Rights Groups Warn of New Whitewash as Myanmar Military Vows to Investigate Rohingya Campaign

By Roseanne Gerin
2019-03-18
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A Myanmar border guard policeman stands near the home of a Rohingya Muslim family in a village in Buthidaung township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Jan. 25, 2019.
A Myanmar border guard policeman stands near the home of a Rohingya Muslim family in a village in Buthidaung township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Jan. 25, 2019.
AFP

The Myanmar military has created a three-member investigative panel to probe the conduct of the armed forces during a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state that left thousands dead and forced more than 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh, the country’s commander-in-chief’s office announced Monday.

The campaign of violence by security forces included extrajudicial killings of Rohingya, torture, sexual assaults, and the torching of Rohingya communities, which the government and the army have denied, while defending the campaign as a necessary measure to stop a group of military Muslims that conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in the region.

From de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on down, Myanmar has shrugged off credible testimony of the brutality, satellite images of burned villages, and other evidence of atrocities that have sparked calls by rights groups and United Nations officials to bring the perpetrators before the International Criminal Court (ICC) or another tribunal.

Against that background, human rights groups were dismissive of the proposed investigation by a Myanmar military that they see as the chief culprit in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and other atrocities in the country. Earlier investigations by the military were seen by outside experts as a whitewash.

“Creating this new committee is just another bogus game to buy more time from the U.N. and the international community by pretending that there is an ongoing investigation being conducted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“Nothing could be further from the truth, and no one should be so gullible to buy this lame excuse anymore,” he said in a statement.

“The sole reason for the existence of this Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] committee is to help bolster Myanmar's cover-up of atrocities in Rakhine state,” Robertson added.

Matthew Smith, chief executive office of the Southeast Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights, said the new panel would do nothing to bring about accountability for the violence during the crackdown.

“This is another weak attempt to feign concern for the rule of law and fend off international justice,” he said in a statement. “It won’t work. Domestic remedies for atrocities in Myanmar have been exhausted.”

A U.N. fact-finding mission that investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state issued a report in September 2018 detailing violence by security forces and calling for the prosecution of top commanders as well as the removal of the country’s military from politics.

Earlier this month, ICC staffers visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh as part of a preliminary examination into the violence against the Myanmar minority group.

A separate independent commission set up by Myanmar’s government to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state has been gathering information about the crackdown and is scheduled to deliver its findings later this year.

'Scrutinize and approve'

The military’s new court will examine reports by a previous investigation team formed in October 2017 that looked at the performance of security troops during the attacks in Rakhine, said the statement posted on the website of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

“Due to assessments and suggestions of the Office of the Judge Advocate-General over the reports of the investigation team which inspected the incidents and over the reports on accusations compiled by Human Rights Watch group, Amnesty International, and [the] United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, it needs to further scrutinize and approve the respective reports,” the statement said.

The 2017 investigation led by Lieutenant Gen Aye Win, inspector-general of Myanmar's defense services, found that military forces conducted their operations in accordance with their duty assignments when they were trying to restore regional peace and stability in northern Rakhine.

“As the investigation showed weaknesses in control and management for security of the region and gathering of security information in advance, necessary action has been taken against the officials related to these cases,” the statement said.

At the time of the crackdown, the commander-in-chief's office issued instructions to its operation commands to abide by the rules of engagement in responding to what it calls “the terror attacks of extremist Bengali terrorists,” it said.

Major General Myat Kyaw will chair the new panel,while Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Naing and Colonel Than Naing have been appointed as members, the announcement said.

Smith said Myanmar would have a hard time achieving credibility with another in-house investigation.

“If Myanmar wants to ensure accountability, it should cooperate with the international community to hold perpetrators accountable for genocide committed against Rohingya and war crimes against Kachin, Shan, and others,” he said, referring to two other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar.

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