An investigative team formed by the Myanmar government to probe the shooting death of a local World Health Organization worker in volatile Rakhine state last month has begun its probe, local lawmakers said, but witnesses say they are afraid, and rights activists say they believe the government will use the process to blame its foe, the Arakan Army.
Unknown gunmen fired on a U.N.-marked vehicle driven by local WHO employee, Pyae Sone Win Maung, and Myanmar health department worker Aung Myo Oo as they transported COVID-19 test samples from the conflict zone to Yangon on April 20.
It is still not know whether the Myanmar military or the rebel Arakan Army (AA) was behind the shooting in Minbya township, though both sides have blamed the other for the ambush that killed Pyae Sone Win Muang and injured Aung Myo Oo.
The investigative team began their work on Wednesday in Rakhine's capital Sittwe.
“We can say they have started their investigative work since they are in Rakhine state,” state lawmaker Hla Thein Aung from Minbya township told RFA on Thursday. “They have met with members of the state government. They also have met with the state parliament speaker.
“The speaker suggested that they meet with persons concerned on the ground,” he added.
State lawmakers also recommended that the investigative committee take measures to protect the safety of witnesses to the shooting.
“As far as we know, the witnesses are scared of them,” said Aung Win, a state lawmaker who represents Rakhine's Myebon township. “They should show that they can protect the witnesses for whatever testimony they provide.”
“Both military troops and the AA fired the gunshots, so it’s difficult to conclude who was responsible for the shooting,” he said. “But we’ve got the witnesses, so it is essential to give them protection from possible danger on account of whatever information they provide.”
Dr. Aung Thurein, a member of the investigative committee, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he was not ready to answer media questions.
Myanmar President Office's spokesman Zaw Htay told a press conference on May 1 that an investigation would be conducted to satisfy the international community because an employee from an international organization had been killed.
He also said that the probe would confirm that the AA was responsible for the attack.
Meetings are ‘superficial’
Aung Myo Min, director of the human rights education group Equality Myanmar, said Zaw Htay’s comments blaming the AA could undermine the objectivity of the investigative committee.
“That the spokesman of the President’s Office accused the AA is irresponsible,” he told RFA. “He said the committee is investigating the incident only to alleviate international pressure.”
“This statement could affect the objectivity of the committee,” he said. “It suggests that the committee’s work will be focused on finding proof that the AA is responsible, so it will limit its efforts to deliver justice and to determine the real parties responsible for the attack, depending on the situation on the ground.”
Nearly 300 local domestic groups issued a statement on April 23 requesting that the government form an independent and objective committee to investigate the deadly incident.
Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, one of the organizations that appealed for justice, said it is not yet known whether the investigative committee members will meet with Myanmar and Arakan soldiers with regard to the shooting, but suggested that this would not affect the outcome of the probe.
“They should have the authority to meet all the witnesses on the ground and all the parties involved in the incident to accurately assess what happened,” he told RFA.
“The meetings with members of the state parliament and state government are just superficial,” he added. “We want to know if the committee will have an opportunity to meet with troops from both sides. [But] if they cannot, it won’t make any difference.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA on May 1 that the rebel force, which is fighting Myanmar troops for greater autonomy for the Rakhine people in the state, would not cooperate with the investigative committee, but would work only with an independent, international probe.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that soldiers will cooperate with the investigation.
“The military will cooperate with the investigative committee formed by the President’s Office and will help it conduct the investigation on the ground,” he said. “We believe it will produce objective findings.”
Myanmar has launched a series of investigations of military misdeeds, but none have produced results judged meaningful by victims or human rights experts.
"The lack of independence of Myanmar’s judges, as well as the current constitutional and legal framework that prevents the civilian authorities from holding the military or its members accountable for human rights violations, significantly dim the prospects for any credible justice mechanism in Myanmar,” Human Rights Watch said in a December 2019 analysis.
ICJ compliance report
Myanmar is scheduled, meanwhile, to submit its first compliance report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) next week, a spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday, though he did not reveal the contents of the document.
The country faces a trial on genocide charges at the international tribunal for the alleged military-led expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh amid a brutal crackdown on Muslim communities in northern Rakhine state beginning in August 2017. Myanmar has denied the genocide charges, largely without addressing the evidence or specific accusations.
In January, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to implement provisional measures to protect the Rohingya from genocide, preserve evidence of alleged crimes that could be used in later hearings, and report on its compliance with the measures until the court issued a final decision on the case.
The first report is due by May 23, with follow-up reports required every six months until the ICJ issues a final ruling.
“I cannot say much,” Chan Aye, director-general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s International Organizations and Economic Department, told RFA. “The only thing I can say is that we are going to submit the report before that date. We will submit it on time.”
The Myanmar military, meanwhile, is conducting a court-martial of soldiers accused of killing Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine’s Gu Dar Pyin village in August 2017, as recommended in the report of the Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) that the Myanmar government set up to probe the crackdown.
“Some of our work is related to the ICOE report’s suggestions,” Chan Aye said. “The government formed the ICOE before the issues got to the ICJ.”
“Both the Office of the Attorney General and the military are working to fulfill the ICOE’s suggestions,” he added.
Khon Ja, coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, said she has not seen any progress with human rights for the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjected to systematic discrimination.
“So far, I haven’t seen any progress,” she told RFA. “The international pressure could relieve some problems for the Rohingya.”
“Violations are still rampant in Rakhine and in southern Chin state, as we have seen,” she said, referring to violence targeting civilians amid the armed conflict between Myanmar troops and the AA.
“These crimes may not account for genocide, but they may account for war crimes,” Khon Ja added. “Many rights violations are occurring,”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.