The open-source investigators trying to bring justice to Myanmar
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Thu Thu Zin was last seen alive around midday on July 27. She stumbled to the ground after being shot during a protest in front of the Mahamuni Buddhist temple in Mandalay. The 25-year-old, who worked for a cosmetics company, was one of thousands of young people who came of age during Myanmar’s fleeting decade of democracy.
Like many of them, Thu Thu Zin joined a nationwide resistance after General Min Aung Hlaing took power in a military coup in February. According to local media and civil society groups, she died from a gunshot to the head sustained after plainclothes junta forces opened fire into a crowd of protesters.
Troops occupying Mandalay Palace, the red-walled fortress where Burma’s last kings reigned until 1885, took her body away and later told Thu Thu Zin’s family she had been cremated. A photo taken before they did shows her wearing a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt and pyjama pants patterned with strawberries. Her face was daubed with the clay make-up many Myanmar women wear, her eyes open and lips parted in an expression of surprise.
Myanmar Now, one of the online outlets whose journalists have been chronicling the unrest since the beginning of the year, wrote about Thu Thu Zin’s death in a story headlined “A Funeral Without a Body in Mandalay”. Hers was by no means the most shocking death in Myanmar since Min Aung Hlaing arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, and hundreds of other ruling officials.
Since the coup, my social media timelines have filled up with pictures from Myanmar showing men, women and children who have been badly beaten or fatally shot. Videos depict junta troops bludgeoning first responders who helped protesters and casually shooting people riding on motorbikes.
In March, the story of a teenage protester named Kyal Sin went viral when she was shot dead, her T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Everything Will Be OK”. It has become one of the defining images of this, Myanmar’s annus horribilis. More recently, as an insurgency in north-west Myanmar was met with a brutal military response, media have published pictures of corpses piled up by roadsides, houses and churches in flames and entire neighbourhoods reduced to ruins after bombardments.
But something about Thu Thu Zin’s story stuck in my mind: the young life cut short, the spiriting away of her remains, the scant digital footprint she left behind. As I tried to find out more, I discovered that her case had already been logged and studied by researchers in south-east Asia and overseas.
It’s part of a broader effort by human rights defenders, Myanmar’s parallel government and international justice officials to begin assembling an archive of material that might one day end up in court as evidence of the Burmese military’s crimes, including both the post-coup crackdown this year and the horrific offensive targeting Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Today, Myanmar is plagued by a broader, more brutal conflict as the nationwide “spring revolution” persists, despite showing no signs of being able to displace the ruling junta. More violence is a certainty. It would be perverse and premature to expect a return to democracy any time soon. But there are people working to keep the truth of what is happening inside the country from being lost entirely.
These investigators — some self-taught, others a part of the world’s plodding system for prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity — are supplementing traditional human rights fact-finding with pioneering open-source tools and digital forensics. In doing so, they are laying the groundwork for justice, however long delayed.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, February 1 2021, Min Aung Hlaing’s troops moved in to topple Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in Naypyidaw, the capital. The superstitious Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, chose the date carefully. Apart from the neat alignment of numbers (1.2.21), a new parliament was set to convene for the first time since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were re-elected in a landslide victory in November 2020, a result the military refused to accept.
The coup initially followed a familiar script for a country where the military has controlled governments for most of Myanmar’s modern history. Soldiers barged into telecom companies’ data centres and forced them to cut internet service. In the first days after the coup, they moved to block Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. But the Tatmadaw faced stiffer opposition than it expected, led by young people who took to the streets. Tens of thousands walked off the job to join a nationwide civil disobedience movement, from doctors and nurses to celebrities and bureaucrats.
Protesters raised three fingers in a salute popularised during the 2020 democracy protests in neighbouring Thailand and adopted from The Hunger Games books and films. Dissenters bypassed the internet blockade and declared a “spring revolution” against the Tatmadaw. Within a month, soldiers and police had started retaliating against protesters with what Amnesty International has called “battlefield weapons”, including sniper rifles, submachine guns and grenades.
The Tatmadaw also deployed some of its most notorious units blamed for past atrocities to Yangon, Mandalay and other cities of the ethnic Burman heartland. They brought with them tactics long used to terrorise minorities, including arresting people at night and indiscriminately shooting into flats.
On March 27, Armed Forces Day, Min Aung Hlaing hosted Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, in Naypyidaw. Russia is, along with China, one of Myanmar’s leading arms suppliers. The two men watched a military parade then, after nightfall, a synchronised formation of drones that made the junta leader’s portrait in lights. By the end of the evening, security forces had killed more than 100 men, women and children across the country.
New bonds of resistance formed as areas of Myanmar’s Burmese-speaking heartland began to suffer the kind of violence long meted out by the military in ethnic areas. Some activists fled to minority states to receive military training from guerrilla organisations, hardened by decades of war against the Tatmadaw. Htar Htet Htet, a former Miss Grand Myanmar contestant, posted a photo on her Facebook account in May showing herself holding an assault rifle in the jungle.
The anti-coup resistance also shared a surfeit of disturbing images online. I began to receive unsolicited story tips from Myanmar and from those who had fled. After the regime ordered leading media outlets to shut down in March, journalists scattered into hiding in safe houses or makeshift newsrooms in border areas, or into Thailand and India. Their reporting continued, but accounts of the same incidents often varied on key details, such as the number of people killed in a given incident or victims’ identities.
In this informational fog, a few bright spots of fact-finding appeared. One was a tally of every confirmed killing or arrest by the regime kept by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a human rights group that operates in its own words “inside and outside Burma” and whose website lists it as based in Mae Sot. The Thai border town has been a haven for political refugees from Myanmar since the days of the 1988 “Four Eights” uprising against the military regime of the time. “We know Gen Z continue to face the same injustices that I have endured,” the group’s founder Ko Bo Kyi tells me by email. He declines a voice or video call, or to name his location, citing security concerns. “I want to live in a country which is free from this kind of brutal dictatorship.”
Bo Kyi (“Ko” is an honorific) was a student protester in the 1988 uprising. During the 1990s, he was imprisoned multiple times for his activism and says he was tortured, including by being forced to stand or sit in stress positions. After his release, he experienced the discrimination and harassment many ex-prisoners faced and fled to Thailand, where he joined other exiles in forming the AAPP. In 2013, he returned to Myanmar and, during Aung San Suu Kyi’s term in office starting in 2016, the AAPP scrupulously documented her government’s arrests and jailing of journalists and others on freedom-of-expression offences.
Nowadays, the group relies on first-hand sources inside Myanmar to verify stories of coercion, intimidation and violence. It has documented more than 1,250 killings and 10,000 total arrests by the regime. The AAPP’s tallies have become the most respected and widely cited source for the junta’s crimes since the beginning of the year.
The junta has accused the AAPP of publishing exaggerated numbers based on rumours intended to cause “public panic”. But the AAPP’s casualty numbers tend to be more conservative than those shared by journalists and anti-regime fighters. If anything, they underestimate the scale of what is happening, as the conflict has spread to harder-to-track rural areas. Bo Kyi says the group’s methodology “misses many people” murdered by the junta as their bodies cannot be identified. While public shootings of protesters have been amply documented and shared, many no less grim cases of torture and death in regime interrogation camps and custody have gone unreported or unconfirmed.
The AAPP also does not document the deaths of troops, police or civil servants killed by anti-regime guerrillas. “It is difficult to document these numbers,” he says, “because responsibility for most of the deaths of pro-military supporters or informers are not being claimed by a group.”
One crime the AAPP was able to record, however, was the shooting of Thu Thu Zin. She is logged as number 930 on its most recent fatality list, dated November 10. Bo Kyi confirms she died at the east shrine entrance of the Mahamuni temple in Mandalay. “She was presumably hastily cremated, an increasing occurrence,” he says. His facts line up with media reports. The regime, Bo Kyi continues, has been “taking dead bodies and making them disappear expressly so the international community cannot know how many are dying”.
“Apologies for the graphic image,” Ben Strick says as he shares his screen. He shows me a picture of Thu Thu Zin’s body stretched out on what appears to be a tablecloth or tarpaulin. The image shows scarring on her right temple, consistent with a fatal gunshot to the head and with news reports describing how she died in Mandalay.
Strick is a researcher with Myanmar Witness, a project with UK government funding that is sifting through evidence of atrocities committed by the military regime. It is part of the growing community of investigators combing through the internet and social media. They use tools including chronolocation, establishing the time an image was recorded, and geolocation, matching images to satellite or other data to find where they were taken. The group is sharing its findings with journalists and international organisations.
“When it comes to future prosecutions or judicial processes, there will be a bank of verified incidents of human rights violations so that there is very little wiggle room for the people involved,” says Ross Burley, executive director of the Centre for Information Resilience, where Strick works as director of investigations and which is running the project.
The Tatmadaw’s violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017, for which victims’ groups are seeking justice, went largely unrecorded, and much of the primary evidence has consisted of satellite imagery. Thousands of people are believed to have died. But the 2021 post-coup uprising and killings have been captured on tens of thousands of phones that recorded photos and video clips, many posted online. If the military’s atrocities of 2021 end up being adjudicated in court, digital evidence will probably play a key role.
Strick, 35, describes himself as a “couch analyst” who worked in corporate law, then joined the Australian military. He has collaborated on investigations with Bellingcat, the outfit founded by Eliot Higgins, a pioneer in the field of online human rights sleuthing. Higgins’ group independently investigated the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, and some of its work is now being presented in court in the Netherlands. Bellingcat is also working on cases related to the war in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s air attacks on Yemen. “I think he’s a very good investigator, and dedicated enough to dig through masses and masses of material,” Higgins says of Strick. “That’s one of the hardest things to do: you’ve got to dig through an awful lot of hay before you find the needles.”
In 2018, Strick was a part of a BBC Africa Eye investigation that managed to confirm government troops in Cameroon shot and killed two women and two children in 2015. It was one of the first cases in which open-source human rights fact-finding resulted in prosecutions. Cameroon’s government had at first denounced the video as “fake news” and social media commenters claimed it was shot in Mali, but Strick’s team pieced together where and when the atrocity happened by matching the soldiers’ uniforms and using details, such as the outlines of a ridgeline in a photo, to pinpoint the location to northern Cameroon.
When asked about Thu Thu Zin’s case, Strick begins by opening what he calls a “God-like” Excel spreadsheet on which the group has logged more than 3,200 entries documenting protests or conflicts. He finds reference to a demonstration against the military on July 27 in Mandalay and online references to a Ma Thu Thu Zin having been shot in the head. (“Ma” is a Burmese honorific for young women.) Strick also finds the image of her corpse; while he cannot confirm who took the photo, one possibility might be a soldier of the 910th Engineering Battalion, as this was the unit occupying Mandalay Palace.
“I will go to Mandalay and bring up the place where Thu Thu Zin was executed,” Strick says, before carefully correcting himself. “I won’t say executed. Alleged to have been shot, is the wording we should be using.”
He shares his screen again, showing a photo of Thu Thu Zin holding a red banner, the colour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party. A pagoda with a green roof and a golden entrance in the background is identifiable as the Mahamuni temple mentioned by the AAPP and news reports. Thu Thu Zin is clearly identifiable as the same person as in the other photo by her Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, pyjamas and make-up.
Strick then calls up an online tool called Suncalc, which turns people in pictures into sundials of sorts, measuring shadows to estimate the time of day they were taken. Strick believes the picture was taken between 10.30am and 12.30pm on July 27. “We know the photo was not on the internet before 27 July, but it was uploaded on that date in the evening,” he says.
One of the challenges online investigations face is authentication and archiving, freezing video or photographic material in time in case it gets taken down or altered. Many of the images of military atrocities uploaded since February were deleted within hours of being posted, either by individuals fearful for their own security or by social media companies’ content mediation filters or teams.
“When you are talking about justice and accountability processes, it could be years if not decades before the stuff gets looked at,” Bellingcat’s Higgins says. “And when you are looking at conflicts nowadays, you could be talking about millions of digital objects.” The challenge is not finding evidence online, he says, but finding enough people with the skills and patience to analyse it all.
Open-source evidence is still uncommon in international courts. But the Global Legal Action Network, a non-profit human rights group, recently staged a mock admissibility hearing which reviewed film clips of a Saudi air strike in Yemen that killed at least six people, including a child, and injured dozens more. The panel, convened to simulate what might happen in a real-life court setting, ruled that the clips could be used in a real court hearing, though it rejected the sound from the videos as hearsay.
When reviewing violent incidents in Myanmar, Strick’s team gives each image a serial code of sorts, a unique identifier consisting of a number with 2-30 characters, and publishes it on Twitter. “What we are trying to do is to take that information and set it in amber,” he says. “It’s like a mosquito trapped on a tree with sap around it, and it locks it in time. This information might be used 10 or 20 years down the line by judicial organisations.”
Myanmar Witness corroborates visual material in a number of ways, including information on social media and real-life interviews with relatives or others inside the country. This is a delicate task given the threat of arrest for collaborating with fact-finders. But Strick says one of the most difficult aspects of these investigations is establishing responsibility, army troops or police, for example, and which division.
In the case of Thu Thu Zin, the digital trail points to clues on who shot her and what happened to her body, but doesn’t provide a smoking gun. Progressive Voice, another civil society group, quotes a witness who said they saw Thu Thu Zin fall after hearing the gunshots. “We couldn’t do anything for her as we were running for our lives as well,” the witness said. “We couldn’t even get her body back.”
Strick switches to another photo, which he estimates was taken an hour after her death, showing sand thrown on the road, presumably to conceal blood. A third set of images taken subsequently shows a cart in the area on to which people appeared to be placing something. The person who posted the photo captioned it, “SAC opened fire in Mandalay.” SAC is short for State Administration Council, the official name of the junta.
Strick considers this and says, “I am not going to assume facts, but that says a lot about what happened after Thu Thu Zin was killed. Sand was thrown on to the road. Security forces were there to clear the area. And then things were poured onto trucks. That’s the extent of what we have.”
“We want to preserve the material that would be in the best condition to be admitted in court proceedings one day,” says Nicholas Koumjian over video call. “Things we can show are not digitally manipulated.”
Koumjian is a veteran prosecutor, who has worked on many of the major war crimes tribunals in recent years, including the one that tried surviving leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. He now heads the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which was established by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2018 when international outrage over the Rohingya atrocities was fresh. Its mandate was to investigate the Myanmar military’s crimes from 2011 onwards. But since the coup, it has also been documenting reports of crimes and atrocities throughout the country. The Geneva-based office does not prosecute, but serves as a repository for potential evidence. Its purpose is to facilitate trials in national and international courts. A similar UN mechanism for the crimes in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was established in 2016.
“The biggest challenge that our mechanism faces is that we do not have access to Myanmar,” Koumjian says. “When you’re investigating crimes, you want access to the place where the crimes were committed in order to do crime scene investigations and also because this is where the witnesses are.” The office has an annual budget of $12.7m and a staff of 54, including researchers, technology specialists and lawyers.
The IIMM approached several south-east Asian countries with the aim of setting up in the region, but were rebuffed. Koumjian will not disclose which ones. Bangkok would be the most logical base, but Thailand’s government is headed by a former general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a 2014 coup and is backed by a military with close ties to the Tatmadaw.
Koumjian was a prosecutor for 20 years in Los Angeles, where his work included investigations of unlawful police shootings. The grandson and son of Armenian genocide survivors, he was interested in international law and history, and in November 2000 started working at the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after applying for a job online. He was assigned to head the trial of Milomir Stakic, mayor of the Bosnian town of Prijedor, who was in office during the 1992 ethnic cleansing of Muslims, and helped secure a conviction and a 40-year prison sentence for Stakic.
Koumjian also worked as a prosecutor for serious crimes in East Timor and at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which in 2012 convicted Liberian president Charles Taylor and sentenced him to 50 years for aiding and abetting crimes including terror, murder and rape. Taylor was and remains the first head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since Karl Dönitz, the Nazi who served as Germany’s president for less than a month after Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945.
International justice is a fragile and imperfect vessel into which victims, prosecutors and indeed journalists pour their hopes. Sometimes this is futile, given how tortuous and expensive trials can be and how difficult convictions are to secure. The Khmer Rouge tribunals convicted just three officials for the crimes of the regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when 1.5 million to two million people died there.
Still, there are proceedings already under way at two international courts relating to the 2017 atrocities against the Rohingya: the genocide case brought by Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice — the UN’s highest court — in 2019, and an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, but the court opened a probe on the grounds that Bangladesh is, and the crimes against the Rohingya, including deportation, which is classified as a crime against humanity, were committed across the two countries’ borders.
In trials for serious crimes, one of the key challenges for prosecutors is establishing a chain of command, or link between a crime and a leader who is responsible, but not present and never met the victims. In the Cambodia trial, prosecutors were able to establish that many people died at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture centre at Phnom Penh. But regime officials “denied they even knew it was going on, and the evidence indicated they did not visit themselves”, Koumjian explains.
Similarly, in the Sierra Leone case, survivors testified to being raped or mutilated. But many of the crimes happened in villages Taylor had never been to and were carried out by rebels who never spoke to him. The court heard testimony from rebels who admitted burning houses with people screaming inside and even deposed one witness who confessed dismembering the body of one of his foes and eating his heart. And yet, the prosecution needed to establish a link to Taylor. “We had to prove he was well aware of his campaign of atrocities,” Koumjian said. “Luckily, he made public statements where he was acknowledging that.” The Sierra Leone tribunal secured its landmark conviction of Taylor, thanks largely to insider witnesses with blood on their hands, who established Taylor supplied “sustained and significant support” for the campaign of horror.
Koumjian says the IIMM is gathering information in Myanmar on unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions (which fall under the crime against humanity of imprisonment), torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance and crimes against children. While Koumjian is careful not to show his cards, he says the IIMM is trying to establish connections to orders from top commanders in the ways that were effective for Sierra Leone.
One way of doing that is to establish a pattern of actions. Koumjian’s team is, among other things, studying the carnage on Armed Forces Day, when junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was surveying his military parade and more than 100 people were killed elsewhere in the country. “These are facts that disturb us,” he says, “that we’re collecting and analysing.”
While Koumjian sees the crimes this year as part of his office’s mandate, he says he cannot forget that the office was created after reports of “massive crimes” against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. “About 800,000 people fled the country at the time and they remain outside the country in horrible conditions,” he says. “We don’t want to take our eye off that.”
Any accounting of justice for Myanmar, however far in the future, will have to grapple with the Rohingya, the predominantly Muslim ethnic group whose homeland is Rakhine state. In majority Buddhist Myanmar, the minority have been singled out for unusually harsh persecution, stripped of citizenship and oppressed by apartheid-like restrictions. A poisonous nationalist narrative brands them as illegal immigrants.
In August 2017, when Aung San Suu Kyi was still in power, the military unleashed a brutal offensive in Rakhine state that, though described as a counter-terrorism operation, bore all the hallmarks of a premeditated ethnic cleansing campaign. According to the UN, some 750,000 Rohingya were driven over the border to Bangladesh, where nearly all remain in camps. The medical charity Médecins sans Frontières estimates, based on interviews with survivors in the camps, that at least 6,700 people died in the violence.
In September that year, with the operation still under way, Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech in which she described the offensive in clipped Oxbridge tones as “clearance operations”. “There have been allegations and counter-allegations,” she said in the speech. She refused to refer to the Rohingya by name. Later, members of her own administration claimed that some victims had set fire to their own homes or that women were making accusations of “fake rape”. Two years later, Aung San Suu Kyi was at The Hague defending the military’s actions at the International Court of Justice genocide trial. (She went, despite not having been summoned.) “Genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the hearing, defending the army’s actions in remarks some in Myanmar see as a national embarrassment and an unwarranted gift to the Tatmadaw.
A few days after the coup this year, MPs in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy who managed to avoid arrest regrouped as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the name of Myanmar’s parliament), holding their first online “parliamentary” session. In April, they brought in representatives of minority groups and others to form the National Unity Government (NUG). As their spokesman, they chose a medical doctor and Christian member of the minority Chin group named Sasa, who quickly became the face of the toppled regime. Sasa, who is in his forties, says he grew up poor, the child of illiterate parents, and witnessed the Tatmadaw’s predation against ethnic minorities — soldiers raping women, conscripting men for forced labour — first-hand.
The parallel government took pains to be more diverse than its predecessors. Sasa became its international affairs minister. Duwa Lashi La, an ethnic Kachin, was acting president and Mahn Win Khaing Than, a Karen, was acting prime minister. Though members of the shadow government have held online meetings with officials from other countries, none has formally recognised it.
The NUG has also faced lingering, needling questions from its foreign interlocutors about the Rohingya. In June, it released a statement meant to allay the international community’s concerns, saying it would base citizenship on birth in Myanmar and calling for a review of restrictive citizenship laws. It also afforded the Rohingya the dignity of calling them by their name. “We accepted to call the Rohingya as Rohingya,” Aung Myo Min, NUG’s justice minister, tells me. “The previous government never did.”
Aung Myo Min, a veteran of the 1988 uprising, is part of the NUG’s broad tent: he is half ethnic Mon, and the first openly gay member of any Myanmar government, parallel or otherwise. “I see there is a gross discrimination of the Rohingya people,” he says, based on a citizenship law and a system of national ID cards that Myanmar has for decades used to systematically deny recognition to Rohingyas and other Muslims, and which he describes as “racist”.
In broadening its base, the NUG was responding to pressure from younger people, such as Thu Thu Zin. Younger activists have not only been protesting, they have been asking difficult questions about the recent past. Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent activist who grew up in a military family and fled underground after the February coup, is one of them. Last week she celebrated her 30th birthday in hiding. “The NUG is trying to remake history and build trust that has been broken in the last five years,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi tells me. “We, the young generation, and I myself are dedicated to putting him on trial,” she says of Min Aung Hlaing. “That’s my new goal.”
International legal experts say the IIMM’s growing archive will serve any future court case. “It’s a giant library of evidence that is being held on ice for someone to thaw out and use in criminal proceedings,” says Kingsley Abbott of the International Commission of Jurists. “What is essential now is for states to look for possible fora where the IIMM’s evidence can be used in a justice setting.”
The question now is where and when, if ever, the images and testimonies it is gathering, including the trail of online evidence about Thu Thu Zin, end up in court. The international community has cooled on war crimes tribunals in recent years, in part because of the expense. The UN Security Council has the right to refer Myanmar to the ICC for prosecution. However, this is unlikely to happen given that Russia and China hold seats and have watered down most of the statements put before the world body since the coup.
A second possibility is prosecution in a future — for now, entirely imaginary — democratic Myanmar. This would require either a diplomatic solution to the current crisis or decisive victory by the anti-coup forces, both of which seem remote for now. However, in August the NUG took a significant first step by recognising the jurisdiction of the ICC to prosecute crimes committed in Myanmar stretching back to 2002.
A third possibility exists: prosecuting the regime in a third country. In Germany, refugees who fled the war in Syria have identified their former torturers and jailers after spotting them on the street. Alaa Mousa, a Syrian military doctor, was charged in July for crimes against humanity for numerous acts of torture at military-run hospitals in Damascus and Homs. In March, a court in Koblenz found a former Assad regime intelligence officer named Eyad Al-Gharib guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for his role in arresting protesters who were taken to a detention centre in Damascus, where 4,000 people were tortured, of whom at least 58 died. He was put on trial alongside Anwar Raslan, a more senior official whose trial is ongoing.
One case involving the Rohingya is already making its way into court in Argentina under the principle of universal jurisdiction, in which crimes committed in one country can be tried in another. A UK-based group, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, and six female survivors of sexual violence and other atrocities, petitioned a court in Buenos Aires to open an investigation into the role of Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders in committing genocide and crimes against humanity. The women testified via video link from Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, in pre-trial hearings set to decide whether the case, which names Min Aung Hlaing, will be opened or not. Tomás Ojea Quintana, their lawyer and a former UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, tells me he expects a decision from the court by year-end.
While any future investigation will probably focus on the military, the resistance camp’s actions too could potentially open it to investigation. Despite the NUG’s embrace of a code of military conduct and the Geneva Conventions, “people’s defence” guerrillas have targeted civilians, including children, too. “The violence that’s being meted out has reached a point where both sides could be accused of having committed crimes. The NUG need to be careful,” says Manny Maung, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. On September 29, Aung Myo Min’s NUG human rights ministry urged people involved in what he called a “just defensive war” against the regime to avoid violence against civilians, especially children, at all costs. “Unlawful killings must be avoided under all circumstances,” he wrote on Twitter, “and it is important to understand that those who do so will be held responsible at some time in the future.”
Koumjian believes securing justice for Myanmar will take time, but could take unexpected turns. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he says. “But my gut [instinct] is there will be some measure of justice for the victims somewhere, some way. One of the things I have learnt is not to believe that I know what’s going to happen in history, because history can take turns that none of us imagined”.
He is right about that. Slobodan Milosevic was a free man for nearly two years after the issue of his arrest warrant 1999. Then, in 2001, Serbia handed him over after a reformist government seeking to rebuild bridges with the international community agreed to transfer suspects to the special tribunal. He died of a heart attack in prison in The Hague five years later, toward the end of his trial for war crimes.
Charles Taylor managed to live in Nigeria for three years after his indictment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. But in 2006, the country handed him over when he was trying to escape into Cameroon. He was tried and convicted in The Hague and is now serving out his 50-year sentence in the UK.
The Khmer Rouge fell in 1989, but it was only in 2006 that an international court got off the ground. In 2018, the last two senior regime figures were convicted. Khieu Samphan was 87. Nuon Chea was 92.
About the photography
The photography accompanying this piece is the work of Sacca, a collective of pseudonymous photographers documenting life under Myanmar’s dictatorship. As the regime criminalised journalism, Sacca continued bearing witness to the destruction of the country. These photos were mostly taken in February and March, after the post-coup “revolution” when open protests were more common. There are fewer of these now, and they are smaller and more fleeting. Recently, the conflict has intensified in the countryside as a result of open insurrection there.
John Reed is the FT’s south-east Asia correspondent and Bangkok bureau chief
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