As It Happens·Q&A

Confessions of ex-Myanmar soldiers show mass-murder orders came from the top: Bob Rae

Video testimony from two former Myanmar soldiers is "hugely important" evidence that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people were part of a systematic campaign of genocide, says Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. 

The 2 men's testimony will be 'hugely important' in upcoming trials, says Canada's ambassador to the UN

Bob Rae, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, has visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and interviewed survivors there. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Video testimony from two former Myanmar soldiers is "hugely important" evidence that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people were part of a systematic campaign of genocide, says Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. 

In video clips that surfaced last week, two men who identify themselves as Zaw Naing Tun and Myo Win Tu describe being ordered to kill members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority indiscriminately, and to bury their bodies in mass graves. 

The videos were recorded by the Arakan Army, an insurgent group fighting Myanmar's military. CBC had not independently verified the contents. 

The two men are now at the The Hague in the custody of the International Criminal Court, sources told CBC News.

More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims left Myanmar in 2017 for neighbouring Bangladesh, fleeing what they described as a military-campaign of rape and mass murder. 

Bob Rae is Canada's ambassador to the UN and the former Canadian special envoy on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. In 2017, he travelled to Bangladesh to interview Rohingya survivors in refugee camps. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Ambassador Rae, the video testimony from these two soldiers just released, the content of it is shocking. What is the importance? What's the significance of having these men, these soldiers, confess?

I think it's hugely important because we've had a lot of evidence from victims. I mean, masses of evidence of atrocities. And the government of Myanmar has always said, well, yeah, there's some bad things [that] happened, but it was not deliberate or it was not systematic, etc.

And I think the importance of this evidence as it comes from two people who are admitting to being perpetrators and who are also — it's clear, I think, at this point — that they didn't act alone. They were acting in response to a system of command.

And as shocking as what they say that they did — which is to kill people, men, women, children, put them in mass graves — is that they say that those were their orders. To "kill all you see," no matter who they are. The significance is that they could actually, I presume, connect what they did with people higher up in the chain.

Absolutely right ... and these are not minor offences. These are massive crimes against humanity, and speak to the question of genocide in terms of its impact.

These images are captured from video statements made to the Arakan Army, an insurgent group, by two former privates in the Myanmar army. The man on the left identifies himself as Zaw Naing Tun, 30. The man on the right identifies himself as Myo Win Tun, 33. (Submitted by name withheld)

What these soldiers are saying they did, how does it compare with what you've heard from Rohingya victims who are in those camps? How did they describe what they remember? And how similar are these testimonies?

Tragically, they're very similar.

I remember my first visit to Cox's Bazaar [refugee camp] in November of 2017, and I sat with a group of women who were describing first-hand their own treatment at the hands of the soldiers, which included rape and being witnesses to murder.

I heard stories from children ... the young people, 12-, 13-years-old, talking about how their parents were killed. I heard stories from people describing the murder of their brothers or sisters.

But as a lawyer, you have to distinguish between the stories that you hear and knowing that, you know, getting that evidence in front of a tribunal is going to be difficult and challenging.

One of the problems we have in Rakhine state is a lot of the mass graves have been bulldozed over.... Dozens of villages have been completely bulldozed over. I mean, that was done deliberately in order to stop people from gathering any evidence.

These soldiers actually describe exactly where the mass graves are. And it seems that the testimonies they gave of the locations matched those of people who saw their loved ones being killed and put into those graves. These two men, we understand, have been taken to The Hague as of this week. What could this kind of evidence ... do for the trial that will be there and also at the International Court of Justice?

As you point out, there are two proceedings underway, one of the jurisdiction of the ICC, the criminal court, and the other is the International Court of Justice. This evidence will be important for both cases.

In the testimony you gave when you were special envoy for the story of the Rohingya, when you reported back, you described what women had told you about rapes, and about sexual assault, and about the babies being born in those camps that came from those rapes. Did you hear anything in the testimony of these two men that might be able to corroborate the stories that they gave and to further the case that you were making that that should be part of the trial?

Part of our intervention in the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Gambia is going to be focused on this question of deliberate attacks against women and children. And I'm very, very proud, frankly, the fact that the government has decided to take that up in our intervention in concert with the government of the Netherlands.

Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar on foot in September 2017. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Why do you think these men would confess to these crimes?

I don't know. I think sometimes people have a conscience. Things weigh on people. And they would feel that this was something they wanted to get off their chest and wanted to say.

But they would only do it knowing that there are consequences to these confessions, and they will have to be held responsible for what they did.

What do you think it means to the people you interviewed, people you met? What does it mean to them, do you think, that these soldiers have confessed?

I think that given the fact that there's been such a vilification of the Rohingya, of women and men who have come forward with their stories, and they have been absolutely vilified in much of the social media in Myanmar and elsewhere, I think it's a very, very important vindication of their story.

Their truth is not just their personal truth, but it is the truth.

And Canada is ... giving legal support to the International Court of Justice cases brought by Gambia. Do you think that we will actually see, in the course these two courts and what they're investigating ... people high up, people in the chain of command, brought to account for what happened?

I certainly hope so.

As Shakespeare said, truth will out. Eventually these things will come to bear. I'm convinced of that.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now