SPECIAL REPORT : Part 234September 4, 2018, 9:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Two days before the inauguration of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in Kathmandu, the United Nations called for the immediate resignation of Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for what the global body called genocide in the north of Rakhine State.
The UN also called for the prosecution of six top Myanmar military officers, including Hlaing, in an international court. BIMSTEC member immediately dismissed the allegations.
The UN also blamed one-time darling of Western powers, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, for the failure on her part to stand up for Rohingya minority.
The UN found that Suu Kyi had ‘not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority to stem or prevent the unfolding events’. However, the UN conveniently cleared Myanmar’s civilian leadership of responsibility/accountability in respect of military operations in Rakhine State.
The UN report, prepared by an international panel comprising Christopher Dominic Sidoti (Australia), Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia - head of fact-finding mission) and Radhika Coomaraswamy (Sri Lanka) was released in Geneva, Switzerland, on Aug 28, 2018.
It would be pertinent to mention that Darusman hadn’t been in the original fact-finding mission, named by the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Joaquín Alexander Maza Martelli (El Salvador) on May 30, 2017. Martelli was acting in accordance with a decision taken on March 24th, 2017, at its 34th session of the Human Rights Council. Geneva decided to urgently dispatch an independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Council, to "establish facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State".
However, the original fact-finding mission included an Indian national. The following is the text of the UN statement on the Indian’s appointment to the Myanmar’s mission: "Ms. Indira Jaising (India) is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India, and former CEDAW member (2009-2012). She co-founded the Lawyers Collective in 1981, an NGO devoted to the defence of human rights and women’s rights. She was India’s first woman to be designated a Senior Advocate by the High Court of Bombay in 1986, and first female Additional Solicitor General of the country from 2009 until 2014. She drafted India’s first domestic violence act, allowing women to bring civil and criminal suits against attackers for the first time. She graduated in law with an LLB degree in 1964. Ms. Jaising holds a post graduate degree in law from the University of Bombay and received a fellowship from the Institute of Advanced Legal studies of the University of London in 1970. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University New York, and Bok Visiting International Professor at University of Pennsylvania (2015)."
Geneva replaced Jaising with Darusman, who headed the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) inquiry into accountability issues in Sri Lanka.
Geneva indicated that Jaising was replaced amidst concerns of her perceived bias. Soon after her appointment, Jaising was quoted by broadcaster Al Jazeera as having said the Rohingyas’ situation in Myanmar "is especially deplorable because they face the risk of genocide". The UN found fault with Jaising statement. "If there’s any perceived bias...it undermines the credibility of the mission before it has started," said the U.N. official.
But, at the conclusion of the investigation by the panel headed by Darusman, the team essentially alleged Myanmar was responsible for genocide.
Perhaps, India felt uncomfortable in having Jaising as head of a panel that inquired into Myanmar, a member of BIMSTEC and key China ally. BIMSTEC consists of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
War crimes, ‘genocide’ charges against Lanka, Myanmar
Ports and Shipping Minister and SLFP spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe explained the importance of the BIMSTEC to the media and President Sirisena receiving the leadership of the organization at its fourth summit in Kathmandu. Samarasinghe discussed varying responsibilities accepted by member states and the origins of the BIMSTEC. Samarasinghe took up BIMSTEC at regular SLFP briefings. However, Samarasinghe refrained from at least referring to the crisis caused by the damning UN report. Veteran politician, Samarasinghe, who had been wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s human rights envoy and also responsible for dealing with Western powers in respect of relief measures during the war couldn’t have been unaware of the implications of the UN report. The Minister chose not to make any reference to the Myanmar issue. In the wake of President Sirisena receiving the BIMSTEC leadership, Sri Lanka cannot remain silent on the issue as it could come up at any forum.
The UN report, prepared by Marzuki Darusman, Christopher Dominic Sidoti and Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former UN Under Secretary General, as well as member of top Sri Lankan constitutional body, urged the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or create what they called an ad hoc international criminal court. The trio also recommended an immediate embargo on transfer of weapons to Myanmar and targeted individual sanctions against those responsible for violations.
Myanmar denied access to the UN team. The report released in August 2018 confirmed that approximately 10,000 Rohingya had been killed in the 2017 crackdown and ‘large-scale gang rape’ of women took place. The international media quoted Darusman as having said: "The Rohingya are in a continuing situation of severe, systematic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death." The former Indonesian Attorney General was addressing the media on Monday, in Geneva, after the releasing of the report. "The scale, brutality and systematic nature of these violations indicate that rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorize or punish a civilian population and are used as a tactic of war," Darusman, Sidoti and Coomaraswamy declared.
A similar three-member UN team blasted Sri Lanka, in March 2011. Darusman headed that team, too, and obviously received the appreciation of those Western powers to do another hatchet job. Obviously Darusman did it again. The Indonesian is certain to receive more such assignments. Darusman, teamed up with South African Yasmin Zooka and American Steven R. Ratner
On the basis of unsubstantiated Darusman’s report, the current UNP-SLFP government, in October 2015, co-sponsored a resolution against the Sri Lankan military and the political leadership. Subsequently, the very basis of the Geneva Resolution was challenged in the House of Lords by Lord Naseby in Oct 2017. The incumbent government simply ignored evidence that could have been effectively used to call for a fresh review of accusations directed at Sri Lanka. In spite of repeatedly promising that Geneva no longer posed a threat to Sri Lanka, President Sirisena, the Commander-in-Chief of armed forces, did absolutely nothing so far to secure a fresh review. Instead, the UNP-led government is in the process of implementing the Geneva recommendations. In March 2017, Sri Lanka received two additional years to fulfill its obligations to the international community.
Lanka’s role in Myanmar probe
Deshamanya Radhika Coomaraswamy received praise for her role in Darusman’s UN team. Interestingly, Coomaraswamy, at the time of her latest UN assignment, also functioned as a member of Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Council chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The 10-member CC comprised the Speaker, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan, Presidential nominee Patali Champika Ranawaka, Parliament’s nominee Vijitha Herath, Opposition Leader’s nominee John Seneviratne, Prime Minister’s nominee (vacant) and three representing the civil society, A.T. Ariyaratne, Shibly Aziz and Radhika Coomaraswamy. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s original nominee Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa no longer served the CC.
Coomaraswamy joined Darusman and Sidoti in March this year in Geneva where they presented an interim report on the situation in Myanmar. "The body of information and materials we are collecting is concrete and overwhelming," they said in their interim, oral report to the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.
"It points at human rights violations of the most serious kind, in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law."
According to international news agencies, the interim report was based on information gathered from a series of visits to Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, where teams of investigators conducted over 600 in-depth interviews with alleged victims and witnesses of reported human rights violations and abuses. The teams have also collected and analyzed satellite imagery, photographs and video footage of events.
Did the UN team inquire into the circumstances leading to Myanmar military operations in Rakhine State?
Rohingya terrorists attacked security posts in Rakhine on Aug 25, 2017, killing 12 Burmese security forces personnel. A group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the August 25 attacks. The group emerged in October 2016, when it carried out a series of attacks on police posts, killing nine police personnel. The group is on record as having said that its primary aim was to protect the Rohingya Muslim minority from state oppression in Myanmar.
The government has declared ARSA a terrorist group whose leaders had received military training overseas. Myanmar’s trouble started in 2012.
The international community should be worried about the situation in Myanmar. Sri Lanka suffered untold hardships due to Indian intervention in the ‘80s. Western powers turned a blind eye to Indian intervention leading to a war that claimed the lives of thousands by the time Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Having neglected Sri Lanka’s crisis, Western powers responded through UN mechanism, led by Darusman. The UN set up its mechanism soon after Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE, about a decade ago. Darusman’s team achieved the UN objective with the help of the incumbent Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. But thanks to revealing wartime British High Commission dispatches (Oct. 2017), Wiki leaks revelations (website launch 2006) and US military statement at the inaugural defence seminar (June, 2011) roundly contradicted Darusman findings. Now, we have another UN probe report, authored by Darusman with the contribution of an Australian and our own Radhika Coomaraswamy. The trio asserted that the Myanmar Army tactics have been ‘consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats. They demanded the immediate resignation of Myanmar Army Chief. They said: "The crimes in Rakhine State and the manner in which they were perpetrated are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts."
Darusman targets Sri Lanka
The Panel of Experts (PoE), headed by Darusman, in its executive summary alleged that tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days on the Vanni east front. The panel categorized the following as the five main violations committed by President Rajapaksa’s government: (1) killing of civilians due to heavy shelling (2) systematic attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets (3) denial of food, medicine and other essential items to the Vanni population (4) violation of human rights of those who had survived the war, including LTTE cadres and (5) violations committed outside the war zone, including suppression of the media.
The PoE endorsed ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, a documentary produced by the UK media outfit, Channel 4 News. The panel referred to ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ on more than one instance, thereby giving credence to both Channel 4 News as well as its work.
The PoE alleged the LTTE (1) using civilians as a human buffer between its cadres and the advancing army, (2) killing those attempting to flee the rapidly shrinking area under its control (3) deployment of military equipment in close proximity to civilians (4) deployment of children for combat operations (5) forced labour (6) launching suicide attacks on civilians fleeing the area under its control.
Those who had been in power as well as now in control never had a strategy to counter lies propagated by interested parties to justify external intervention. The present lot actually contributed to the UN project by co-sponsoring a resolution targeting Sri Lanka. Now, Sri Lanka continues to ignore evidence that could be used, efficiently to counter the primary allegation.
Sri Lanka should realize that though it had rejected the Channel 4 News allegations, the UN panel accepted them, including the main accusation that as many as 40,000 civilians perished on the Vanni east front. In fact, this is the main accusation among five allegations contained in the executive summary of the panel’s report. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim (point number 137 in the report): "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that it could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."
The PoE panel has recommended that the identities of those who had provided information to the group shouldn’t be revealed for 20 years since the day of the release of the reports. Even after that, the release of such information is subject to declassification review.
Sri Lanka failed at least to point out the discrepancy in various figures quoted by the UN panel and Channel 4 News (40,000 civilians), UK Labour Party MP Siobhan McDonagh (40,000 civilians and 60,000 LTTE cadres) and Amnesty International (10,000), all during 2011.
Instead, the Rajapaksa government hired expensive foreign PR firms which did nothing to counter the lies. Tax payers’ money was squandered on foolish projects without undertaking a cohesive examination of all facts to pave the way for a robust defense. Sri Lanka never had a proper defence. For some strange reason, successive governments deprived the military of required defence. On the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, the UN and some countries targeted selected military personnel. Military strategist Chagi Gallage, who retired on Aug. 31, 2018 following an illustrious career spanning over three decades was denied Australian visa over a year ago on the basis of UN lies. Australia found fault with Gallage for being in command of the 59 Division, from May 7, 2009 to July 20, 2009. In response to inquiries made by Gallage, the Australian High Commission has stated that troops under his command certainly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Spineless Sri Lanka political leadership remained silent. Although President Sirisena publicly discussed the issue of various countries denying visas on the assumption war crimes were committed, absolutely nothing was done to rectify the situation.
The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to turn down Gallege’s visa. On the basis of OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism.
Australia also cited the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. POE accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs. The combined security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009.
In fact, the UN is still holding back a confidential report, prepared by its mission during the conflict, for obvious reasons. The UN as well as Western powers wanted the Rajapaksa rule brought to an end over the wartime President’s close relationship with China. They realize that the release of the UN report which dealt with the situation on the Vanni front August 2008 to May 13, 2009 can jeopardize its strategy. Interestingly, the UN panel refused to accept the report prepared by those who risked their lives on the front while accepting unsubstantiated allegations made by interested parties. The UN report estimated the number of dead and wounded at 7,721 killed and 18,479 wounded, respectively. The UN report said that it couldn’t counter the number of dead and wounded only after May 13, 2009. The war ended six days later.
Nearly a decade after the restoration of peace, Sri Lanka is still unable to cope up with false accusations. Unfortunately, having suffered in the hands of UN ‘experts’, Sri Lanka has contributed to the Myanmar report. Let me stress there had been many killings during the conflict. The Sri Lankan military can never absolve itself of the responsibility for killing of Tamil civilians during the war. There had been certainly some deliberate killings as well and rape of women. But, such incidents had never been authorized by the political or military leadership as part of the government policy. No less a person than former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got caught lying about rape being used as tactic of war in Sri Lanka. A blatant lie indeed. But, the same US had no qualms about using the United Nations Human Rights Council to undermine Sri Lanka in spite of calling UNHRC a "cesspool of political bias" that targets Israel in particular while ignoring atrocities in other countries.
The National Peace Council (NPC ) last week warned Sri Lanka could have suffered the fate of Myanmar if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government did not change Sri Lanka’s approach. The following is the text of statement issued by Dr. Jehan Perera on behalf of the NCC: "A report issued recently by a UN fact finding mission into human rights violations in Myanmar has recommended that its most senior military commanders should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in dealing with the Rohingya and other minority ethnic communities. In response to the Myanmar government’s refusal to accept responsibility for what has happened, the UN mission called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or for the creation of an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. They also called for an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against individuals who appear to be more responsible.
"Prior to the change of government in January 2015 Sri Lanka too was going down the road that Myanmar has taken of denying responsibility for what has happened in the past. The National Peace Council notes that the international community’s pursuit of Myanmar on grounds of war crimes and human rights violations might have been the fate of Sri Lanka had it not co-sponsored the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council and taken charge of its reconciliation process in October 2015.
"The evolving situation in Myanmar suggests that the Sri Lankan government acted with prudence and foresight in agreeing to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015. Due to the changed approach of the government in regard to dealing with the past, and ensuring human rights, Sri Lanka is now on a positive path of national reconciliation. We also note that the international community has given Sri Lanka the time and space to implement its commitments.
The National Peace Council calls on the government to implement the commitments given to the UN Human Rights Council without being deterred by allegations that it is betraying the country and its security forces as alleged by opposition and nationalist groups. It is the implementation of those commitments that will ensure the healing that will unify Sri Lanka in heart and mind as well as in territory and obtain the greater support of the international community."