soldiers probably committed war crimes there was no genocide.
The Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) released the findings of its investigation, but not the full report, to the country’s president on Monday, a few days before the United Nations’ top court is set to rule on whether to impose urgent measures to stop the alleged continuing genocide in Myanmar.
The ICOE conceded some security personnel had used disproportionate force and committed war crimes and serious human rights violations, including the “killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes”.
But the crimes did not constitute genocide, the panel decided.
“There is insufficient evidence to argue, much less conclude, that the crimes committed were undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial or religious group.”
Military operations from August 2017 forced about 740,000 Rohingya to flee over the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar has always maintained the crackdown by the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, was necessary to root out Rohingya rebels after a series of attacks left a dozen security personnel dead.
But refugees carried consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape, torture and arson with them and have so far largely refused to return for fear of their safety.
“All signs point to what human rights experts and Rohingya themselves already know, which is that the government has no intention of bringing perpetrators of mass rape and other genocidal crimes to justice,” Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center said in a statement.
In a muddy field in western Myanmar, hundreds of Chinese shipping containers fitted with single narrow windows stand in neat lines, empty of the refugees they were designed to host.
The gray boxes were sent by China two years ago as quick and cheap housing for some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh during a military-led crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations said was conducted with genocidal intent.
The empty containers, situated near the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state, reflect months of failed efforts to entice the Rohingya to return to Myanmar despite a diplomatic drive by the country’s close ally and neighbor, China.
In a sharp departure from its official policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, China has positioned itself as the key mediator in resolving the protracted crisis. But like the Indonesian and United Nations envoys who previously attempted to mediate between the parties, China is finding the business of diplomacy tough going, with little signs that the crisis will soon be resolved.
The main sticking point is a disagreement over whether the refugees will be safe in Myanmar.
Myanmar says it has created safe conditions for the Rohingya’s return, but Bangladesh and the United Nations say that fighting in Rakhine and a lack of human rights guarantees make a return for the refugees dangerous. The Rohingya, meanwhile, say they will not go back without guarantees of rights they are currently denied, including citizenship and freedom of movement.
Two leading figures of the Rohingya campaign in Europe are fearing for their lives after calls for their abduction were circulated in a racist video message.
London-based Maung Zarni and Germany-based Nay San Lwin said they were targeted by Aye Ne Win, a businessman who allegedly financed the genocide against the ethnic group in Myanmar.
In a video circulated on social media, Win urged Myanmar’s intelligence service to launch an Israel-style operation to kidnap the two activists.
He can be seen as saying: “Concerning Maung Zarni and Nay San Lwin, it is high time for Myanmar military intelligence services to launch an Israeli-style kidnap operation that captured Eichmann in South America.
“These creatures should not dare to come to our country. They scream foul from abroad but they need to be tried here [In Myanmar].”
Zarni told Anadolu Agency that he was taking these threats very seriously.
“We are taking this very seriously as it came from one of the richest and most racist men in Myanmar — Aye Ne Win,” he said.
Win, the grandson of Gen. Ne Win, is widely known to be one of the key financiers of the genocidal monk group known as Ma Ba Tha, according to Zarni.
He stated that they have been targeted because he was “the whistleblower of Rohingya genocide” and along with Lwin helped the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Rohingya genocide.
“The [Myanmar’] military-intelligence-run proxy news organizations have been running extremely vitriolic attacks on us – with our pictures as ‘enemies of the state’,” he underlined.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has approved a full investigation into Myanmar’s alleged crimes against the Rohingya, as the Southeast Asian nation faces mounting legal pressure worldwide over the treatment of the minority ethnic group.
ICC judges on Thursday backed a prosecution request to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and persecution over Myanmar’s bloody 2017 military crackdown against the majority-Muslim group.
The ICC’s decision came after Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto civilian leader, was named in an Argentine lawsuit over crimes against the Rohingya and Myanmar faced a separate genocide lawsuit at the United Nations’s top court.
More than 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee over the border into sprawling camps in Bangladesh, in violence that the UN investigators said amounted to genocide.
The Hague-based ICC, set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes, said it had “authorised the prosecutor to proceed with an investigation for the alleged crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction” relating to Myanmar.
These include allegations of “systematic acts of violence”, deportation as a crime against humanity and persecution on the grounds of ethnicity or religion against the Rohingya, it said.
Welcoming the moves towards international justice, George Graham, Director of Children and Armed Conflict at Save the Children said there was an “overwhelming need” to investigate and prosecute the crimes that had been documented.
“The scale and intensity of violence committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar security forces demands an independent and impartial hearing in a court of law,” Graham said in a statement.