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Myanmar military junta formally accused of alleged war crimes before Philippines' justice department

MANILA: Myanmar’s military junta has been formally accused of war crimes before the Philippines’ Department of Justice in Manila, in an unprecedented case that seeks to invoke universal jurisdiction.

In a sworn 160-page joint criminal complaint-affidavit filed on Wednesday (Oct 25), five natives of Thantlang village in Myanmar’s only Christian-majority state of Chin named 10 high-ranking military and military-appointed officials as respondents, including junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The accusations included the killing of a pastor and two church elders, and what families of victims said was the systematic burning down of civilian houses in their village in September 2021 by Myanmar’s military – known as the Tatmadaw.

The fires were “due to the heavy artillery strikes on civilian houses by soldiers of the Myanmar military”, read the caption of a photo showing what remained of a burnt two-storey structure featured in the affidavit. 

Philippine prosecutors would need to approve an indictment based on probable cause before a case can move to court.

POST-COUP VIOLENCE

After Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021 that saw the ousting of the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, violence engulfed the predominantly Buddhist country.

In September that year, houses in Thantlang were set ablaze by the junta, said locals. 

Nearly all the villagers fled across the border to neighbouring Mizoram state in northeast India.

The complaint cited the February 25, 2022 report by the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, which attributed the burning down of more than 900 buildings in Thantlang to the Tatmadaw Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) 222 over the course of at least 23 successive attacks.

Complainant Zing Ral Tu’s father was a Baptist church elder who was shot to death on his way to Thantlang to deliver medical supplies, after the village suffered the mass arson.

The complaint said the pastor wore civilian clothing and rode a civilian motorcycle, and took no part in the hostilities.

It added that loved ones were unable to immediately retrieve his body, as soldiers who “were randomly shooting at people” remained at the roadside where his corpse laid.

“The soldiers also cut off Pastor Cung Biak Hum’s ring finger and stole his wedding ring, watch, and mobile phone,” read the affidavit.

“UNIVERSAL JURISDICTION” OVER MYANMAR’S GENERALS

Filipino lawyers representing the Myanmar nationals argued that the Philippines can try these cases based on its International Humanitarian Act, which makes international customary and conventional law applicable as a guide to local courts.

“Universal jurisdiction means that any state can prosecute a crime,” said Mr Romel Bagares, a lawyer for the complainants.

“This is not an ordinary crime. It’s considered a crime against the entire international community. What we’ve brought to the attention of the DOJ are war crimes targeting civilians, mutilation, and the targeting of civilian objects. Houses of civilians were burned down. Churches were burned down.”

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