A joint committee overseeing the drafting process of the framework for political dialogue in Myanmar on Monday suspended regional-level discussions by two ethnic minority groups in the run-up to the second meeting of nationwide peace talks scheduled for the end of February.
The Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), headed by State Counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has put on hold regional-level discussions about policies regarding national-level talks planned by the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and the Chin National Front (CNF) in Chin state in western Myanmar before the 21st-Century Panglong Conference on Feb. 28.
The UPDJC, which is holding a two-day meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, is composed of ethnic armed groups that have signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the government, representatives from political parties and the central government, and military officers.
The UPDJC did not give a reason for suspending regional-level talks in Rakhine and Chin state, while other ethnic minority parties that have signed the NCA have been permitted to hold them in their respective regions in preparation for the national-level conference later this month, said presidential spokesman Zaw Htay.
“It’s not that there wasn’t any solid reason [for the decision],” he said. “We are not saying they cannot do it. Of course, the talks will take place sooner or later.”
The ALP and CNF are both signatories to the NCA.
Kachin political parties in Myanmar’s northernmost state have held discussions to prepare for the next round of the Panglong Conference, but the UPDJC has not recognized their preparatory meetings, and the groups will not be able to submit their meeting results to the peace conference, Eleven Myanmar media group reported on Monday.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the state’s major parties and the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has not signed the NCA and is not officially allowed to hold talks, the report said.
The KIA has been engaged in recent skirmishes with the government army in neighboring northern Shan state.
Who will attend?
The UPDJC urged those in attendance at the current meeting to do what they can to ensure that ethnic militias that have not signed the NCA attend the Feb. 28 conference.
It is not yet clear whether groups that did not sign the NCA will be invited to attend.
About 700 delegates will attend the second session of the of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference to work out a peace plan for the nation to end decades of civil wars between the military and ethnic militias.
Delegates who attended the first session at the end of August and beginning of September 2016 agreed to hold the national-level talks between sessions of the Panglong Conference in order to consider what various ethnic groups and political parties wanted.
Both Rakhine and Chin states have been scenes of recent volatility. Security forces moved into northern Rakhine state in October 2016 after nine border guards were attacked and killed in raids by Rohingya militants.
Deadly clashes between army troops and groups of armed men ensued in November. The crackdown has left hundreds dead by some estimates and forced more than 66,000 Rohingya Muslims who live in the region to flee, mostly to neighboring Bangladesh where they have accused security forces of murder, toture, rape, and arson.
Renewed clashes between the government army and Arakan Army (AA) took place last December in Paletwa township, Chin State, which sits on the border with Rakhine state. The fighting displaced hundreds of residents.
HRW calls for action
On Sunday, New York-based human Rights Watch issued a call for the Myanmar government to endorse an independent, international investigation into alleged human rights abuses in northern Rakhine, including reports of rape and sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.
The group, which documented cases of rape from interviews it conducted with Rohingya survivors and witnesses in Bangladesh, also called for security forces involved in the violence to be punished.
“These horrific acts on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, senior emergencies researcher at HRW.
“Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes if they did not do everything in their power to stop them or punish those involved,” she said.
The group’s statement comes two days after the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) issued a report confirming attacks of rape and sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls based on interviews it conducted, and said that abuses committed against the minority by security forces indicate “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”
Rights groups have blasted a national-level commission investigating the violence, which said in an interim report issued in January that it had found no cases of genocide or religious persecution of Rohingya Muslims living in the region.
The commission also said that its interviews of local villagers and women had yielded insufficient evidence of rape to take legal action, though its investigations into accusations of arson, torture, and illegal arrests were still under way.
Commission inspects jails
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s independent National Human Rights Commission inspected jails and prisons in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe on Monday about two weeks after a U.N. human rights envoy visited the state.
During a 12-day visit, Yanghee Lee visited violence-affected areas in northern Rakhine state, the prison in Buthidaung township, Sittwe prison, and internally displaced persons camps where Rohingya live. She will deliver a report on her findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.
The members of the commission found that improvements have been made in Sittwe Prison and other jails in Rakhine state according to human rights guidelines, a member of the body said.
“We noticed there were still minor violations at the prisons we inspected,” commission member Yu Lwin Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday after his visit to Sittwe. “The toilets in Sittwe prison are not as clean as they should be, and some of the plastic bedsheets are torn. Apart from that, we didn’t find any major human rights violations.”
Regular inspections by officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had resulted in the improvements, he said.
Commission members also inspected courtrooms and the general hospital in Sittwe and visited Ponnagyun, a township of Sittwe district, Yu Lwin said.
The Commission has drawn up a working plan to meet the minimum standards in prisons prescribed by the U.N. and are on an inspection tour of various prisons, he said.
No Rohingya support from Cambodia
The crisis in Rakhine has prompted government leaders of some member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to condemn violence against the Rohingya and increased pressure on Myanmar to stop it, though the members of the regional body have long agreed to a policy of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.
Malaysia and Indonesia—both Muslim-majority countries—have sent ships with food and other essentials to Rakhine state.
But Cambodia is not among those criticizing Myanmar. Following a meeting with Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said his country would refrain from intervening in the Rohingya crisis.
Hun Sen also said the issue was an internal matter, and that the ASEAN charter bans members from intervening in each other’s internal affairs.
“The issue is purely that of Burma’s,” said Cambodia government spokesman Phay Siphan, using the former name of Myanmar. “It falls within the sovereignty of Burma. We shall respect that.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by Sel San of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.