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In a first, ex-soldiers reveal grisly details about Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingyas

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate being globally indicted of genocide today is one of the most cruel ironies of all time.

Myanmar’s civilian leader- Aung San Suu Kyi, once hailed as a champion of democracy, is now accused of overseeing the ethnic cleansing of her country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The accusations till now were based on the testimony of Rohingya refugees, i.e, the victims. However, in the first such admission by the perpetrators themselves, video testimony of defector Burmese soldiers has surfaced in which they can be seen admitting Myanmar’s efforts to eradicate the Rohingyas.

Private Zaw Naing Tun and Private Myo Win Tun narrate in detail the State-sponsored violence unleashed against the Rohingyas through grisly accounts of mass executions, mass rapes, mass burials and obliteration of entire villages.

“Shoot all you see and all you hear”, Pvt Tun’s commanding officer once told his battalion. There was to be no distinction between children and adults, between innocents and terrorist, or between the armed and the unarmed. They were ordered to obliterate life, wherever and whoever it may be. The soldiers obeyed the order in letter, if not in spirit.

The two Privates said that at one point, they lost track of how many Rohingyas they killed and raped, but give a rough estimate of around 60-80. Their rampages through Rohingya villages would last for days, decimating entire communities in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, home to the Rohingyas. If anyone was found alive, their orders were to burn them.

The defected soldiers are currently housed at The Hague in The Netherlands, the seat of the International Criminal Court, after allegedly being taken into custody by the Court.

The ICC has motu proprio indicted Myanmar for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, after receiving thousands of complaints from Rohingya refugees. ICC officials, however, neither acknowledged their testimony, nor the soldiers’ testimony, pointing out that that matter is sub-judice.

The ICC is currently investigating widespread allegations of genocide in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The ICC prosecutors had so far struggled to obtain concrete evidence to substantiate the charges, with only victim testimony from the million-odd Rohingya refugees legally insufficient for a fair conviction. The soldiers’ testimony, if accepted by the ICC, would mark a watershed moment for the investigation. Although, it is unclear whether the testimony would be accepted as evidence.

Any testimony must be proven to be taken without duress for it to be acceptable in a court of justice. The ICC refused to comment on whether the testimony would be accepted, or the soldiers tried for their participation in the crime. The Court does not generally prosecute individual soldiers but only tries top officials of the accused state. Thus, it is more likely that the soldiers are made witnesses in the case.

The United Nations fact-finding report has inferred that violence in Rakhine reached its zenith in 2017, leading to the fastest refugee exodus in human history. Nearly 750,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar within a span of a couple weeks. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) estimates that more than 6,700 Rohingyas, including 730 children, were brutally killed at the hands of Myanmar’s military in September 2017.

On one August night in 2017, the soldiers claim, a company of soldiers led by Private Win Tun dug a mass grave near the 552 Light Infantry Battalion Base before dumping 30 Rohingyas into it. The Private ordered bulldozers to be brought in to erase any hint of the corpses’ existence. Former residents of Taung Bazar, a town near the Base, had earlier testified to the presence of the mass graves at the precise location given by the soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not denied violence in Rakhine, but argues instead that they were isolated and unconnected instances of civilian-military skirmishes, or counterterrorism operations against extremists in the region. Suu Kyi has instead levelled counter-allegations of a mala fide campaign to smear Myanmar by deliberately misreading Myanmar’s efforts to defend its national security as a “genocide”. Myanmar has hinted that the Rohingyas deliberately burned down their villages to play the victim card. But, testimony by the two soldiers suggests otherwise.

The ICC and ICJ investigations are being closely scrutinized by pundits of international law. International law, it is said, is the vanishing point of jurisprudence, where evidence, testimony, and justice itself is often mired in questions of non-enforcement and sovereignty. It remains to be seen whether the videos translate into accountability, but justice cannot be blind to the truth while running after the technicalities.

Reporter- Shreyas Datar

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