Soldiers in Myanmar's military and villagers were behind the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Rakhine state's Inn Din village, commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing said Wednesday in a statement on Facebook.
The admission marks the first time that Myanmar's powerful military has acknowledged wrongdoing in the violence that gripped Rakhine last year. In just a few months, more than 650,000 members of the Rohingya minority fled across the border into Bangladesh. The crisis was labeled a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations' top human rights official.
The military statement may also offer further hints to one of the most urgent questions in a crisis believed to have left thousands dead: Where are the bodies? Late last year, international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya had died violently during the exodus last year, mostly from gunshot wounds, but the government of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has blocked numerous attempts by outside groups to investigate on the ground.
"It's not as though there are human remains lying around everywhere," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "We have reason to suspect that authorities have disposed of human remains, whether maliciously to hide evidence or for other reasons."
With access to the area limited, proof of killings has been hard to establish. U.N. human rights investigators and others have been denied access to the areas worst afflicted by violence, while two Reuters journalists who were reported to be investigating evidence of a mass grave at Inn Dinn are currently on trial in Rangoon. Prosecutors are seeking charges that could impose a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, according to the reporters' lawyer.
After numerous accounts of massacres emerged from survivors, human rights groups resorted to using commercial satellite imagery to look for evidence of violence. Matt Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, said that although it was difficult to find mass graves using this technique, images seen by Amnesty had made it clear that Rohingya homes in the Inn Din area were burned down in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign.
"It is one of the most striking examples of how targeted the burning has been in the military's campaign," Wells said in a phone call. "The Rohingya portion of the village has been completely burned to the ground, whereas non-Rohningya buildings very nearby have been completely untouched."
In Wednesday's military statement, the office of Myanmar's commander-in-chief said that both villagers and security forces had admitted they killed "10 Bengali terrorists" - a reference to the Rohingya whose bodies were found in a mass grave in the village of Inn Din last year. The statement went on to claim that the soldiers involved were responding to provocations but added that they would be dealt with by the military.
"The army will take charge of those who are responsible for the killings and who broke the rules of engagement," the statement continued, according to an Associated Press translation. "This incident happened because ethnic Buddhist villagers were threatened and provoked by the terrorists."
Though they have been established in Myanmar for generations, the government refuses to recognize the minority as citizens and refers to them as Bengalis to imply that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Though limited in scope, Wednesday's message appears to contradict previous denials that Myanmar's military was involved in violence. In a report released last November, Myanmar's military had exonerated itself of accusations of a number of atrocities, including rape and killings.
Myanmar's government has strongly denied suggestions of "ethnic cleansing" in Rakhine. It has estimated that 400 Rohingya died last year, but said that 376 of them were terrorists involved in an armed insurgency. Last year, a group of foreign journalists were flown into the country to see a mass grave in the north of Rakhine that authorities said contained the bodies of Hindu villagers who had been killed by Rohingya insurgents.
Rights groups said that Wednesday's admission of involvement showed the need for Myanmar to allow outside investigators into Rakhine.
"This grisly admission is a sharp departure from the army's policy of blanket denial of any wrongdoing," James Gomez, Amnesty International's regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. "However, it is only the tip of the iceberg and warrants serious independent investigation into what other atrocities were committed amid the ethnic cleansing campaign."
"This is not an institution that has any credibility," Human Rights Watch's Sifton said of Myanmar's military. "That is precisely why you need international observers and investigators involved now."
Author information: Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.