About 70 ethnic Rakhines protested outside the Myanmar embassy in Tokyo on Monday, calling on State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to release a Rakhine nationalist leader and a social activist arrested earlier this year and charged with treason.
The country’s de facto leader has been in Japan since Oct. 5 to attend a Mekong-Japan Summit on Tuesday and to drum up Japanese investment for Myanmar at a time when much of the international community has heavily condemned her and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government over the handling of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state.
The demonstration, organized by the Arakan Youth Union (AYU-Japan), demanded that the Myanmar government immediately release Rakhine politician Aye Maung and author and activist Wai Han Aung, who were arrested in January and charged under the High Treason Law and the Unlawful Associations Act.
The pair had delivered speeches calling for revolt against Myanmar’s ethnic majority Bamar-led local government after a Jan. 16 clash between police and thousands of members of the Rakhine minority group left seven protesters dead and 13 injured.
The protesters in Tokyo also called for the government to take no further action against demonstrators who have completed their jail time for participating in rally that turned violent in the Rakhine town of Mrauk-U; freedom of movement for Rakhine people throughout Myanmar; the cleanup of the polluted Thanzit River in the town of Kyaukphyu; and the release of all Rakhine political prisoners, according to a report by the online journal The Irrawaddy.
“We are protesting today because we are unhappy with the action of bringing new lawsuits against those who have completed their sentences for participating in a spontaneous demonstration in Mrauk-U, which was brutally suppressed by police,” said protest leader Maung Aye, who is also head of the Arakan Social Association.
“We are not rabble-rousers; we’re just trying to tell our government what we want it to know,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We have informed Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which is a civilian government, about what we want. The democratic Japanese government invited this NLD civilian government, and it gave us permission to protest against the NLD government.”
Maung Tun Wai, a Myanmar national who works in Tokyo and who observed the protest, said that Japanese police stopped him and others from taking photos of the demonstration.
“The Japanese police had also warned that they would arrest and detain people who protested at the venue of the Mekong-Japan Summit tomorrow,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
‘We wish to be very open’
The protest occurred the same day that Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to increase transparency over the government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis while speaking to Japanese business leaders about foreign investment in Myanmar, Agence France-Press reported.
“I’m ready to acknowledge that we have challenges to face, particularly with regard to the Rakhine and with the struggles we have on the peace front,” she was quoted as saying during a speech. “We are not hiding this fact from our friends.”
The United Nations and others have accused Myanmar’s military of genocide and ethnic cleansing by waging a campaign of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017, during which thousands were killed and about 720,000 fled to Bangladesh.
“We understand that peace, reconciliation, harmony, stability, rule of law, human rights — all these have to be taken into consideration when we are looking for more investment, for greater economic opportunities,” Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted as saying.
“We wish to be very open and transparent to our friends,” she said.
During Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Japan, seven Rohingya who were deported by India arrived Monday in the Rakhine town of Kyauktaw, where the state government returned them to their homes in Zayywa and Hsinowe Pauktaw Muslim villages, said Muslim community leader Maung Thein.
The men, who are 19 to 25 years old, had been detained for immigration offenses in Silchar jail in northeast’s India’s Assam state since 2012, he said.
Indian and Myanmar security officials exchanged documents before the men were handed over on Oct. 4 at the Moreh border crossing in northeastern India’s Manipur state, he said.
“Kyauktaw township’s immigration officer took these seven men by car and returned them to their parents,” Maung Thain told RFA. “They are now safely at their parents’ homes.”
The U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) criticized India on Friday for deporting the Rohingya men amid warnings that they could face persecution back home, and expressed concern for their safety, AFP reported.
Myanmar refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” because it views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminates against them by denying them citizenship and basic rights. Rohingya have been driven from Rakhine during previous crackdowns and bouts of communal violence such as one in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
UNHCR also noted that the men had been denied access to a lawyer and not given a chance to be processed for asylum while in India, which views the Rohingya as a security threat because of information connecting them to terrorist groups, the AFP report said.
In 2017, the Indian government ordered that all the roughly 40,000 Rohingya in the country be deported.
‘Big problems again’
Some Rakhine state residents expressed concern over the Indian government’s plan to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.
Aung Mya Kyaw, a resident of Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, told RFA that there would be more problems in the beleaguered state if India returns Muslims who did not previously live in the region.
“If Bengalis are sent to Rakhine whenever they are arrested in other places, then that’s not fair,” he said. “They should be checked very carefully to determine whether they really lived in Rakhine or not before they are sent here.”
“If there are some among them who didn’t actually live in the region, then there will be more problems,” he said.
Another Sittwe resident, Than Tun, agreed.
“If they haven’t lived in Rakhine but are sent to Rakhine because they are Bengalis, there will be big problems again in the region,” he told RFA.
“Myanmar has accepted seven of them from India now,” he said. “If someone or some organizations say that Myanmar has to accept the rest of the 700,000 as well, it will be really dangerous for our country.”
Citing a U.N. fact-finding commission that in late August accused the Myanmar military of genocide and called for the prosecution of top commanders for the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya, Tun Khin, chairman of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said the seven men should not have been sent back to Myanmar, and charged that Muslims are still being killed.
“India, which is a democratic country, shouldn’t send Rohingya back to Myanmar as long as the genocide hasn’t ended,” he said, adding that by doing so, the country has violated the international legal principle of refoulement, or returning refugees to a place where they face danger.
India denies that it has broken any law by sending back the refugees.
Independent commission meets
Meanwhile, the four members of an independent commission set up by Myanmar’s government in July to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state held their third meeting on Oct. 5-7, during which they discussed the need for external experts in information and communication, and legal, forensic, and criminal investigation to assist them in their probe.
The commission met with Myanmar Vice President Myint Swe and other officials involved in a previous investigative commission on Maungdaw district — the nexus of the 2017 crackdown in Rakhine state — according to a statement issued Sunday by the panel.
They also discussed the government’s efforts to prepare for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh.
The commission will now begin to gather and analyze information and evidence by setting up a subcommittee, the statement said.
Its fourth meeting is scheduled for December.
RFA contacted commission member Aung Tun Thet for comment, but he refused to answer questions.
Maung Maung Ohn, former chief minister of Rakhine state, said he wants the commission to investigate the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Muslim militant group that carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in August 2017, which sparked the crackdown.
“The international community has blamed only Myanmar’s security force organizations, such as the police, military, and security guards [for the violence],” he said. “I want the inquiry commission to investigate both sides.”
“Please don’t hide what ARSA and the terrorists did,” he said. “All problems occurred because of the ARSA terrorists’ attacks on Myanmar police stations.”
Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker for the Arakan National Party in Rakhine state, said the military may not cooperate with the commission.
“The violence and problems occurred only after ARSA’s terrorist attacks on the police stations in Rakhine,” he told RFA. “It is certain that the commission will investigate the government army and security guards. But I don’t know whether the military will work with the commission or not. If not, then the commission will be only for show in the eyes of the international community.”
The members of the commission — Filipino former undersecretary of foreign affairs Rosario Manalo, former Japanese ambassador to the U.N. and Kenzo Oshima, Myanmar lawyer Mya Thein, and Myanmar economist and former U.N. official Aung Tun Thet — have pledged to conduct their probe with impartiality and to submit a report on their findings to President Win Myint next year.
Previous attempts by Myanmar to investigate the military campaign against Rohingya largely exonerated the country’s army and were dismissed as a whitewash by Rohingya groups and human rights experts. As a result, many observers have voiced low expectations for the new commission.
UN agencies in Rakhine
As the commission began its third meeting on Oct. 5, the UNHCR and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said they had returned to northern Rakhine to begin a second phase of assessments in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships, where the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya and a smaller-scale one in 2016 took place.
The two U.N. agencies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Myanmar in June to work with the government to facilitate the return and reintegration some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled after both campaigns.
“UNHCR and UNDP remain committed to the implementation of the MoU, and to supporting the government of Myanmar’s efforts to find comprehensive and durable solutions to the crisis in Rakhine state,” said a UNHCR statement issued Oct. 5.
“The Myanmar government’s leadership in the implementation of this agreement is critical to creating conditions conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees,” it said.
The U.N. agencies wrapped up their first assessments at 26 locations in northern Rakhine in September.
Reported by Min Thein Aung, Khin Khin Ei, and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.