The Morrison government should use its regional clout to demand a peacekeeping mission and war crimes tribunal in response to humanitarian crimes in Myanmar, says a top Australian investigator.
Michael Stefanovic, an Australian seconded to the US State Department's Myanmar inquiry, said he was horrified by the evidence he had gathered.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is grappling whether to use the term genocide to describe the Myanmar military's attack on members on the Rohingya ethnic minority.
But Mr Stefanovic said the term was appropriate.
Mick Stefanovic has investigated war crimes in the Balkans, Darfur and the congo, but was shocked by what he learnt in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh.
To underscore the shocking nature of the atrocities, Mr Stefanovic described the story of a man forced by an officer with the Tatmadaw, the country's military, to select a woman from a crowd of Rohingya villagers to be gang raped in public.
Mr Stefanovic has held senior posts at the UN and has previously investigated war crimes in the Balkans and Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
He described the evidence gathered by the US State Department – which had interviewed more than 1000 Rohingya – as the most harrowing he has ever encountered.
“It needs to be acted on. [The] Australian government has a lot of weight in this area of international humanitarian law and I think it needs to throw it around,” he said.
Mr Stefanovic is also calling on Australia to consider severing ties with Myanmar’s military.
The pending release by Mr Pompeo of the final conclusions of the US inquiry will supplement a summary of the State Department’s "factual" findings released last week, which accused Myanmar's military of waging a coordinated campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
UN investigators estimate 10,000 Rohingya have been killed.
In May, Mr Stefanovic conducted interviews with dozens of Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya are living as refugees.
The interviews helped inform the State Department's findings that Myanmar's military engaged in attacks in Rakhine State that were “extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorising the population and driving out the Rohingya residents".
The first randomly selected survivor Mr Stefanovic interviewed described “no less than three significant massacres, one of which involved hundreds of bodies floating in a waterway”.
When Mr Stefanovic, a former homicide detective with Victoria Police, debriefed with his inquiry team after his first day on the ground in Bangladesh, his fellow investigators told similar stories.
“Often … it takes a while before the crimes of that extent emerge," he said. "But everyone had hit the ground running with a fairly horrendous account of what had occurred in Myanmar.”
“I had got to that point of my career where I was sort of a fairly cold, objective, dispassionate, detached… a cold bastard,” Mr Stefanovic said. Yet the accounts of the Rohingya moved him.
He said one story more than others had stayed with him. A man who fled from Myanmar in October 2017 described being forced by a military official to select a woman from a crowd of Rohingya villagers.
The man said she was then raped by several soldiers in front of horrified villagers. When a fellow villager protested, he was executed by a Tatmadaw commander.
“He was a broken man,” Mr Stefanovic recalls of the survivor.
The State Department's summary "factual" report describes a “well-planned and coordinated" military operation to terrorise the Rohingya. It documents the use of public gang rape as a military weapon, as well as the murder of toddlers. Some people were buried alive in a military campaign prompted by attacks by Rohingya insurgents in August 2017.
Mr Pompeo is now weighing whether to declare the acts a genocide, a move that would increase pressure on the international community to act but which might be resisted by Russia and China and be contrary to President Donald Trump’s desire for the US to step back from its role as a global watchdog.
Mr Stefanovic said the evidence that a genocide has occurred is compelling.
“There were mass killings, there were atrocities that were committed with a view to terrorising a population to force them out of the country and that all qualifies as genocide,” he said.
In August, a United Nations investigation described the “genocidal intent” underpinning the military’s campaign. The UN report called for six high-ranking military officials, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide.
Mr Stefanovic said he was speaking out about his work with the State Department – which usually communicates via senior diplomats and press releases – to urge Australia to respond more forcefully to the humanitarian catastrophe.
Australia must act
Australia’s newly appointed foreign affairs minister Marise Payne recently said the government was “considering its options, including targeted sanctions” in response to the UN findings.
Ms Payne is expected to meet Mr Pompeo this week and discuss the Myanmar report.
On Saturday, she told the UN General Assembly that Australia was deeply disturbed at the reports of atrocities and was “working with Myanmar and with ASEAN and regional partners ... to find long-term solutions to this complex crisis".
Mr Stefanovic said the release of the State Department report was cause for Australia to act, using its standing in the region to champion a peacekeeping force and a tribunal .
“Someone needs to get in there and intervene, provide stability to enable the return of the Rohingya into Myanmar [and] to set up methods to ensure they have got national recognition, they’ve got citizenship and that there’s some form of justice mechanism put in place.”
Mr Stefanovic also called for targeted sanctions of military officials and a review of the support given by Australia to the Tatmadaw, which in the last financial year reportedly included $400,000 for training.
“It needs to be definitely looked at with the view to being cut.”
Mr Stefanovic said resistance by the Russian and Chinese governments may stymie any US-led intervention and Australia may be more successful if it led efforts to form a regional coalition.
“This is where the Australian government can come in. Some sort of regional approach might be more palatable and much quicker to come to bear.”
“I think Australia could bring its experience from [the Solomon Islands], Bougainville and other places to help drive that.”
He is not hopeful that those responsible for genocidal acts in Myanmar will ever be fully held to account.
“You don’t dwell on it too much,” he said.
“I’ll do my work, assemble it, put it towards people who can develop the appropriate policies and appropriate global responses to these things and I’ll park it for a while and move on to the next [war crimes inquiry].
“I actually want my children when they grow up to understand what it is that I’ve done. I want them to understand what the nature of these horrific crimes are and what’s out there and how lucky they are to be in Australia where they don’t have to contend with horrific events like that.”
Nick McKenzie is a leading investigative journalist. He's won Australia's top journalism award, the Walkley, seven times and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.