The members of a new independent commission established by Myanmar's government to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state pledged on Thursday to conduct their investigation with impartiality and to submit a report on their findings to the country’s president in 12 months.
The Myanmar government established the four-person commission on July 30 to probe human rights violations that occurred during and after crackdowns on Rohingya Muslims by security forces in the northern part of the state in October 2016 and August 2017 that together caused roughly 800,000 members of the minority group to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The commission, which consists of two international experts and two Myanmar members, began its work on Wednesday, a day after they met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and government ministers.
Filipino former undersecretary of foreign affairs Rosario Manalo and Kenzo Oshima, Japan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, are the two foreigners on the panel, and lawyer Mya Thein and Aung Tun Thet, an economist and former U.N. official, are the two domestic experts.
“I will assure you that there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing of anybody, because we don’t achieve anything by that procedure,” Manalo said in response to a question about the panel’s impartiality at a press conference in the capital Naypyidaw on Thursday.
Though the commission has yet to determine how it will carry out the investigation, Oshima said that the members will visit internally displaced camps that house Rohingya in Rakhine state and meet with Rakhine authorities. He also said they have to decide if they will visit the sprawling camps in southeastern Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees live.
When asked whether the commission will be truly independent of interference by the Myanmar government and military in conducting the probe, Oshima said: “I hope that the Myanmar government trusts the integrity of the commissioners in choosing Rosario Manalo and myself as members of the commission with the confidence that the foreign members of the commission as well as the Myanmar commissioners will act with integrity, with confidence, with independence, and [with] impartiality.”
“So please rest assured that independence will be there, and as a foreign member I will do my best, of course, to make sure that our commission here is really independent as the title of the commission says,” he said.
The commission was created in response to international condemnation over the campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine, following deadly attacks on security outposts by the militant Muslim group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Though rights groups have compiled credible, detailed reports on the atrocities, Myanmar's government has largely denied its forces were responsible. Instead, the government has defended the military’s actions during what it calls “clearance operations” as a legitimate response to the ARSA attacks.
The U.N, United States, and rights groups have said that the attacks on the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, and some rights advocates have called for leaders of security forces to stand trial before the International Criminal Court.
Last week, Myanmar rejected a motion that the ICC be able to exercise jurisdiction over the country for the expulsion of the Rohingya, because it is not a party to the Rome Statute which established the international tribunal. The government also cited the formation of the new independent investigation commission as a reason why the ICC need not take up the issue.
‘Questions we have been asking’
The government has come under fire from Myanmar’s political parties and other domestic actors for including foreigners on the new panel, and from human rights organizations that have raised questions about its two Myanmar members, especially Aung Tun Thet, who in April told a newspaper in Bangladesh that Myanmar had "no intention of ethnic cleansing.”
Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that focuses on human rights education and advocacy programs, said Manalo, who chairs the inquiry commission, is a controversial figure.
The former Philippine diplomat was a member of parliament and the special representative of the Philippines to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
“She has a lot of experience, but her position is controversial because she sometimes protects the Philippine government while she is talking about human rights,” he said.
That government has been criticized for rights abuses under President Rodrigo Duterte for his murderous “war on drugs” and attacks on human rights advocates who have decried thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out as part of the anti-drugs campaign.
But Aung Myo Min also said it remains to be seen how deeply the commission will be allowed to investigate accounts of rights abuse in Rakhine state.
“The important thing is how much permission [from the government] does the commission have to investigate?” he asked. “How much security will the government provide for witnesses when they tell the commission about their experiences? These are the questions that we have been asking all the time.”
Attorney Kyi Myint questioned the ability of commission member Mya Thein, the former chairman of Myanmar’s Constitutional Tribunal, to be impartial. The tribunal is responsible for interpreting the country’s constitution drafted in 2008 by a military junta that enshrined its political power in the charter.
“He has a good heart, but he doesn’t have a progressive mind for democracy,” he said. “He has always done whatever military leaders have asked him to do his whole life.”
Previous panel submits report
Also on Thursday, a previous advisory commission that was formed to advise the Myanmar government on how to implement the recommendations on Rakhine state issued by an earlier panel chaired by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan submitted its final report to Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myat Aye, minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement.
The Annan commission had called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
The 10-member international board chaired by Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister of Thailand, lauded the progress made in Myanmar's implementation of the Annan’s commission’s recommendations, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
But it also acknowledged that further work was necessary concerning the repatriation and resettlement of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
In January, veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson resigned from the panel led by Surakiart, accusing it of conducting a “whitewash” of the Rohingya crisis and saying that Aung San Suu Kyi had demonstrated an “absence of moral leadership” over the problem.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.