Two former Myanmar soldiers, who said they were ordered to “kill all you see” during the military’s 2017 operation against the country’s Rohingya population, are now in The Hague, where they are expected to play a role in an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.
The soldiers' video testimonies are believed to be the first public confessions by members of the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw’s campaign of violence in 2016 and 2017 left more than 10,000 Rohingya Muslims dead and drove another 700,000 from their homes.
Several countries, including Canada, have labelled the military campaign a genocide.
One of the two men, Myo Win Tun, a 33-year-old private, said in his video statement that his commander had ordered his unit in August, 2017, to “shoot all you see and all you hear,” and that the soldiers had followed orders, killing 30 Rohingya Muslims and dumping their bodies in a mass grave. He confessed to having “shot Muslim men in the foreheads” and raping one woman in Thin Ga Net – a village that satellite images taken before and after August, 2017, show was effectively erased from the map.
The other soldier, Zaw Naing Tun, said his unit had “wiped out about 20 villages” in Maungdaw Township. The 30-year-old private said the order he heard was: “Kill all you see, whether children or adults.” He said he and four other members of his unit killed 10 unarmed men and buried them near the village of Zin Paing Nyar, another Rohingya village that satellite photos show no longer exists.
The two men say they fought in different units, and reported to different commanders – whom they named in their video statements – suggesting a widespread and co-ordinated effort.
The two soldiers are in the Netherlands now, sources told The Globe and Mail, and they are being interviewed by prosecutors from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
It is not yet clear whether the ICC – which denied on Tuesday that the men were in its custody – would treat them as suspects, witnesses or both.
A separate court based in The Hague, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), issued a ruling earlier this year that called on the Myanmar military to halt its campaign against the country’s Rohingya, and to preserve evidence of possible crimes including genocide.
Payam Akhavan, a Canadian lawyer who is international legal counsel for Bangladesh, told The Globe that two soldiers had recently arrived at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and requested protection.
“They confessed to the mass murder and rape of Rohingya civilians during the clearance operation of 2017. Their testimony was credible and corroborated, and Bangladesh informed the [ICC], consistent with its obligations, and those individuals are no longer in Bangladesh,” Mr. Akhavan said in an interview from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
The videos were made by the Arakan Army, an ethnic guerrilla group in Rakhine State fighting the Myanmar government. Copies of the videos were shared by Fortify Rights, a non-government organization focused on human-rights issues in Southeast Asia.
“I think it’s highly significant that these two soldiers were both operational in different parts of Rakhine and separate commanders gave them orders effectively to commit genocide,” Matthew Smith, the chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, said in an interview.
Mr. Smith said Fortify Rights had received the videos in July, but had waited to make them public until they were confident that what the soldiers were saying was credible. He said the fact that the two men had been allowed by the Arakan Army to travel to Bangladesh – and now on to The Hague – suggested that they had been deserters, rather than prisoners of war who had been forced to make the videos.
The soldiers' statements could not be independently corroborated, but their descriptions of events broadly align with the testimonies of refugees who escaped Myanmar, as well as those of victims who testified at the emergency ICJ hearing late last year.
“The statements by the two officers are extremely powerful," said Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. "Obviously, they have taken a huge risk themselves in making these admissions, and I think everything has to be done to protect them and their evidence from reprisals.”
Mr. Rae, who previously served as Canada’s special envoy on the Rohingya crisis, said he saw the statements of the two soldiers as important to both the continuing proceedings at the ICJ, as well as the possible ICC trial. The ICJ deals with disputes between states – Canada and the Netherlands are supporting a case brought by Gambia against Myanmar over its alleged violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention – while the ICC investigates specific alleged crimes committed by individuals.
“We have many, many statements from victims, but these are the first from perpetrators, so they’re extremely important,” Mr. Rae said in a telephone interview.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the former human-rights icon who now shares power with the Tatmadaw as the civilian leader of the Myanmar government, travelled to The Hague last year to argue that the campaign against the Rohingya was part of an “internal military conflict” provoked by Rohingya guerrillas. The ICJ rejected her argument in a 17-0 decision.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.