Myanmar seeks to undermine its soldiers' confessions of genocide

YANGON • Myanmar's military has sought to undermine the confessions of two soldiers who said they were ordered to "exterminate" Rohingya Muslims before taking part in the massacre of scores of men, women and children.

Non-governmental organisation Fortify Rights and The New York Times on Tuesday released details of the filmed interviews of Private Myo Win Tun, 33, and Private Zaw Naing Tun, 30, in which they described "wiping out" entire villages.

The soldiers allege they were ordered by senior commanders to "shoot all that you see and hear" during the military operations in 2017 that forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

Widespread atrocities have been documented by United Nations investigators and rights groups that now see Myanmar facing charges of genocide, but this is the most detailed account so far given by alleged perpetrators.

The military's spokesman, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, admitted to BBC Burmese late on Wednesday that the men were former soldiers, but claimed they had been "taken hostage" by the Arakan Army (AA) militant group and "threatened and coerced into confessing".

The AA is fighting the military in the country's north-west for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Both sides frequently trade accusations of human rights abuses in a civil war raging in the same area where the military operations against the Rohingya took place.

The AA dismissed the military's claims, telling Agence France-Presse yesterday that the two soldiers had deserted.

"They voluntarily confessed about the war crimes committed by Myanmar's military," AA spokesman Khine Thu Kha said, adding that other defectors had given similar testimonies, which they have posted online in recent months. Fortify Rights said it published its analysis of the confessions only after being certain they were not made under duress.

The NGO said the men appeared at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border asking for protection, and have since been taken to The Hague, where the International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating atrocities against the Rohingya.

Working in different teams in separate townships, the soldiers confessed to killing up to 180 women, men and children between them, burying many of the bodies in mass graves. Myo Win Tun also admitted to committing rape.

They gave the names and ranks of 17 other soldiers they say committed atrocities - including six senior commanders who ordered them to "exterminate" all Rohingya. Myanmar's military has always justified its 2017 operations as a means to root out Rohingya militants after attacks against security posts and police stations.

In parallel to the ICC investigation, Myanmar also faces genocide charges at the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi led the country's defence team at preliminary hearings last December, conceding the army might have used "disproportionate" force, but denying genocide.

The AA has an "obvious interest in making the Myanmar military look bad", said Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey. "But that doesn't mean the soldiers themselves can't be credible witnesses or sources of information."

The European Parliament yesterday removed Ms Suu Kyi from the "Sakharov Prize community" because of her "acceptance" of state crimes against the Rohingya community. A source close to the Parliament said the prize had been awarded for her work before 1990 and thus could not be withdrawn, but that this exclusion was the strongest sanction available to Members of the European Parliament.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2020, with the headline 'Myanmar seeks to undermine its soldiers' confessions of genocide'. Print Edition | Subscribe