Local officials are blocking the inquiries of an official commission established to probe ethnic violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state and may prevent it from meeting a deadline to submit its findings to the country’s president next month, according to an investigator.
The commission, which includes members from a variety of ethnic, religious and professional backgrounds, was formed after violence between Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in June left more than 80 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of others.
President Thein Sein had set up the commission in response to international criticism over the government’s handling of the clashes. Rights groups say the minority Rohingya group bore the brunt of action by Burmese security forces. No Rohingyas are part of the investigating team.
But Maung Thura "Zarganar," a popular comedian and former political prisoner who is part of the commission, said that months after the violence, community members “from all sides” in Rakhine had been refusing to cooperate, and that the inquiry might not be completed by next month’s deadline.
“At some point, things have become tougher as we do not have enough cooperation from all sides. For example the local ethnic Rakhine, Muslim community, government offices, and even the members of parliament have become increasingly less willing to participate,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
“I don't know the real reason behind their uncooperative manner. Maybe they don't trust us or maybe they simply don't want to talk to us. I can't say, but we aren’t getting what we want.”
Zarganar admitted that there are “a lot of things we don’t know yet” and “many more questions to ask” before the commission is ready to submit its finding to the president’s office.
“I am afraid this may not be completed by the Nov. 14 date set by the president,” he said.
Zarganar said that the commission had completed a preliminary report based on its investigation and interviews, but was continuing to update it as new information became available.
Earlier this month, the Myanmar Times cited Zarganar as saying that Thein Sein had granted the investigative body an additional two weeks through Nov. 14 to compile its findings because it had been given “such a short deadline.” The commission was formed on Aug. 17.
But he said that the team was nowhere near making a conclusion about the root cause of the ethnic unrest because of the complex nature of the crisis, as well as a host of administrative problems.
“To tell the truth, I don't know what to say at all. Let alone drawing a conclusion, we are still in the stage of deliberations,” the comedian said.
“Sometimes we think we have the people we need to answer our questions, and they don't show up [for interviews]. Other times we ask for documents they have said they are in possession of, but then later they say they are lost,” he said.
“We just don't know how to follow through."
The comedian also addressed concerns over the scope of the investigation and allegations of bias from supporters of Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.
“I knew from the beginning that I would be criticized from both sides, and it is happening now,” he said.
“But I have decided to do my best for the good of the country and I will not back down. I will continue.”
Zarganar said that the investigation commission has been based in Rangoon and four days ago began preparations to open another office in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state and a center of much of the June unrest.
He said that the office, which will be located in a home in a residential area of the city, would be ready in a day or two.
Ethnic tensions are common in Rakhine, which is home to Burma’s largest population of Muslims, including the Rohingya, who are not considered among the country’s ethnic groups even though they have been living there for generations.
The United Nations regards the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The June clashes in Rakhine state erupted after 10 Muslims traveling on a bus were beaten to death by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, although it was later learned that the passengers had no connection to the incident.
Both groups engaged in weeks of ethnic rioting and arson before the violence was quelled by Burmese security forces who declared emergency law and establishing curfews.
Since then, thousands of Buddhist monks and laypeople have been holding regular protests across the country against plans for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-nation group, to open a humanitarian office in Burma to assist those displaced by the fighting.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.