United Nations investigators on Monday called for an international probe and prosecution of Myanmar's army chief and five other top military commanders for genocide against the country's Rohingya minority.
Some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown in August last year on insurgents amid accounts of arson, murder and rape at the hands of soldiers and vigilante mobs in the mainly Buddhist country.
Myanmar has vehemently denied allegations of ethnic cleansing, insisting it was responding to attacks by Rohingya rebels.
But on Monday, a UN-backed fact-finding mission into violations in Myanmar said the country's "top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in the north of Rakhine State."
- 'Grossly disproportionate' -
They should also be investigated and prosecuted for "crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States," it said, insisting that the army tactics had been "consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats."
The mission, which was created by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017, concluded in a report that "there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) chain of command."
"The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts," the report said.
The investigators named Min Aung Hlaing and five other top military commanders, adding that a longer list of names could be shared with "any competent and credible body pursuing accountability in line with international norms and standards."
- Suu Kyi also criticized -
Criticism was also directed at Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been the target of global vitriol for a perceived failure to stand up for the stateless minority.
The report found that she had "not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events."
While acknowledging that she and other civilian authorities had little influence on military actions, it said that they "through their acts and omissions ... have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes."
Myanmar never permitted the UN investigators access to the country, but they said that in the course of their investigation they had interviewed 857 victims and eyewitnesses, and had used satellite imagery and authenticated documents, photographs and videos as a basis to reach their conclusions.
The report detailed a horrifying list of atrocities committed against the Rohingya, including murder, enforced disappearance, torture, as well as rape and other sexual violence "perpetrated on a massive scale."
Information collected by the investigators suggested that an estimate by the Doctors Without Borders charity that up to 10,000 Rohingya had been killed in the 2017 crackdown was "conservative", the report said.
- Rape as war tactic -
They also found that soldiers had carried out "large-scale gang rape", sometimes of as many as 40 girls and women at once, in at least 10 Rakhine villages.
"The scale, brutality and systematic nature of these violations indicate that rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorise or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war," the report said.
Warning that "impunity is deeply entrenched in Myanmar's political and legal system," the investigators insisted the only chance of obtaining accountability was through the international justice system.
They called on the UN Security Council to refer the Myanmar situation to the International Criminal Court, or for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to be created.
They also recommended an arms embargo and "targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible."
- Spreading hate on Facebook -
The investigators also highlighted the role Facebook had played, describing it as "a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate".
The social media company plays an outsized role in a country that has only recently come online and boasts 18 million accounts among the population of around 50 million people.
"Although improved in recent months, Facebook's response has been slow and ineffective," the report said, calling for an independent investigation of the extent to which posts and messages on the platform had "led to real-world discrimination and violence".