Myanmar’s civilian government hints at radical military reform
Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has pointed an accusing finger at the country’s military for being primarily responsible for the mass exodus of Muslims from Rakhine over the last three years.
In her submission to the International Court of Justice at The Hague – where she led the government’s defence against accusations of genocide – Suu Kyi also outlined the changes that are needed, and in the pipeline, to reform the conditions, which in part led to the upsurge of violence in the country’s strife-torn western region of Rakhine.
But the importance of the key points in the State Counsellor’s opening remarks have not been fully appreciated, either domestically and certainly not by the international community.
The most important comments have certainly upset senior members of the armed forces – or Tatmadaw as they are known. They already stand accused of committing war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law during their ‘clearance operations’ in Rakhine.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s approach at the ICJ is certainly going to aggravate the already tense relations between the army top brass and the civilian government.
Myanmar Muslims in Rakhine – or Rohingyas as they call themselves — allege that they have suffered harassment, torture, evictions, rape and summary executions at the hands of the Tatmadaw over the past three years. Nearly a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape violence over the past three years. Successive UN reports have accused the military of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing with “genocidal intent”.
But the Myanmar government and the military have persistently denied these accusations. The government and the military have continually called these ‘clearance operations’, part of their standard military practise in counter-insurgency campaigns against terrorist attacks.
In October 2016 and again in August 2017 the Rohingya Arakan Salvation Army (ARSA) launched early morning raids against several border guard posts leaving scores of security forces and police dead. According to the Tatmadaw, the army was conducting mopping up operations and trying to root out the ARSA.
Last week, the eyes of the world were focused on the diminutive figure of Aung San Suu Kyi as she faced the fifteen judges at the ICJ defending her country against accusations of genocide brought by the West African state of Gambia, on behalf the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In their petition to the court, they charged that Myanmar is responsible for “killing, causing serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting conditions that are calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcible transfers, [which] are genocidal in character because they are intended to destroy the Rohingya group in whole or in part.”
The international media and many human rights groups were quick to condemn her for being complicit in the horrors that were committed during the military operations. But, in fact, her words at the court seem to have fallen on deaf ears amongst her detractors. Her message was clear, albeit rather restrained. On several occasions she indicated remorse.
“But one thing surely touches all of us equally: the sufferings of the many innocent people whose lives were torn apart as a consequence of the armed conflicts of 2016 and 2017, in particular, those who have had to flee their homes and are now living in camps in Cox’s Bazar,” she said very early in her submission.
A sense of remorse actually ran through the whole of Aung San Suu Kyi’s presentation. In fact, she did not minimize the extent of human rights abuses committed by the army during the operations.
She went on to say: “it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the Defence Services in some cases in disregard of international humanitarian law, or that they did not distinguish clearly enough between ARSA fighters and civilians. There may also have been failures to prevent civilians from looting or destroying property after fighting or in abandoned villages.”
Of course, she continues to deny that this is tantamount to genocide. And many critics of the government and the Rohingyas themselves are demanding an apology from Aung San Suu Kyi – and a recognition of the enormity of the destruction and human rights abuses that have been a central feature of the military’s operations.
Nevertheless, the most important aspect of Aung San Suu Kyi’s testimony highlighted the army’s role in the Rakhine crisis. It fits the Myanmar government’s new narrative to explain what went wrong in Rakhine. On the ground, ‘rules of engagement’ were not followed by the commanders and soldiers in the frontline.
If so, why has government done nothing to end the climate of impunity? The government should have taken the necessary disciplinary action against those who were deemed to be responsible. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi argued in her submission that this is in the pipeline.
“Under its 2008 Constitution, Myanmar has a military justice system,” she told the court. “Criminal cases against soldiers or officers for possible war crimes committed in Rakhine must be investigated and prosecuted by that system,” she explained.
Last month the government announced that several members of the military were facing court martial for their involvement in a mass execution of villagers near Gu Dar Pyin village two years ago, after a battle in the area with ARSA. Further courts martial are likely, according to the State Counsellor. This would happen if further incriminating evidence is brought by the Independent Commission of Enquiry – the government’s own appointed commission which includes two international representatives – one is a Filipino diplomat, and chair of the 4-member body, and the other, a former UN official from Japan.
These cases are part of the ongoing criminal justice processes in Myanmar and “must be allowed to run their course”, Aung San Suu Kyi told the court. She was however aware of the dangers and disappointments this might involve. The armed forces are very defensive in these matters.
Myanmar’s recent history of military justice does not encourage many to think things will change. In March 2018, a military court sentenced four officers and three soldiers to 10-year prison sentences for the indiscriminate killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Maungdaw township’s Inn Din village, but they were released nine months later after the army commander-in-chief pardoned them.
“Many of us in Myanmar were unhappy with this pardon,” she boldly told the court, to the army’s chagrin. But the Myanmar leader understands that it is episodes like this that cast doubt about the credibility of the country’s justice system, especially in regard to the military.
What is needed now is concrete proof that the government is serious about making those guilty of transgressing the military’s code of conduct answerable. Clearly the military are on notice: things must change:
“If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s Defence Services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system, in accordance with Myanmar’s Constitution.”
“It is a matter for the competent criminal justice authorities to assess whether, for example, there has been inadequate distinction between civilians and ARSA fighters, disproportionate use of force, violations of human rights, failure to prevent plundering or property destruction, or acts of forcible displacement of civilians,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi affectively threw the gauntlet to the Tatmadaw, saying that change is both necessary and inevitable; though she insisted that this needs to be done cooperatively between the civilian government and the military.
What is noteworthy is that, she told the court, about the need to complete the country’s democratisation process, which means changing the current pro-military charter of the 2008 constitution.
However, despite the international noose tightening round the necks of Myanmar’s military leaders, they will not easily acquiesce.