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.
“This Commission is just yet another domestic attempt to deflect responsibility and whitewash the situation of the Rohingya.”
The four-member commission included two international representatives and was led by Philippines diplomat Rosario Manalo.
There have been doubts about its work from the beginning.
The Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) described the investigation as “deeply flawed from the start”, noting concerns about its mandate and lack of independence.
The release of its findings was a “blatant PR exercise to deflect attention from the International Court of Justice’s ruling later this week,” spokesman Tun Khin said in a statement.
“It is simply another attempt by the Myanmar authorities to sweep the Rohingya genocide under the carpet.”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered the Rohingya to be “Bengalis” from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless, and they are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
There was no mention of the word “Rohingya” in the ICOE release.
The commission was established in June 2018 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the 2017 crackdown, but Manalo told the media there would be “no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing”.
A couple of months later the spokesperson for the Office of the President said the inquiry had been set up to respond to “false allegations made by the UN agencies and other international communities”.
The UN Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, which has been denied entry to the country, concluded last year that the panel was not an “effective independent investigations mechanism.”
Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of the full report.
“The entire ICOE investigation, including its methodology and operations, has been far from transparent,” he said.
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month personally went to The Hague to argue her country was capable of investigating any allegations of abuse.
She also warned the case, brought against Myanmar by West African nation The Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, could reignite the crisis.
If the court rules in The Gambia’s favour, it would be just the first step in a case that will probably take years.
Myanmar also faces other legal challenges over the Rohingya, including a probe by the International Criminal Court – a separate war crimes tribunal – and a lawsuit in Argentina which notably alleges Suu Kyi’s complicity.
The commission’s announcement said it would hand over its 461-page report to be used for investigations and possible prosecutions by Myanmar’s civil and military authorities.