Myanmar's military clearance operations in northern Rakhine State are being carried out “lawfully”, the investigation commission led by Vice President Myint Swe concluded after wrapping up a three-day field visit to Maundgaw. The announcement comes as Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the military of complicity in the burning of villages, an accusation the commission denies.
Secretary of the investigation commissinon U Zaw Myint Phay told The Myanmar Times it would be necessary to collect more facts before submitting a report and making the findings public.
“We plan to visit the Maungdaw area [another two or three] times,” he said, adding that it wasn’t clear when these trips would take place, and that the 13-member taskforce would need time to analyse the data already collected.
“It is too early to comment further on this investigation,” he said.
The commission has been charged with identifying the root cause of a series of lethal attacks on border guard posts beginning on October 9, as well as probing the veracity of subsequent grave rights abuse allegations. The area has been under a near-total lockdown during the ongoing military “sweeps”, while at least 90 people have been killed and around 27,000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh by the UN’s count.
In a statement released on December 14, the commission said there had been no attacks or burnings since November 22.
According to the commission’s statement, Muslim villagers requested that those arrested for questioning be released to their families if they have not been formally charged. Some 48 have been released so far, with the commission reportedly set to cooperate with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Rakhine State government to establish the guilt or innocence of the hundreds remaining in detention.
Much of the statement revolved around refuting allegations made in a December 10 article published by The Guardian, in which a woman who had fled to Bangladesh from Kyet Yoe Pyin village said seven of her eight children had been killed by soldiers, that she and two of her daughters were raped, and that her husband had also been killed.
According to the statement from the commission, villagers from Kyet Yoe Pyin said “no incidents of this kind occurred in their village and said they have never seen or heard of [the woman]”.
The commission’s statement said residents of Ngakura village pointed the finger at outsiders for an arson attack on the local bazaar.
Earlier this week, US-based Human Rights Watch released new satellite images that they say show 1500 buildings razed in the villages of Kyet Yoe Pyin, Dar Gyi Zaw and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son.
HRW said that collected testimony, along with image analysis, places responsibility for the burnings “squarely” with security forces, and was “consistent with military forces advancing westward rather than militants or local residents haphazardly setting fires”.
“HRW documented systematic building destruction in villages on three occasions after government forces reportedly came under attack in the area, suggesting a reprisal element to the arson,” the HRW report read.
These villages were not addressed directly in the commission’s statement, but when asked about the report’s findings, U Zaw Myint Phay said he had not seen evidence of fire damage matching the extent to which the international community has been claiming.
“There is an exaggeration which is the result of wrong news sources. It could not be hidden if those amounts of rapes and burned [building] cases had really happened,” he said.
President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment about the report.