Chin refugees request criminal investigation of Myanmar junta officials by Philippine authorities

If the government proceeds with the investigation, the Philippines will be the first country in Asia to invoke universal jurisdiction to hold foreign nationals accountable for crimes against humanity

Displaced members of Myanmar’s Chin community have turned to courts in the Philippines to bring war crimes charges against Myanmar junta officials, according to a statement released by activists and the accusers’ attorneys on Wednesday.

With legal representation from Philippine attorneys and support from the activist organisation Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP), five displaced residents of Chin State filed a criminal complaint with the Department of Justice in Manila, requesting an investigation into 10 regime officials, including junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. 

The complainants accuse the junta of murdering civilians, including their own relatives, as well as desecrating bodies, burning churches and houses, and withholding aid from people impacted by conflict or natural disasters. All five sought refuge abroad following assaults by junta forces that forced the entire surviving population of the town of Thantlang, Chin State to flee in 2021.

In the statement released on Wednesday, they allege that the military killed civilians when they tried to put out fires deliberately started by soldiers. 

“I will not accept that my nephew’s death was in vain. He died attempting to save fellow citizens from the raging fires. I beseech the authorities here in the Philippines to grant us the justice we pray for,” said one of the complainants, whose name was withheld for security reasons.  

A total of 528 ethnic Chin people have been killed in military atrocities since the coup, of whom 217 were civilians and the rest were resistance fighters, according to the advocacy group Institute of Chin Affairs.

Salai Ling, the deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, is among the complainants and spoke on their behalf. 

“The atrocities of the regime forces against the Chin people and residents of Thantlang have put all of our lives upside down: Our losses are permanent and irreplaceable. The destruction of the whole town was painful to watch, the loss of our loved ones, our community, our churches, and all of our historical roots and lifetime of memories are indescribable,” Salai Ling told Myanmar Now on Wednesday.

“We are asking for justice because for far too long the Myanmar military has been allowed to commit war crimes and atrocity crimes with complete impunity,” he added.

When reached for comment, MAP executive director Chris Gunness noted the importance of involving Myanmar’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in holding the junta accountable.

“Various international mechanisms and bodies, such as the UN Security Council, have said repeatedly that ASEAN should be in the lead. The cases MAP is supporting in places like the Philippines and Indonesia puts ASEAN in the driving seat,” Gunness said. 

MAP has also requested that Indonesia’s human rights commission investigate state-owned companies that have allegedly supplied weapons to the Myanmar military, and has petitioned the constitutional court in Jakarta to proceed with a universal jurisdiction case.

“It allows survivors of gross violations to tell their stories and validate their narratives in their own home regions. And finally it promotes the concept of ‘no safe havens’ such that Min Aung Hlaing and his criminal clique will think twice before they swan around the region with their families, doing their shopping and dealing with their healthcare,” the MAP director added.

Romel Bagares and Gilbert Andres, the attorneys representing the Chin refugees, argue that a Philippine law enacted in 2009 allows authorities to try foreign nationals for crimes committed outside the country under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction. 

According to this principle, states have the right to prosecute certain egregious crimes—including crimes against humanity, genocide, torture, and war crimes—regardless of where the crime occurred or the nationality of the perpetrators or victims.

If the requested investigation proceeds in Manila, the government of the Philippines will be the first in any Asian country to invoke universal jurisdiction in investigating and prosecuting such crimes.

Spanish courts previously invoked universal jurisdiction in prosecuting an Argentine former naval officer for crimes against civilians during a military dictatorship in his native country. Germany also convicted foreign nationals under this principle for their involvement in genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Earlier this year, the human rights organisation Fortify Rights supported a criminal complaint against Myanmar military officials—also invoking universal jurisdiction—filed with authorities in Germany. 

Before supporting the case in the Philippines, MAP helped file a criminal complaint with the Turkish government in March of 2022, leading to an investigation of Myanmar junta officials accused of using torture.

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