A new independent commission established by Myanmar’s government to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state began its probe in Maungdaw district on Friday, just over a year after a violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims by security forces drove more than 700,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government established the panel a month ago in response to mounting international condemnation over the brutal campaign, which included killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in northern Rakhine, following deadly attacks by a Muslim military group on Aug. 25, 2017.
Filipino former undersecretary of foreign affairs Rosario Manalo and Kenzo Oshima, Japan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, are the two foreign members of the panel, and lawyer Mya Thein and Aung Tun Thet, an economist and former U.N. official, are the two domestic experts.
The commissioners met with ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims from Nga Khu Ya, Shwezar, Pandaw Pyin, and Aung Bala villages in the morning, and with Rakhine state’s chief minister Nyi Pu at Sittwe Airport in the evening.
Soe Aung, Myanmar's deputy minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and members of the Rakhine state government accompanied the commissioners on their visit.
Security was tight at Sittwe Airport when the commissioners arrived, and state government officials refused to answer reporters’ questions about the panel.
Meeting with Hindus
The commissioners met with Hindus in Maungdaw and asked them about the killings of members of their community last year in Yebaw Kya village, said Ni Maul, a Hindu social worker and community leader.
Members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) detained about 100 people from several Hindu villages in Kha Maung Seik village tract, killed most of them, and dumped their bodies in mass graves on Aug. 25, 2017, the same day that the militant group carried out deadly attacks on 30 police outposts and an army facility in northern Rakhine, authorities say.
The militants also abducted eight Hindu women and eight children and took them to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, but they were later rescued and returned to Myanmar.
The commission members said they were sorry about the Hindus’ experiences, but said nothing more, Ni Maul said.
“They asked us how the terrorists took those Hindus [to Bangladesh] and how some of them had returned,” he said. “We told them the truth.”
The commissioners questioned the women who had been abducted by the militants, said Maung Hla, a Hindu who met with the panel.
“The commission members asked them about what they said to them [the militants], how they took them to Bangladesh, and how they treated these women,” he said. “And the women gave clear answers.”
“We don’t know how they will conduct their investigation,” he added.
“Although many ethnic people, including Hindus, were killed, nobody has determined the truth yet,” Maung Hla said. “The Muslims who killed an entire Hindu village are now [in a refugee camp] in Bangladesh, but nobody has arrested them. We can’t believe these Muslims anymore.”
Village visits nixed
The commissioners intended to visit Pandaw Pyin village, but they didn’t make it there, said Annawa, leader of the Muslim village where nearly all homes were burned down during the violence.
Maung Than Cho, an ethnic Mro from Gying Gyi village, told RFA that residents were told to prepare to meet with the commissioners to talk about members of the ethnic minority group who were killed by Muslims in August 2017.
“We prepared for it, but they were unable to visit our village,” he said.
The commissioners met State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and Vice-Senior General Soe Win, deputy commander-in-chief, in Naypyidaw on Thursday
The members have pledged to conduct their probe with impartiality and to submit a report on their findings to President Win Myint in 12 months.
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, and many observers have voiced low expectations for the new commission.
The panel’s visit to Maungdaw comes at the end of a tough week for the Myanmar government with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling on Wednesday for accountability for Myanmar’s “horrendous persecution” of the Rohingya in the brutal 2017 military campaign.
The day before, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, issued a damning report that called for Myanmar military leaders, including commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya.
On Monday, social media giant Facebook said it was removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account, and 52 Facebook pages linked to the Myanmar military “to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions.”
A government spokesman said the move could endanger a fragile civilian-military reconciliation in the country.
In the meantime, the military has announced that it will cooperate with with the new commission’s investigation.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.