Myanmar’s lower house of parliament rejected a proposal by opposition lawmakers on Monday to include only domestic experts on the government’s new three-member independent inquiry commission that will investigate human rights violations that occurred during a crackdown by security forces in Rakhine state.
The crackdown in response to deadly attacks by a Muslim militant group in August 2017 included widespread atrocities against Rohingya Muslims and drove nearly 700,000 members of the ethnic minority group across the border to Bangladesh.
The civilian government under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party issued a statement on May 31 saying that the commission would include one international representative and that it would be assisted by domestic and international legal and technical experts.
Lower house lawmakers voted 251 to 138 not to approve the proposal submitted by an opposition MP from the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Twenty-one members of parliament, including six military lawmakers, discussed the proposal submitted by legislator Sai Kyaw Moe on June 6.
Khin Maung Tin, deputy minister of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, answered questions after the session and asked the house speaker not to approve the proposal.
The rejection came despite arguments by lawmakers from the USDP, the Arakan National Party (ANP), and the national military that having a foreigner on the commission could be detrimental to the country’s sovereignty.
“According to the President Office’s announcement, the inquiry commission will have one foreign expert, and international legal and technical experts will support the commission,” said Colonel Khin Maung Cho, a military MP. “This means that more than one foreigner will be involved in the commission.”
“It falls under the nation’s sovereignty to decide if Myanmar citizens are found guilty of committing some crime,” he said. “If a foreigner is appointed to the commission to decide this kind of issue, it means that he will be given the authority to decide [the limits of] the nation’s sovereignty.”
Fall ‘into a trap’
Oo Hla Saw, an ANP lawmaker from the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, said that those who supported the proposal were concerned that a foreigner on the commission could complicate the situation.
He said the international community is now trying to set the agenda in Myanmar, as with calls for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, others in the government, and military leaders to appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands, to answer for what the United Nations and United States say was a campaign of ethnic cleansing during the crackdown in Rakhine.
Opposition lawmakers are worried that Myanmar will fall “into a trap” because it remains unknown who the foreign member of the commission will be, Oo Hla Saw said.
“We are really worried about entrusting a foreigner to handle this major issue,” he said. “We are worried about whether the problem will only get bigger.”
Lieutenant General Thaung Aye, a former USDP lawmaker, cautioned that the formation of the commission could harm the military.
“We have to see how the government will form this commission,” he said. “If the method of forming this commission is not in accordance with the constitution or it infringes upon the rights of the military, then the government will have a confrontation with the military.”
NLD lawmakers said they want a foreign expert on the commission in order to gain trust from the international community, which has repeatedly rejected Myanmar’s denials that security forces committed atrocities in Rakhine state and has criticized Aung San Suu Kyi administration for failing to take action when presented with credible evidence that abuses occurred.
The government maintains that its “security operation” was a legitimate response to "terrorist attacks" by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
“I would like to request the house speaker not to approve the proposal because it is our chance to show the world that we responded to the terrorists because they attacked government police stations, and the government did everything according to law and didn’t break any rules or regulations,” said NLD lawmaker Lin Kyaw during the discussion in parliament.
“After that, our country’s future will get better,” he said.
Refugees wash ashore
Meanwhile, authorities in Rakhine state are investigating a refugee boat from Bangladesh with more than 100 Rohingya aboard that washed ashore at Angumaw beach in northern Rakhine’s Rathedaung township amid bad weather on Sunday night, a local administrator said.
Residents of Hsin Pike village spotted the Rohingya as they walked along the shore after their boat was wrecked, said Maung Than Mya, administrator of nearby Aung Bala village.
“We found about 100 Muslims — 34 men, 56 women, and 11 children — between Aung Bala and Hsin Pike villages,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“They said that some of them were going to Malaysia,” he said.
Border guards are questioning two of the Muslims who speak the Arakan language, Maung Than Mya said.
Authorities sent the Rohingya to Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine, he said.
RFA was unable to reach Rakhine state Secretary Tin Maung Swe for comment.
First monsoon casualty
Massive displacement camps housing more than one million Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh have been hit by the start of annual monsoon rains which have caused some flooding and landslides.
A landslide at the Kutupalong refugee settlement caused a mud wall to collapse on a makeshift shelter, killing a three-year-old boy who became the first casualty of the severe storms, Agence France-Presse reported Monday, citing a local police chief.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) warned in March that more than 150,000 of the roughly 600,000 residents of Kutupalong — the world’s largest refugee camp — are at risk from flooding or landslides caused by monsoonal rains expected to peak in July and August.
In recent months, the U.N. refugee agency, NGOs, and the Bangladeshi government have scrambled to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in settlements in Cox’s Bazar district to higher ground.
On June 6, the Myanmar government signed an agreement with the UNHCR and the United Nations Development Programme to assist with the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the overcrowded displacement camps.
The U.N. agencies will help with the voluntary return and reintegration of displaced Rohingya, assess conditions in Rakhine state for those who are contemplating returns, and support programs that benefit all communities in the multiethnic state.
The statement referred to “displaced persons” and not the Rohingya by name because Myanmar does not include the group as one of the country’s official ethnic groups under the 1982 Citizenship Law. Instead, the government refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” because it considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Last broadcast on DVB network
In a related development, RFA’s Myanmar Service aired its last original TV broadcast on the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) network on Myanmar’s MRTV channel on Monday evening local time. RFA’s TV programming had been available on the network since October 2017.
The Myanmar government had recently informed DVB that it could no longer carry RFA’s programming if broadcasters continued to use the word “Rohingya.”
“Radio Free Asia will not compromise its code of journalistic ethics, which prohibits the use of slurs against ethnic minority groups,” RFA president Libby Liu said in a statement issued Monday.
“RFA will continue to refer to the Rohingya as the ‘Rohingya’ in our reports,” she said. “Use of other terms, even those that fall short of being derogatory, would be inaccurate and disingenuous to both our product and our audience.”
“By forbidding the use of the word ‘Rohingya,’ Myanmar’s government is taking an Orwellian step in seeking to erase the identity of a people whose existence it would like to deny,” Liu said. “RFA will continue to provide audiences in Myanmar with access to trustworthy, reliable journalism, particularly when reporting on issues that local and state-controlled media ignores and suppresses.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.