Myanmar: A mass grave, an unprecedented admission and a few unanswered questions

29.01.18

SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER
Security forces prepare for an operation in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State, in October 2016. Security forces prepare for an operation in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State, in October 2016. Teza Hlaing | Frontier

The unprecedented admission by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar national army) that security forces were involved in unlawfully killing Muslims in Rakhine State may have implications for plans to repatriate verified refugees from Bangladesh.

The True News Information Team at the Ministry of Defence said on January 10 that action would be taken against members of the security forces and civilians over the summary execution in Rakhine State of 10 men it described as “Muslim terrorists”. The announcement followed an investigation launched by the Tatmadaw on December 20, two days after it revealed the discovery of 10 bodies in a mass grave at a cemetery at Inn Din village, in Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine.

The investigation, which ended on January 2, included the questioning of 21 security force members, three Border Guard police, 13 members of a security regiment, six villagers and six government officials.  It is the first time the Tatmadaw has announced that the security forces and civilians have been involved in the unlawful killing of Muslims in Rakhine. The possible consequences of the unprecedented admission could affect plans to repatriate the 655,000 Muslims who fled to Bangladesh after attacks by the extremist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25 triggered a ferocious counter-insurgency response by the Tatmadaw.

The Tatmadaw’s January 10 announcement indicated that the killings occurred on September 1 when security forces were conducting a clearance operation on the beach near Inn Din village and were threatened by a mob of about 200 “Bengalis” armed with swords, daggers and clubs. Troops opened fire and as the mob dispersed, 10 of the attackers were chased down and caught.

A close reading of the announcement suggests that no one in the mob was carrying lethal weapons when they launched the attack on armed members of the security forces. Also, there is no mention in the announcement of any member of the security forces being injured or of any exchange of fire. It confirms only that 10 unarmed Muslim men were detained while being chased from the scene of the mob incident. The announcement said the men had admitted being persuaded by imams to participate in terrorist activity. However, there is no evidence that any of the men were members of a terrorist group or that they had been involved in any extremist activity.

The Tatmadaw announcement said it was not possible to transfer the 10 “Bengalis” to a police station because no vehicles were available and it was decided to take them to the cemetery and kill them.

On August 31 last year, state-run media quoted the Tatmadaw as saying the death toll since the August 25 attacks stood at 13 members of the security forces, two government officials, 14 civilians and “about 370 ARSA extremist terrorists”. By September 5, only one more body of an alleged extremist was found. On the basis of this information it may be assumed that most ARSA members had fled northern Rakhine by August 30 and the Tatmadaw had total control over the area. It is therefore difficult to understand why it was not possible to arrange transport to transfer the 10 “Bengalis” to a police station.

As the incident occurred during a clearance operation, it can be taken for granted that the security personnel involved would have been in constant contact with their superior officers or their headquarters. It is doubtful that the decision to execute the men was not submitted to their superior officer. The rank of the officer who issued the order needs to be clarified.

Most domestic media outlets reported the Tatmadaw’s January 10 announcement with little other information or comment. If the Tatmadaw wants to achieve credibility with the public and international community it should allow journalists to visit Inn Din and report on what happened.

After the Tatmadaw announcement, Rohingya activists outside Myanmar alleged that there had been other incidents of summary executions in the violence that followed the August 25 attacks. It has been speculated that those who oppose the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh could exploit the Inn Din incident to sabotage the repatriation process.

It is essential that the trial of suspects in the summary killings at Inn Din is open to the media. Meanwhile, former Thai foreign minister Mr Surakiart Sathirathai, has urged the government to lift the ban on journalists and humanitarian workers entering northern Rakhine that has been in force since August 25.

“I think press and humanitarian access to Rakhine are important issues as well as free access to other stakeholders,” Surakiart told Reuters in an interview in Bangkok on January 6.  “Legitimate press coverage is something that should be enhanced,” he said.

The interview followed Surakiart’s appointment by the government late last year to head a 10-member panel that will advise it on implementing the recommendations of the Annan commission report handed down last August hours before the August 25 attacks.

This article was first published by Frontier

 

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