Rights activists and religious leaders on Wednesday cast deep doubt on whether a Myanmar military investigation team probing last week’s shooting deaths of civilians held in custody in troubled Rakhine state’s Kyauk Tan village will be impartial and render justice if human rights violations are found, and called for a panel of independent inspectors to be set up.
They have appealed to the Myanmar government to appoint independent inspectors to investigate the incident that left six people dead and eight wounded as they were being held in a school compound for interrogation about possible connections to the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed group fighting national forces for greater autonomy in the state.
Comprised of five military officers, the investigation team has been probing the incident since May 3, a day after the shootings at the village in Rathedaung township.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said only an independent probe of the shootings would uncover the truth.
“The Myanmar military concedes that they killed six villagers that they were holding in Rakhine state, but only a genuinely independent investigation will get to the bottom of what happened,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement issued Tuesday. “An independent and impartial investigation is needed to bring to justice anyone responsible for wrongdoing.”
“The killings in Kyauk Tan should not be the latest deaths of villagers in Myanmar that are not seriously investigated,” he said. “Governments concerned about the military’s atrocious record on accountability should press Myanmar’s authorities to independently uncover what happened and give the families of those killed both the answers and justice they deserve.”
HRW noted that under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and to hold those responsible to account, despite the country’s failure to do so in most cases where credible reports and evidence have pointed to unlawful killings by government forces in Rakhine state since late 2017.
Only one instance of conviction occurred in April 2018, when a military court sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for their roles in the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim boys and men in Rakhine’s Inn Din village.
The Kyauk Tan shootings came on the heels of another instance of deaths in military custody in April in Mrauk-U township’s Letka village, where three of 27 villagers detained on suspicion of supporting the AA died, raising suspicions of torture among their bereaved relatives and local lawmakers. The military denied the torture accusations and said the three had succumbed to other causes.
A ‘meaningless’ endeavor
Cheery Zahau, an ethnic Chin human rights and women’s rights activist, politician, and writer, said rights violations in Myanmar will not end as long as investigations are left to the organization committing alleged violations.
“It is meaningless that authorities who committed the human rights violations are forming a commission to investigate the case,” she said. “An independent and transparent commission should undertake the investigations.”
“If they are genuine about their intentions, they should transfer the task to an independent and trustworthy commission, even if it is not an international one,” she said.
Of the original 275 men and boys that government soldiers rounded up from several villages on April 30 to question about possible connections to the AA, a total of 209 have now been released, while the rest remain in custody.
Seven Buddhist abbots from Rathedaung and Rakhine’s capital Sittwe appealed to military authorities to free innocent detainees as soon as possible and provide medical treatment to those who are injured.
Buddhist monk Ashin Sandar Wara said the military would likely not make public information from the investigations if soldiers are found to have violated regulations.
“They will not publish information such as who will be charged and what they will be sentenced for in the newspapers,” he said. “I know they will conduct a perfunctory investigation and issue ambiguous announcements on punishments.”
“I’d like to appeal to the military to keep in mind that its job is to protect the lives and property of civilians.”
‘In line with the law’
Soldiers and eyewitnesses have presented different accounts of what happened in the school compound on around 2 a.m. on May 2.
The Myanmar military said its troops first fired warning shots into the air to disperse the group of detainees as they staged an attack during which they tried to grab soldiers’ guns, but had to shoot the men and boys as a last resort.
Eyewitnesses, however, have told RFA that soldiers opened fire on the sleeping detainees after a mentally ill man held with them began shouting and ran off.
Lieutenant General Sein Win, Myanmar’s minister of defense, told RFA in Naypyidaw on Tuesday that the investigation is being conducted according to law.
“We need to check if there were any mistakes made during the interrogations or if the forces were complying with military procedures,” he said. “The investigation process will be in line with the law.”
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the investigative team is collecting testimony from eyewitnesses.
“We will use these testimonies accordingly to deliver justice,” he said. “They will be submitted as evidence. Depending on the situation, we will decide whether to release them to the public or not.”
He told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday that soldiers found to have violated military regulations during the incident would be subject to punishment.
The online journal The Irrawaddy reported Wednesday that Zaw Min Tun said four of the remaining detainees confessed during interrogations to being AA members and that the military would pursue legal action against them. Two others are suspected of being associates.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.