Myanmar’s Brutal Military Is Convicting Its Own Soldiers of Atrocities
Generals of an army accused of genocide have started putting troops in the dock, and it’s not because they care about human rights.
On a bright afternoon this January, a group of Kachin villagers in Myanmar’s mountainous north perched on plastic chairs at a courtroom inside a military compound. Standing a few feet away were six soldiers, who were convicted of kidnapping, torturing, and murdering three of the villagers’ relatives near a camp for displaced people in war-torn Kachin state months earlier. A panel of uniform-clad judges read closing statements and handed down the sentences: 10 years with hard labor for each man.
The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, has terrorized civilians in Kachin and elsewhere for decades, committing gang rapes, massacres, mass expulsions, and torture with total impunity, especially against the country’s many ethnic minorities. Its ruthless campaign against the Rohingya in western Rakhine state has displaced some 700,000 members of the Muslim minority since last August and cemented the military’s reputation as untouchable. Inside Myanmar, where the Rohingya are portrayed as terrorists and foreigners, the campaign has largely strengthened the position of the army, still the main powerbrokers even after the end of junta rule in 2011.
Yet there have been a handful of cases made public in recent years in which soldiers have been convicted of atrocities, including a massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine and killings of Shan villagers in the country’s east.
In each instance, the result has fallen well short of real justice: Lower-ranking personnel were scapegoated, sentences were considered too short, and the ultimate fate of the convicts was shrouded in mystery. And yet, that a military long-steeped in denialism is holding these trials at all is remarkable. For some analysts, the trials are a cynical sham to mollify critics when soldiers get caught red-handed. Others see them as a first step, inadequate on its own, in the fight for accountability — and possibly reflecting genuine shifts within the military.
“People felt there was more transparency than before,” said one observer who attended the sentencing in Kachin but asked not to be named. “But they didn’t think that real justice had been done. They had doubts about whether the soldiers would really be sent to prison or assumed they would be released early.”
The highest-profile conviction of Tatmadaw soldiers so far came after the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din last year. Seven soldiers received 10 years with hard labor in April — but only after the murders were exposed by two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who as a result are facing up to 14 years in prison under the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Their exposé quoted, on the record and for the first time, Rakhine Buddhists admitting to burning houses and killing Rohingya. This explains why the authorities may have “felt they had to respond so as not to lose support or start to introduce doubts among the domestic constituency,” said Kate Cronin-Furman, a scholar who has researched sham accountability exercises for her upcoming book, Just Enough: The Politics of Accountability for Mass Atrocities.
Myanmar’s generals have not suddenly begun to care about human rights. Rather, they recognize it can serve their interests to clamp down on some of the ugliest excesses that have made the Tatmadaw a pariah.
The military certainly wants greater legitimacy in some form. In 2011, the generals began partially ceding power to elected administrations to help achieve what they called a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” This meant allowing limited political reforms in order, among other things, to get Western sanctions lifted while maintaining the military’s grip on large swathes of the economy and key areas of political life, such as home affairs and justice.
As part of that plan, the Tatmadaw wants to position itself as a modern, respectable force playing a vital role in the transition. And as Myanmar has opened up, ending direct censorship of the media and allowing greater freedom of speech, the generals have become more sensitive to perceptions of it, both at home and abroad.
“They want to be considered as responsive, appropriate, civilized,” said John Blaxland, a former Australian defense attache to Myanmar and Thailand who now heads the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University.
Yet the quest for legitimacy didn’t prevent the military from unleashing carnage in Rakhine state last August and responding to global censure with blanket denials. Firstly, legitimacy for the Tatmadaw is about more than just the perceptions of the United States and European countries. China, Russia, and other allies pledged their support to Myanmar throughout the crisis, while their “clearance operations” have also been popular inside Myanmar, where many view reports of atrocities against the Rohingya as exaggerated or fake. In the wake of attacks on border posts by Rohingya militants, the generals have cast themselves as defenders of national sovereignty against a foreign terrorist threat, helping to legitimize their role in the transition.
The Tatmadaw also may not have expected such a strong backlash from abroad. Less than a year before the August attacks, when soldiers carried out a similar scorched-earth operation in Rakhine — albeit on a smaller scale — its reputation hardly suffered at all. More than 65,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh as soldiers burned, raped, and killed innocents starting in October 2016. Yet the following month, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing was given the red-carpet treatment in Italy, before returning to Europe in 2017 for a goodwill tour.
It is also possible that the Tatmadaw did expect a much stronger backlash than in 2016 but calculated it still wouldn’t matter that much. Last year’s attacks elicited a lot of noisy criticism, but the military has so far suffered few meaningful repercussions. The United States has canceled military assistance to units involved in the crackdown, and it has imposed sanctions against just one general, Maung Maung Soe, who oversaw the violence. The European Union and Canada’s decision this month to sanction seven military and police officials, not including Min Aung Hlaing, has been dismissed by some rights activists as “pathetic”.
“My sense is they’ve done this thinking they can get away with it, like they’ve gotten away with many other atrocities against minority groups,” Blaxland said.
Convicting soldiers helps the military to rebuff calls for accountability from abroad. When United Nations Security Council delegates told top generals in May that they wanted to probe the violence in Rakhine, Min Aung Hlaing responded that the army had looked into claims of abuses during previous bouts of violence and punished the perpetrators. “We have investigated enough already,” he said.
With calls for the Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court mounting, does the military hope punishing its own soldiers might stave off international justice? Sean Bain, a legal consultant at the International Commission of Jurists in Myanmar, thinks not. “For one thing, they have only prosecuted individuals for the crime of murder under national law,” he said. “The crime against humanity of murder has yet to be prosecuted.”
One common factor in all the recent convictions is that local civil society groups, lawyers, journalists, or activists gathered evidence that made it impossible for the military to plausibly deny the crimes.
After the murders of the three men in Kachin state, pro bono lawyers got in touch to advise the families to give statements, and civil society rapidly kicked into gear by forming a committee to hold the perpetrators accountable. They managed to extract an autopsy report from the authorities that detailed obvious signs of torture such as shattered skulls. Had the military decided not to prosecute the killers, “the case would have caused an outcry,” said David Baulk, a Myanmar-based researcher who helped monitor the case for Fortify Rights, an advocacy group.
Wa Lone’s reporting for Reuters also helped get seven soldiers convicted for another massacre in Mong Yaw village, Shan state, in 2016. David Mathieson, an independent analyst who at the time was a researcher with Human Rights Watch and traveled to Mong Yaw to investigate, said the military felt compelled to respond partly because the case went public so quickly, and then Reuters followed up.
“Word spread, and local activists and journalists seized on the case and publicized it almost immediately. This often doesn’t happen in extrajudicial killings and abuse cases, which occur in more remote areas where news takes time to filter out and verification is difficult,” he said. “Basically, they were caught red-handed with dozens of eyewitnesses.”
But again, it felt like a partial victory. The army only owned up to five of the seven killings and, as with those sentenced in Kachin in January, the whereabouts of the convicted soldiers is unknown. The Tatmadaw’s public display of justice, Mathieson added, made it “appear magnanimous and principled, twisting the killings to its advantage.”
Others are less cynical about the convictions. Min Zaw Oo, a former rebel soldier who later negotiated ceasefires between the Tatmadaw and rebel groups as director of the Myanmar Peace Centre, said that there do appear to be low-key efforts within the military to clamp down on certain abuses.
“We recently went to the northern part of Shan state [and] interviewed a lot of fighters in the field from the Tatmadaw,” said the former negotiator, who now runs the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, a think tank. “A lot of them say that, now, their hands are tied. So, what they could do in the villages is now very much restricted, so they have to be very careful.”
Since 2011, Min Zaw Oo noted, the military’s use of civilians as porters has become less excessive. It used to be a common tactic to round up large numbers of people from villages or prisons to carry supplies and walk ahead of troops into landmines and ambushes. Similarly, the military’s use of child soldiers has fallen since the reform process began. “There is a strong sentiment in the Tatmadaw which recognizes the legitimacy crisis of the Tatmadaw as an institution,” Min Zaw Oo said.
Yet the casual sadism of the campaign in Rakhine raises doubts about how far this process of self-examination can go. The difference may be that while other minorities are seen as troublesome and backward but essentially a part of the nation, the Rohingya have been systematically stripped of or denied their citizenship and dehumanized for decades. Even those who defend the military’s actions do so in the language of hatred, like the military commander who used what’s become a common refrain among apologists: that the army couldn’t have raped Rohingya women because they’re too ugly.
Even among other minorities, however, abuses are still rife — and the military’s efforts to check them seem more directed at PR than at a genuine end to impunity.
“A good faith effort at promoting accountability would start with trials for generals who are the architects of violent campaigns against civilians,” said Matt Bugher, who has researched abuses by the Tatmadaw and is now the head of the Asia program at the rights group Article 19.
The vast majority of military crimes, even those supported by plenty of evidence, remain unpunished. In January, the same month the six soldiers were convicted in Kachin state, two other civilians from the same displacement camp as the three murdered men were found slaughtered. This time, the authorities took a very different approach. Instead of arresting the suspects, the police tried to arrest a victim’s sister-in-law, forcing her to go into hiding.
“I think when the first murders happened, there was a lot of acrimony between the soldiers after the case went viral,” said the observer who attended the January sentencing. “But this time they are protecting and supporting each other.”