The rebel Arakan Army has released a video showing three Myanmar security officers captured in the war in Rakhine state appealing for talks to win their freedom, a move that has divided experts over whether displaying the captives violates international laws on prisoners of war.
Some observers saw the video release as a way to inform family members that the captives are still alive that also could prompt negotiations on a prisoner exchange. Others said making the captured men talk violated their privacy - if not Geneva Convention rules on the questioning of war captives.
The Arakan Army (AA) released a video on Sept. 19 in which the three POWs - a battalion commander, a captain, and a police captain - tell their family members not to worry about them and appeal to senior military commanders to secure their release via negotiations. The AA did not say when the interviews were recorded.
Major Thet Naing Oo, an army officer captured during combat in Kyauktaw township's Meewa village on March 10, says in the video that the AA has treated its captives well and not tortured them. He asks the Myanmar army to enter talks for their release and urges his family not to worry about him.
"There are some comrades, including myself, who were detained for various reasons, while on duty," he says. "Because we are all part of a national brotherhood, I'd like to appeal for our rescue by using the approach of negotiations between top leaders, without harming the civilians."
The AA has been engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces since late 2018 as the rebels fight for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in what they consider to be its historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast. The war has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured more than 640 while displacing more than 220,000 civilians.
Both the AA and Myanmar military have detained soldiers from each other's forces during the armed conflict as well as civilians suspected of supporting or aiding the enemy.
Another POW in the video, Captain Shane Htet Linn, also appealed for his release and said he had not surrendered to the AA.
"I want to appeal to the military and other leaders not to label me as traitor and give up on me," he says in the video. "I want them to have sympathy for me and take care of us."
He also expressed hope that he would see his elderly parents again and be able to take care of them.
Police officer Kyi Soe, who has been held by the AA for nearly 11 months, said on the video that he was captured while on duty.
"I want to appeal to [my superiors] not to abandon me, considering the fact that I have served in the position to which I was assigned," he said. "I want to appeal to my superiors to find a way for my release."
Video prompts appeals
AA soldiers detained Kyi Soe in late October 2019 near Yey Myat village in Buthidaung township as he was departing on a river ferry to Rakhine's capital Sittwe to report for his assignment to a police border outpost.
The AA has said that it is holding 17 members of the police force, including Kyi Soe, and more than 30 members of the Myanmar military, including Major Thet Naing Oo. The ethnic army said it has released 16 transportation department workers and two older Myanmar soldiers who were captured in January.
The airing of the video, which was seen by 1.7 million people on social media as of Wednesday, prompted appeals from relatives of other detainees who were not shown in the video.
Suang Thida, the mother of missing immigration officer Myo Swe Oo, said she hasn't received news about her son - her only relative - and that the government stopped paying his salary after December, when he was snatched by the AA with two coworkers from a boat on the Mayu River in Buthidaung township.
"I want to appeal to the AA to release my son on humanitarian grounds," said the woman, who lives in Hsi Hseng Town in Shan state, after contacting RFA hoping to get information about Myo Swe Oo.
Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun would not confirm whether the men in the video were government soldiers, but he said that that the military has not abandoned detainees held by the AA.
"With regards to the detained soldiers and government employees, I want to say to their family members that we are constantly working on military operations to get the latest information on them and secure their release," he said.
But he added that the military would not negotiate with the AA because of its status as a terrorist group - a label the government applied in March.
RFA could not independently confirm the identities and ranks of the men in the video or determine whether their comments were recorded under duress.
The AA said it respected the privacy rights and safety of the POWs and that it released the video to inform their families that the men are alive and healthy.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said all captives held by the rebel army are in good health and will be released if the Myanmar military frees AA soldiers that it is detaining.
An Arakan Army soldier participates in a drill at an undisclosed location in an undated photo. Credit: RFA Opportunity for negotiations?
Ann Thar Gyi, chairman of the local civil society organization Thingaha Kanlat Rakhita Aid Association, called on the AA to negotiate with Myanmar forces for the release of all soldiers, policemen, and immigration officers.
"We'd like to see them returned to their family members," he told RFA.
Min Lwin Oo, an attorney who used to work with the Asia Human Rights Commission, said he believes the AA issued the video to in an effort to spark negotiations with the Myamar military.
"I think they know they should not broadcast such videos on social media, but the chances for negotiations between the two armed forces are null," he told RFA.
"That's why they have issued the video - to initiate an opportunity for negotiations," he added. "They intend to create a situation where the United Nations or International Committee of the Red Cross will intervene and serve as a third party for negotiations."
On Wednesday, local rights experts and veteran journalists raised questions over whether the AA's release of a video of POWs violated the Geneva Convention, a series of international laws governing the treatment of wounded or captive military personnel during armed conflict.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education group based in Yangon, pointed out that Article 17 of the Geneva Convention, which pertains to the questioning of war captives, says POWs are only bound to give their surnames when questioned.
"Nothing else can be asked," he said. "Now, we have seen the interrogations on additional information from the POWs. This constitutes a violation of the Geneva Convention agreement."
Revealing the personal information of POWs could result in risks for their family members, coercing them into taking certain actions, even if the detained soldiers are safe, he said.
Protect the POWs
But former Myanmar information minister Ye Htut disagreed, arguing that international law does not prevent the release of video recordings of POWs in civil wars. He said he had seen similar recordings during armed conflicts in other countries.
"With regard to detained civilians captured in domestic armed conflicts, the Geneva Convention agreements required the armed forces not to violate their human rights," he said. "There are no rules preventing the broadcast of interviews of detained persons."
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, concurred with Ye Htut.
"I don't think it violates anything ethically," he said.
Rights activist Nickey Diamond from Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights said the issue is disputable given the stated intention of was to inform others about the well-being of the war captives, though the AA should have adhered to certain ethical principles.
"For the sake of their security and privacy, the faces of the POWs in the video should have been blurred," he said.
"It is good that the family members of these POWs got to learn that their loved ones are still alive, but whether it is appropriate or not under the international law still needs to be debated," Diamond said.
Earlier this month, Fortify Rights obtained an AA video with the recorded confessions of two Myanmar privates who admitted to taking part in a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state in 2017 that included torture, mass rape, indiscriminate killings, and arson.
The soldiers had deserted the government army and contacted the AA for assistance. They later showed up on the Bangladesh border and asked authorities for help, but were turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands.
The ICC, which tries individuals, in November authorized an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers against the Rohingya.
RFA did not see the video interviews and could not independently verify the soldiers' accounts.
Reported and translated by RFA's Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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