Regime seeking out Rohingya witnesses for Myanmar’s ICJ defence

Facing charges of genocide brought against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the military has tried to persuade or intimidate Rohingya people into giving favourable testimony, according to four local sources who are familiar with recent reported meetings with members of the community. 

High-ranking soldiers and intelligence officers from the Military Operations Command in Buthidaung, Rakhine State—commonly known by the abbreviation Sa Ka Kha—met with several Rohingya residents of nearby Rathedaung Township on February 24 and 25, according to a source close to the residents.

The military council has been searching for villagers who survived attacks by Myanmar’s armed forces more than five years ago in the village of Chut Pyin, Rathedaung Township, which resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians—hundreds, according to some estimates—and the destruction of more than 700 houses.

Chut Pyin, located northwest of Rathedaung town and four miles from the Mayu River, is known internationally for this massacre, which occurred during a major offensive by the military on August 27, 2017, perpetrated days after alleged attacks by a Rohingya armed group on area border guard posts.

Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh due to a clearance operation by the military in September 2017 (Yousuf Tushar/ LightRocket via Getty Images)

To investigate the violence in Chut Pyin, the President’s Office of the elected National League of Democracy (NLD) government established an Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) in 2018, and the military set up its own investigative tribunal—the Military Court of Inquiry—in March 2019 to “complement” the ICOE’s findings. 

On January 23, the military council reconstituted its special investigative tribunal, ostensibly due to the retirement of its assigned chairman Maj-Gen Myat Kyaw but possibly due to international pressure. Since its recent restructuring, the special tribunal has been gathering information and testimony about the 2017 violence that the military may present in the genocide case. 

“They summoned 10 village elders from Chin, Thin Ga Net, and Tar Zaw villages, and asked them if there were any villagers from Chut Pyin and where they could find them,” a man familiar with the Rohingya witnesses said. 

“The [Buthidaung command] summoned them on February 24 and waited all day, but ultimately couldn’t ask any questions because the [officials from the tribunal] didn’t come that day. They met and questioned the elders at about 1pm on the 25th,” he added, citing the elders.

According to one Rohingya man who spoke with Myanmar Now on condition of anonymity, the Buthidaung command questioned several Rohingya people about the Chut Pyin villagers on February 25. 

“They asked if we were from Chut Pyin village. We told them we were not, and explained to them we were from Chin village in the Chut Pyin village tract,” he said. “They let us go after that. They didn’t tell us why they asked if we were from Chut Pyin village.”

Another man from Zay Di Pyin village, around one mile east of Chut Pyin, also said that the Buthidaung command had questioned elders and Rohingya residents of villages near Chut Pyin in the days prior. 

“The junta officers told them it would create difficulties for them if they testified in the same way as before,” the Zay Di Pyin local said, referring to statements given by survivors that the military had attacked their village. “He asked if they could testify that they set fire to their own houses and ran away,” the man added, citing the people called in by the junta command.  

Another source close to the individuals who were asked to meet with the military said the same. 

“They were told they would be ‘creating difficulties for themselves’ if they said that the villagers were killed and the houses were burned down by [the military’s] Light Infantry Division 33,” he said, adding that they were reportedly threatened with arrest. 

“The officers asked, ‘Can’t you say that you burned down your own house and ran away?’ And they [the Rohingyas] said that they couldn’t say this because their village was a mile or two away from the village where the incident happened. They only heard gunshots and saw that village burning,” the source explained.  

The military council has yet to make any official statement regarding the meetings with Rohingya communities.

A village on the road to Maungdaw destroyed by fire, seen in October 2017 (Myanmar Now)

More than 700,000 Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh when the military carried out a major offensive in northern Rakhine State in 2017.

In 2019, the West African country of the Gambia initiated a case against Myanmar at the ICJ accusing the military of perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. 

The elected NLD government’s ICOE released a report in January 2020 stating that hundreds of Chut Pyin and Maung Nu village residents were massacred in Rakhine State during a military operation. The military subsequently issued a statement that they would investigate the incident. 

In her capacity as foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi—who, as State Counsellor, was also the de-facto head of the NLD government—previously represented Myanmar at the genocide trial. The military council is now obligated to answer the charges following a decision by the ICJ that the publicly mandated National Unity Government would not be allowed to represent Myanmar. 

An eight-person committee, chaired by the junta’s then foreign affairs minister Wunna Maung Lwin, was formed in June 2021 to replace the NLD’s delegation to the Hague after the military seized power in a coup in February. Ko Ko Hlaing—minister for international cooperation—served as vice chair, and regime officials including attorney general Thidar Oo, Lt-Gen Yar Pyae and Adj-Gen Myo Zaw Thein were among the members.

In late February 2022, representatives for both sides of the Rohingya genocide case met for a second time at the ICJ in the Hague. During this hearing, the Myanmar regime’s delegation argued that the Gambia did not have standing to file the case and the ICJ did not have jurisdiction to examine accusations of genocide in the country. 

The ICJ rejected the junta-led appeal on July 22, 2022, ruling that the Gambia did have legitimate standing. In response, the military council’s spokesperson, Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, said Myanmar would continue to mount their defence “in accordance with the law.”

A delegation of military council officials visited Rakhine State on February 5 and included junta minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement Thet Thet Khine; minister of border affairs Lt-Gen Tun Tun Naung; minister for immigration and population Myint Kyaing, and minister for international cooperation Ko Ko Hlaing, who is also the leader of the defence team at the ICJ. 

The stated pretext of the visit was the alleged repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

According to a statement from the military council, during their stay in the state capital of Sittwe, the group held a two-day meeting with stakeholders affected by the trial and worked to prepare a counterclaim against the Gambia’s filing to submit to the ICJ. 

In seeking evidence for their counterclaim, the regime representatives claimed to have met with more than 30 witnesses from Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships who had personally lived through the 2017 violence. After questioning the witnesses, the military officials asked them to sign affidavits affirming the authenticity of their testimony. 

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and staff also visited Rakhine State recently, but with the stated purpose of meeting with business leaders, and not for reasons relating to the genocide case. 

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