YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Military activities carried out by Myanmar's powerful minister of home affairs when the country was under dictatorship could constitute war crimes, a new study charges, saying there is evidence that he and two other generals were responsible for the executions, torture and enslavement of civilians by troops during a large-scale offensive against ethnic rebels.
Human rights researchers at Harvard Law School said in the report released Friday they spent three years collecting information about the government's 2005-2006 counterinsurgency efforts in Myanmar's Karen state along the country's eastern border.
They said there was enough to justify the issuance of an International Criminal Court arrest warrants for Home Affairs Minister Ko Ko, who was head of the army's Southern Command during that offensive, and his two high-ranking colleagues.
The government responded by saying much of what happens during times of conflict is unavoidable and this is a time to look forward, not back.
"We are going through a democratic transition," said Nay Zin Latt, one of the president's political advisers and an ex-army officer. "Everyone should be encouraging the reform process rather than putting further obstacles along the way."
The Harvard findings come at an especially sensitive time, as a civilian government — which is still dominated by the military — that took power in 2011 grapples with a transition to full democracy after nearly five decades of military rule.
Though the legacy of oppression and brutality runs deep, the presence of some of the worst junta-era offenders in positions of power could raise questions as U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders attend an Asian summit meeting in Myanmar next week.
Ko Ko is now in command of internal security, overseeing the police force. His two colleagues at the time, Brig. Gen. Khin Zaw Oo and Brig. Gen. Maung Maung Aye, have also been promoted to positions of greater responsibility.
"Ko Ko oversaw egregious rights violations in eastern Myanmar," Matthew Bugher, global justice fellow at Harvard Law School and a principal author of the report told The Associated Press. "His prominent position in Myanmar's Cabinet calls into question the government's commitment to reform."
The investigation by the law school's International Human Rights Clinic covered offenses committed in Thandaung Township of Karen State.
Charges against the three men include "the war crimes of attacking civilians, displacing civilians, destroying or seizing the enemy's property, pillage, murder, execution without due process, torture, and outrages upon personal dignity, and the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer of a population, murder, enslavement, torture, and other inhumane acts," the report says.
Such charges are not new, but they have been raised in the context of those now serving in the government.
Myanmar has been engaged in bitter armed conflict for more than six decades with armed ethnic minority groups seeking greater autonomy.
"In some parts of the country, conflict remains and abuses continue," the report said. "The legacy of such violence and the accompanying insecurity it has instilled has yet to be adequately addressed. Until that time, Myanmar's transition will remain incomplete."
The case against Ko Ko and his colleagues is based on the concept of "command responsibility" — defined in international agreements — which holds commanders liable for the actions of their subordinates, even if the criminal activities did not originate from their direct orders.
The report alleges that "Southern Command battalions were frequently connected to the use of civilian forced labor during the Offensive, and were involved in killings, attacks on civilians, and the destruction of homes and civilian property."
"It is disturbing that the commanders who oversaw widespread attacks on civilians in eastern Myanmar have been subsequently promoted to prominent positions in the Myanmar government and military," said Bugher. "The military's practice of rewarding unlawful conduct has to end."
He said the researchers had discussed their findings with the human rights community and diplomats, and, eventually, with the Myanmar government and military.
Nay Zin Latt, the presidential adviser, said the charges were overblown.
"In times of conflict and war, there are incidents when violations such as grabbing porters happen unavoidably," he said. "Why don't they criticize the human rights violation committed by ISIS instead of digging into Myanmar's past?"