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UN probe finds evidence of crimes against humanity by Myanmar junta

The UN’s fact-finding body investigating the Myanmar military junta’s crackdown on opponents of its coup says there is evidence that could point to crimes against humanity.
Myanmar soldiers take part in a military parade in the capital, Naypyitaw (ANN WANG)

The UN’s fact-finding body investigating the Myanmar military junta’s crackdown on opponents of its coup says there is evidence that could point to crimes against humanity.

The head of the United Nations body that is collecting and documenting the most serious crimes in Myanmar said that preliminary evidence gathered since the February 1 military coup shows a widespread and systematic attack on civilians “amounting to crimes against humanity.”

Nicholas Koumjian, who heads the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), told reporters on Friday in New York that they received over 200,000 communications of violence and have collected over 1.5 million pieces of evidence. They are being analyzed “so that one day those most responsible for the serious international crimes in Myanmar will be brought to account.”

In determining that the crimes against civilians appear to be widespread and systematic, investigators saw patterns of violence. In the first six weeks or so after the military takeover, the IIMM head said there was a measured response by security forces to demonstrations. This was followed by “an uptick in violence and much more violent methods used to suppress the demonstrators.”

“This was happening in different places at the same time, indicating to us it would be logical to conclude this was from a central policy,” Koumjian said.

The IIMM or simply "Myanmar Mechanism," which was established by the Human Rights Council in September 2018, is not a police force, a prosecuting body, or a court. In 2019, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the American lawyer and international prosecutor of serious crimes to head the IIMM. Its mandate is to collect evidence and prepare files to facilitate criminal prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in national, regional, or international tribunals.

Koumjian said the coup itself does not come under IIMM’s purview as issues of constitutionality, change of leadership, or elections are not serious international crimes within its mandate. However, given the history of political violence in Myanmar, he said they are concerned and would be monitoring and collecting evidence if such crimes occur.

The IIMM chief said his investigators also found that particular groups were targeted, especially for arrests and detentions that appear to be without due process of law. Among these victims are journalists, medical workers, and political opponents.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has suffered long under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. During the nearly five decades, almost all dissent was suppressed with gross human rights abuse, drawing international condemnation and sanctions.

A gradual liberalization began in 2010, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi the following year. The international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the general election of November 2020 with an overwhelming margin, which the military claimed as fraudulent. Days of tension between the military and Suu Kyi’s government climaxed in the February 1 military takeover.

Since then, Myanmar has been wracked by unrest, with peaceful demonstrations against the ruling military. The crisis has reignited old conflicts with armed ethnic minority militias, especially in border regions. A growing number of armed civil defence forces have sprung up to protect the local people against the security forces. The Human Rights Council has particularly instructed IIMM to monitor events in Kachin and Shan states, which have a large number of ethnic minorities.

Koumjian said his team has been collecting evidence from a wide variety of sources, including individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments, and the evidence includes photographs, videos, testimonies and social media posts, which he said, could be relevant to attempts to show that crimes occurred and to determine who is responsible for those crimes.

He said the Human Rights Council specifically instructed the investigators to cooperate with the International Criminal Court's probe into crimes committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and the case at the International Court of Justice brought by Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya.   

The court actions stem from the Myanmar military’s harsh counterinsurgency campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine State in August 2017 in response to an insurgent attack. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape what has been called an ethnic cleansing campaign involving mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes.

Koumjian clarified that Myanmar is not a state party to the International Criminal Court. The ongoing investigation at the court relates not to the Rohingya in Myanmar but to those who have fled or were expelled across the border to Bangladesh, which is a state party to the court. The post-coup events are not before these courts.

He said they received “many communications, particularly from people inside Myanmar, urging us to accomplish some type of accountability." The IIMM head said they will continue to collect and analyze evidence in order to fulfil their mandate “so that those responsible for the serious international crimes in Myanmar will be brought to account.”

“All we’re doing is collecting evidence of the very worst violence, hopefully sending a message to perpetrators: 'If you commit this, you run the risk that you will be held to account'.”

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