Two soldiers who deserted from Myanmar’s army have testified on video that they were ordered to kill and rape Rohingya villagers, a human rights group said Tuesday.
The comments appear to be the first public confession by soldiers of involvement in army-directed massacres, rape and other crimes against the mostly Muslim Rohingya in the Buddhist-majority country, and the group Fortify Rights suggested they could provide important evidence for an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape what the military called a clearance campaign following an attack by a Rohingya armed group in Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s government has denied accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.
Fortify Rights, which focuses on Myanmar, said the two army privates fled the country last month and are believed to be in the custody of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which is examining the violence against the Rohingya.
According to Fortify Rights, privates Myo Win Tun, 33, and Zaw Naing Tun, 30, who served in separate light infantry battalions, gave “the names and ranks of 19 direct perpetrators from the Myanmar army, including themselves, as well as six senior commanders … they claim ordered or contributed to atrocity crimes against Rohingya”.
Myo Win Tun said the commander of the 15th Military Operations Center gave an order to “shoot all you see and all you hear” when raiding Muslim villages. He said in one operation they killed and buried 30 people: “eight women, seven children and 15 men and elderly”.
The commander ordered his unit to “exterminate all Kalar” – a derogatory name for the Rohingya – and they shot the men in their foreheads and kicked their bodies into a hole, he said. They also raped the women before killing them, and he admitted to carrying out one rape.
UN agencies and human rights organisations have extensively documented atrocities carried out against the Rohingya by Myanmar security forces. The International Court of Justice agreed last year to consider a case alleging that Myanmar committed genocide against the group. The court’s proceedings are likely to continue for years.
The reports said the men had been in the custody of the Arakan Army group, an ethnic Rakhine rebel group which is now fighting Myanmar government troops in the state, when they made the admissions and were later taken to The Hague in the Netherlands, where they could appear as witnesses or face trial.
A spokesman for the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, said it did not have the men in custody.
“No. These reports are not correct. We don’t have these persons in the ICC custody,” said spokesman Fadi el-Abdallah.
Payam Akhavan, a Canadian lawyer representing Bangladesh in a filing against Myanmar at the ICC, said the two men had appeared at a border post requesting the protection of the government and had confessed to the mass murder and rape of Rohingya civilians in 2017.
“All I can say is that those two individuals are no longer in Bangladesh,” he said.
A spokesman for the Arakan Army, Khine Thu Kha, said the two men were deserters and were not held as prisoners of war.
He did not comment further on where the men were now but said the group was “committed to justice” for all victims of the Myanmar military.
Myanmar has repeatedly denied allegations of genocide, saying its military operations in 2017 were targeting Rohingya rebels who attacked police border posts.
Speaking from The Hague, Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen said that the case had been stalled for a long time because Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the basis for ICC. But with Bangladesh being a signatory, the ICC has ruled that is has jurisdiction over the case
“Part of the crimes that happened in Myanmar, were happening in Bangladesh as well. For example, the forced deportations, where hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya were deported to Bangladesh. That’s why the case has been speeding up since last November,” she said.
“The court has ordered the investigation to be continued and if we have these two former military men… if they say they were involved and have given a very detailed account of what they did and who was with them, then this will be an enormous move for this investigation.”
‘Credible and corroborative’
Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, said if the evidence turns out to be credible, it would be a huge push for the investigation.
“While the ICC has made no comment on whether or not they have them [the men] in custody, the stories [of the soldiers] are said to be credible and corroborative,” she said explaining the statements included a mention of ordered killings and rape.
“While they [the soldiers] may be very low in the ranks, we hope more will come forward. There was shown to be a clear chain of command,” she added.
The ICC is investigating the crime against humanity of forced deportation of Rohingya to Bangladesh, as well as persecution and other human rights violations.
“The office does not publicly comment on speculation or reports regarding its ongoing investigations, neither does the office discuss specifics of any aspect of its investigative activities,” a statement from the ICC prosecutor’s office said.
Myanmar is also facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice, also in The Hague, though that body does not bring cases against individuals or hear witnesses.
The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared at the court last year to defend Myanmar in the case, which was brought by the Gambia and now has the backing of Canada and the Netherlands.
In 2015, before the alleged 2017 genocide, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit revealed the inner workings of the Myanmar regime, drawing on documents from the Myanmar military, an unpublished United Nations report and other government paperwork.
Those documents, assessed by Yale University Law School and the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, constituted “strong evidence” of a state-led genocide according to experts.