Myanmar soldiers in Rohingya killings granted early release

May 27, 2019 11:44
Ten Rohingya men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village of Rakhine State, Myanmar, on Sept. 2, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Myanmar has granted early release to seven soldiers jailed for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys during a 2017 military crackdown in the western state of Rakhine, two prison officials, two former fellow inmates and one of the soldiers told Reuters.

The soldiers were freed in November last year, the two inmates said, meaning they served less than one year of their 10-year prison terms for the killings at Inn Din village.

They also served less jail time than two Reuters reporters who uncovered the killings. The journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, spent more than 16 months behind bars on charges of obtaining state secrets. The two were released in an amnesty on May 6.

Win Naing, the chief warden at Rakhine’s Sittwe Prison, and a senior prison official in the capital, Naypyitaw, confirmed that the convicted soldiers had not been in prison for some months.

“Their punishment was reduced by the military,” said the senior Naypyitaw official, who declined to be named.

Both prison officials declined to provide further details and said they did not know the exact date of the release, which was not announced publicly.

Military spokesmen Zaw Min Tun and Tun Tun Nyi declined to comment.

The seven soldiers were the only security personnel the military has said it has punished over the 2017 operation in Rakhine, which drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. UN investigators said the crackdown was executed with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson.

Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and officials have pointed to the jailing of the seven soldiers in the Inn Din case as evidence Myanmar security forces do not enjoy impunity.

“I would say that we took action against every case we could investigate,” the military’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, told officials from the UN Security Council in April last year, according to an account posted on his personal website.

The army chief cited the Inn Din case specifically. “The latest crime we punished was a killing, and ten years’ imprisonment was given to seven perpetrators,” he said. “We will not forgive anyone if they commit [a] crime.”

Reached by phone on Thursday, a man named Zin Paing Soe confirmed that he was one of the seven soldiers and that he was now free, but declined to comment further. “We were told to shut up,” he said.

‘First step’

The 2017 campaign was launched across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents. Reuters exposed the killings in a report published in February 2018.

Troops from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, a mobile force known for its brutal counter-insurgency campaigns, worked with members of a paramilitary police force and Buddhist vigilantes to drive out the entire Muslim population of Inn Din, burning and looting Rohingya homes and property, according to Buddhist and Muslim villagers and members of the security forces.

On Sept. 1, 2017, soldiers and some villagers detained a group of 10 Rohingya. The military said the men were “terrorists”; their family members said they were farmers, high school students and an Islamic teacher.

The next morning, witnesses said, Buddhist villagers hacked some of the Rohingya men with swords. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops and buried in a shallow grave.

The two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, discovered the grave and obtained pictures of the 10 men before and after they were killed.

The journalists were arrested in December 2017 while investigating the killings and later sentenced to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act.

Defense lawyers argued their arrest and prosecution were aimed at blocking their reporting, and one police officer testified that a senior police official had ordered that the reporters be set up and arrested.

In April 2018, after launching an investigation into the killings, the military announced that four officers and three soldiers of other ranks had been dismissed from the military and sentenced to 10 years with hard labor for “contributing and participating in murder”. Neither their names nor details of their roles in the killing were disclosed.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the convictions, telling reporters at the time the sentencing was Myanmar’s “first step on the road of taking responsibility”.

Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not pick up a call seeking comment on the release of the seven soldiers.

– Contact us at [email protected]