CIJA allowed Reuters to review many of the documents, which include internal military memos, chain-of-command lists, training manuals, policy papers and audiovisual materials. Some documents contained redactions, which the group said were necessary to protect sources. The organization also asked Reuters not to disclose the location of its office for security reasons.
The documents do not contain orders explicitly telling soldiers to commit murder or rape – such smoking-gun records are rare in the field of international justice. But key in the CIJA cache is the evidence of planning, said Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who now sits on CIJA’s board. “Everything in it points to this intention to engage in this kind of mass removal process,” he said.
Through interviews with former Burmese soldiers, Rohingya and Rakhine civilians and ex-government officials, and a review of social media and official statements, Reuters was able to independently corroborate many details in the documents.
(See related story.)
Myanmar’s military junta didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.
The cache illustrates the obsession authorities had with reducing a population they viewed as an existential threat.
In a private meeting with officials in Rakhine, which CIJA said was held around the time of the 2017 expulsion, the then-army chief and current junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, told the Buddhist population to remain in place, and pointed to a demographic imbalance between Rohingya and the rest of the Rakhine population, the documents show.
Some of the officers who spearheaded the Rohingya expulsion and whose names appear in the documents have since been promoted.
Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, trace their roots in Myanmar’s Rakhine area back centuries, a reading of history supported by independent scholars. While they now comprise a slim majority in the north of Rakhine state, they are a minority overall compared to the ethnic Rakhine, a mostly Buddhist group. Nationalists from the country’s Buddhist majority see the Rohingya as illegitimate migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The August 2017 pogrom was carried out with a ferocity that stunned the world. Refugees described massacres, gang rapes and children thrown into raging fires. The nonprofit Médecins Sans Frontières estimated at least 10,000 people died. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were burned to the ground. In March this year, the United States formally declared that the military’s actions amounted to genocide.
Many in Myanmar, where about 90% of people are Buddhist, supported the military, which denied committing atrocities and said the Rohingya had burned their own homes. Burmese rallied around Suu Kyi, whose political party came to power in 2015 after half a century of military rule, as she dismissed reports of atrocities as an “iceberg of misinformation.” In 2019, she went to the Hague to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
But the military early last year toppled the democratically elected government under Suu Kyi, who has been detained since her overthrow. The coup has altered views in Myanmar and opened an unexpected window on the 2017 atrocities. After the military seized control, the country plunged into worsening civil war, as new armed resistance groups joined forces with existing ethnic armed actors in an effort to topple the junta. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed by the army, according to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The public outrage over the coup and the killings has led to mass defections in the military. Some soldiers are now shedding light on the army’s practices for the first time.
One soldier, Captain Nay Myo Thet, told Reuters he was in Rakhine in 2017, where he said he was involved in logistical support, including transport and supplies, for the military. He described the looting of Rohingya villages after they were emptied. Soldiers took cattle, furniture and solar panels the Rohingya used to power their homes. Large items were loaded onto trucks, under the watch of a senior officer, he said. He was tasked with catching three goats belonging to Rohingya for a dinner party for the troops, he said.
Nay Myo Thet said he deserted in November and fled to a neighboring country.
While the Burmese military faces grave allegations under international law, there is no easy road to convictions. Myanmar hasn’t signed the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has the power to try individual perpetrators for international crimes. As a result, the United Nations Security Council would typically have to refer allegations against Myanmar to the ICC. Such a move would likely be blocked by allies of Myanmar, say international law experts.
But other paths to trial exist. The ICC set a legal precedent in 2019 by allowing its chief prosecutor to begin investigating crimes against the Rohingya population, including deportation, because they fled to Bangladesh, which is a party to the court.
Also in 2019, majority-Muslim Gambia brought a case against Myanmar for genocide at the ICJ, on behalf of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In July, the court cleared the case to proceed, rejecting objections filed by Myanmar.
The non-profit Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK also filed a lawsuit against both Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi in Argentina under “universal jurisdiction,” a legal principle that allows brutal acts to be tried in any court in the world. A spokesman for Suu Kyi’s party said at the time that such a case would violate Myanmar’s national sovereignty.