Nicholas Koumjian is the chief of the United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, or IIMM, which earlier this month said that it had collected “strong evidence” that the junta and its affiliate militias are committing “increasingly frequent and brazen war crimes” in the country. Among the crimes mentioned in the agency’s annual report were what it called “indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks on civilians from aerial bombing,” as well as an increase in the “mass executions of civilians and detained combatants, and the large-scale and intentional burning of civilian homes and buildings.”
RFA Burmese’s Ye Kaung Myint Maung recently spoke with Koumjian about the report’s findings and ongoing efforts to bring junta perpetrators of the crimes it documents to justice.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: IIMM has released its latest report on the atrocities and rights violations committed by the military this year. What do you think are the most significant findings in the report?
Koumjian: I think for me, the most significant findings are that the number of crimes and the seriousness of the crimes only continues to grow … We’ve seen the number of victims in the violence since the coup growing each year, each month. And the report particularly points to evidence of crimes involving aerial bombardment of areas where civilians are present. That resulted in many casualties, including casualties among children. [The report] also talks about the increasing numbers of individuals under arrest or detention, crimes of torture in detention, sexual violence in detention. And we’ve seen incidents where the military has gone into captured areas and executed those captured, who include combatants, but also civilians.
RFA: So based on your findings and the evidence, what do you think the future holds for the regime and the conflicts in Myanmar?
Koumjian: Unfortunately, all we see is an increase in the violence. And unfortunately, we also see a growing trend to disobey the basic principles of international law. That is, in conflicts, the armed forces are required to only target other combatants and not civilians. But we’ve seen increasing numbers of civilians targeted. And this is of great concern to us, and we’re collecting that evidence.
Holding leaders accountable
RFA: Has the IIMM found any significant evidence that shows the top military leaders giving orders to commit these atrocities?
Koumjian: Always the most difficult part of an investigation is showing the linkage to show who is responsible for crimes, particularly top leaders, because they’re normally not present where the crimes occur, but still they could be held responsible. And the evidence that in the past, in other cases, has led to convictions is not always limited to orders given or written orders given, because it’s very rare that you actually find these written orders given. But sometimes the evidence can be clear from the fact that crimes continue to happen with no change in the forces that it is the commanders who are perpetrating these crimes, the forces that are sent on assignments … Commanders can also be held responsible for failing to prevent crimes and failing to punish crimes. So we’ll also look at evidence regarding whether or not, when crimes occurred, did the commanders properly investigate those crimes and did they properly take all reasonable steps to prevent them from happening again.
RFA: As an expert in this area, do you think you have found anything to implicate the top leader’s involvement in these atrocities?
Koumjian: Of course, ultimately it will be up to a court that would, we hope, someday hear any charges that are filed … But we are collecting very serious evidence.
Crimes by other groups
RFA: Did you also find any evidence with regard to the crimes committed by groups other than the military, such as the anti-junta [People’s Defense Force] resistance groups and ethnic armies?
Koumjian: Our mandate is to investigate crimes committed in Myanmar that rise to a certain level. And it’s regardless of what ethnicity or religion or the politics or the perpetrators or the victims. So we do look at crimes committed by other groups. And we are collecting evidence of that.
We’re also very concerned with some of the reports of assassinations by PDFs and other groups of individuals who appear to be noncombatants. It’s a basic principle of the laws of war. You cannot target someone unless they are combatants. Civilians cannot be targeted. So there are issues about whether these crimes fall into our mandate, whether they fall into the category of international crimes. But we’re looking at that and we’re watching carefully.