A recent publication has revealed that the seven Myanmar soldiers implicated in the 2017 Rohingya massacre have been released from prison – after serving less than one year of their 10-year sentence. The soldiers were released from prison in November 2018 and had received the sentence for the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in the Rakhine village of Inn Din. Heavy media restrictions within Myanmar had ensured that the news of their release had remained hidden until May 2019.
The violent raiding of several Rakhine villages in 2017, involved multiple looting, killing, and arson incidents which caused more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. While attempting to clear out the Muslim population within Inn Din, soldiers detained 10 Rohingya men and boys – described as innocent workers and students by family members – and labelled them as “terrorists”. Reuters reporters later found the shallow grave in which the victims were buried after being shot or attacked with swords. The reporters were arrested for investigating the massacre in December 2017. And although the military had dismissed the seven soldiers involved and had sentenced them to prison, their early release has called into question the validity of these consequences, and the government’s ability to enforce justice.
The soldiers’ release heightens suspicions about the punitive measures the Myanmar government has taken in response to these killings. In fact, the military said that the only security officers that have been punished after the 2017 incident were the seven soldiers who were released early. Instead of focusing on the lenient level of punishment, Myanmar has claimed that the imprisonment of the seven soldiers proves that they have devoted attention to delivering consequences. However, for the seven soldiers these consequences meant less jail time than the 16 months served by two Reuters journalists who were charged with obtaining state secrets after reporting on the massacre in 2017.
Speaking to reporters, Myanmar’s military commander in chief, Sr. General Min Aung Hliang stated: “ we took action against every case we could investigate. The latest crime we punished was a killing, and 10 years’ imprisonment was given to seven perpetrators. We will not forgive anyone if they commit [a] crime.” Upon the conviction of the seven soldiers, the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated that the development was a “first step on the road of taking responsibility,” for Myanmar. However, according to Aljazeera, the Myanmar military was accused of a “massive cover-up of their crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.” In addition, speaking to Aljazeera, the deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Asia division, Phil Robertson, remarked that “the early release of these seven soldiers reveals Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Tatmadaw (armed forces) commanders don’t really consider the Rohingya to be human, and were never committed to seeing anyone held accountable for their crimes in Rakhine state.”
In order to promote peace in Rakhine, the Myanmar military must follow through with its promises. In addition, the government of Myanmar must uphold press freedom to ensure that the public is informed about the events that pose a threat to peace or justice. The harassment and imprisonment of reporters is unacceptable, and the restriction of news concerning the military’s actions means that the general public is largely unaware of any wrongdoings and therefore, unlikely to hold the government accountable. The impunity borne out of this lack of accountability could breed further hostility amongst the Rohingya populatio and lead to future conflict.
Now that the release of the soldiers has been made public, the Myanmar military must answer for its lack of severity. However, it remains to be seen whether the public’s awareness of the prisoners’ release will motivate the military to double-down on its impunity, or whether more action will be taken to enforce consequences and justice in the wake of the 2017 operation.
The Organization for World Peace will be monitoring the situation closely.