A 25-member commission investigating deadly ethnic violence in Burma's Rakhine state is awaiting security clearance to travel to the troubled areas to get a first-hand look at the situation, the panel’s secretary said Thursday.
The plan to make the trip came as the mandate of the commission probing the June clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the western Burmese state was extended by the government of President Thein Sein under international pressure to determine the circumstances under which the violence occurred.
Kyaw Yin Hlaing, secretary of the commission, said that the panel is waiting for the situation to be safe enough for them to travel to Rakhine state, in which dozens were killed and tens of thousands were displaced by the unrest that threatened to disrupt the government's reforms.
“We already have permission to go wherever we want to. We are waiting now due to security concerns, and as soon as it is clear, we will go,” he said.
“We will go to almost all the conflict sites. We will meet and discuss with all parties concerned, including authorities, local leaders, and local NGOs,” Kyaw Yin Hlaing said.
The commission was announced by Thein Sein last week with plans to complete the findings by Sept. 17.
But its investigation period has been extended from one month to three, commission member and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party Chairman Aye Maung said Thursday.
Its findings are now expected to be submitted to the office of the president in mid-November, when it will recommend a solution to the long-simmering tensions that will allow the two ethnic groups to live in peace alongside one another.
It will also compile a list of those who died and the property that was destroyed during the weeks of fighting.
Chaired by Myo Myint, a retired general in charge of the country’s Religious Affairs Department, the commission was formed following growing international outcry over the government's response to the conflict and accusations by rights groups that the Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence, including attacks by security forces.
The commission counts religious leaders and leading dissidents among its members, such as church leader Reverend Kyaw Nyunt, prominent Muslim leader Haji Nyunt Maung Shein, 88 Generation democracy movement leader Ko Ko Gyi, and veteran journalist Maung Win Tha.
It also includes comedian and democracy activist Zarganar and leaders from ethnic political parties.
One Muslim resident of Kyauktaw township, where clashes flared anew this month when villages were razed, said he was concerned about the fairness of the commission because he claimed some of its members are not trusted by those on both sides of the conflict.
"We don't agree [with the commission] because the body is not free of those who have been influenced from the beginning," he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
He suggested the commission invite members of the public to send the panel their version of events.
"It would better if the commission’s chairman and its secretaries would publicly announce their contact information, such as their phone numbers and addresses, so that we can send our facts directly to them," he said.
He pointed to Aye Maung and Aye Thar Aung—two of the group’s Rakhine members—and leading dissident Ko Ko Gyi as members who would have preconceived biases against Rohingyas in their assessment of the conflict.
But Aye Thar Aung said that the group consists of respected individuals from various fields and backgrounds and that its decisions will not be made by one person or one faction in the commission.
"None of the members can do anything just as he wants. The report will be written after careful investigation based on all information gathered. This will be aimed for the interest of the country, and will not be for anyone’s individual benefit. We will all work for the good of all,” he said.
Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is also a member of the nationalist political group Myanmar Egress, said the commission includes experts on the tensions and would be objective in its assessments.
"We have experienced individuals … in this commission. I myself was in Buthitaung and Maungdaw two years ago and read about this issue then as well. I have interviewed concerned people on this issue occasionally, just because I am interested in it, without knowing I would be involved in this investigation commission,” he said.
“We know about the historical facts, however, what we have to do is to collect data and analyze it carefully, and then we will provide our policy recommendations on how to best resolve the problem,” he said.
The commission’s investigations will be conducted even as several townships remain under curfew.
The entire state has been under emergency rule since early June with a heavy army and police presence to main order as some groups defied curfews.
Courts in northern Arakan State have sentenced around 60 ethnic Rakhines to six months in prison for violating curfews, the exile Irrawaddy online journal said Thursday.
Around 800 people, including four members of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, have been arrested for violating the curfews, though only some of them have faced charges, Irrawaddy said.
The curfews, initially declared in six townships after the worst clashes in June, were later extended to three other townships earlier this month in the wake of a fresh outbreak of violence.
Burma does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though they have lived in the Southeast Asian country for generations.
The U.N. says some 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma and that the group is one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
On Sunday, about 50 ethnic Rakhines staged protests in the Burmese capital against U.N. aid for Rohingyas, saying the international community is biased toward the group.
International rights groups claim the government did little to stop the violence initially and then turned its security forces on the Rohingya with targeted killings, rapes, mass arrests, and torture.
Reported by Ingjin Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.