An investigation commission established to probe allegations of rights abuses surrounding the ongoing Rakhine State military campaign held its inaugural meeting yesterday.
Formed last week amid growing international pressure for an independent inquiry, the commission has already drawn backlash for a perceived bias in its pick of members.
U Myint Swe, formerly chief minister of Yangon and chief of military security affairs under the military government, will lead the 13-member commission, whose members include former senior UN officials, members of the Human Rights Commission, MPs, senior police officers and former military officials, but only two female members and no Muslims.
The commission has been tasked with finding the causes of the recent deadly attacks on border guard posts, which were attributed to Muslim insurgents, and determining whether the military sweeps in response have been in line with the rule of law.
According to a statement released following the commission’s meeting yesterday the “members are committed to conducting [their] work in an open and transparent manner and in accordance with national and international norms”.
“The commission looks forward to collaborating with relevant national and local actors and individuals including affected communities to uncover factual information that will contribute to designing measures to avoid incidents and conflict in the future. In this regards, the commission will spare no effort in undertaking its responsibility,” the statement read.
According to a statement by the president, the commission has to establish a list of casualties and property damage and determine the truth or otherwise of allegations concerning the activities of the security forces, and make recommendations on the protection of human rights and the provision of humanitarian aid.
“We have to submit our report to the president within two months,” commission secretary U Zaw Myint Phay told The Myanmar Times on December 5.
He added that due to the “influence of the international community exaggerating the facts” it will be difficult to get the truth from local residents.
U Zaw Htay, spokesperson for the State Counsellor’s Office Information Committee, vouched for the independence of the commission, and said it has full authority to conduct its investigation and to brief the media.
Political analyst U Than Soe Naing told The Myanmar Times that the commission would face great difficulties in establishing the facts on the ground. “Whatever the composition of the commission, it will not get the true information because of the Rakhine historical context and the high levels of mistrust between the two communities” he said.
Journalists have been barred from northern Rakhine State, making rights groups’ allegations of abuses against the Rohingya and the government’s counter-claims impossible to verify. According to Human Rights Watch’s analysis of satellite images, thousands of structures in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships have been burned, while the International Organization for Migration said this week that more than 20,000 mostly stateless Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Scores have been killed and detained in the crackdown.
The Europe Union issued a statement on December 5 expressing concern about the recent escalation of violence in Myanmar, and welcoming the establishment of the commission.
“Its work must be objective and help prevent similar events in the future, including by ensuring accountability for all perpetrators of violence and hatred,” said the statement.
“As long as there is no access to the area, including by independent observers and the media, allegations and suspicions about the perpetration of severe human rights violations will continue. It remains vital that the government implement its initiatives to address the underlying causes of the situation in Rakhine State,” the statement added.
During a recent interview with Channel NewsAsia, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to suggest that the international community had played a role in aggravating the situation in Rakhine State. She said she “would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment”.
When asked about the new commission at press conference at the conclusion of his second tour of Myanmar, chair of the Rakhine State Advisory Commission Kofi Annan said it would be “unfair” to jump to any conclusions about the president’s new taskforce.
“I will wait for a report to make any judgement, and it might be helpful if you all did the same,” he said.