Myanmar’s new commission of inquiry to probe reported atrocities in Rakhine state drew criticism Tuesday from groups inside the country who deny abuses took place, while rights experts said they feared the panel would be another effort to evade accountability over alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
The office of President Win Myint on Monday unveiled a four-person commission it called "part of its national initiative to address reconciliation, peace, stability and development in Rakhine."
"The Independent Commission will investigate the allegations of human rights violations and related issues, following the terrorist attacks by ARSA," he said, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya militant group.
The commission is to be made up of two Myanmar and two international members -- Filipino former undersecretary of foreign affairs Rosario Manalo and Kenzo Oshima, Japan's former ambassador to the U.N. -- the president's office said in a statement.
The two Myanmar commissioners are lawyer Mya Thein and Aung Tun Thet, an economist and former UN official.
Aung Tun Thet, who already plays a key role in Myanmar's response to the Rakhine crisis, in April told a newspaper in Bangladesh, host to 800,000 Rohingya refugees, that Myanmar had "no intention of ethnic cleansing.”
The new commission was launched amid growing international condemnation over a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine in response to attacks by ARSA on Aug. 25, 2017.
Security forces also carried out an earlier round of violence against Rohingya communities in Rakhine's Maungdaw township after a smaller-scale attack by the same militant group in October 2016.
Together the two campaigns killed more than 6,000 people and drove roughly 800,000 Rohingya from the country and across the border into Bangladesh where they are now living in sprawling displacement camps.
Rights groups and UN officials have gathered testimony from the refugees, who with near uniformity describe atrocities. The UN has described the army campaign as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".
The government and military have defended the “clearance operations” as a counterinsurgency against ARSA terrorists and have consistently denied that security forces committed most of the atrocities against the Rohingya, despite widespread reports and credible evidence, including multiple satellite images of burned-out villages.
Hostility from Rakhines, army-backed MPs
Myanmar politicians interviewed by RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday largely condemned the panel and expressed resentment at allowing foreigners on a commission looking into the Rohingya, who have been demonized as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite living in Myanmar for generations.
“The government has ignored the Rakhine people, Rakhine political parties and MPs, and it has been doing what it wants,” said lawmaker Aung Thaung Shwe of the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the Buddhist population in Rakhine. Rakhine villagers were accused of abetting army attacks on the Rohingya.
“This commission comes from the suggestions of the Kofi Annan Commission and we don’t accept it as well,” he said, referring to an earlier panel headed by the former UN Secretary General set up to address the explosive Rakhine issue.
“It is not fair to investigate human right violations following the terrorist attacks by ARSA, instead of investigating ARSA’s attacks and killing,” said lawmaker Thaung Aye of the army-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Nanda Hla Myint, USDP spokesman, reiterated the party’s opposition to including any foreigners on the commission.
“Since the government announced it would form a new commission to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine State, we became worried about having more complications in domestic matters and international pressure,” he told RFA.
Some politicians were more open-minded about the new panel.
“It is better to have experts in the commission from Japan and the Philippines who are from our neighboring countries. The problem will be solved to some extent if they work hard impartially, I hope,” said U Thu Wai, leader of the Democratic Party.
A lawmaker from de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, Khin San Hlaing, told RFA: “We should believe in those foreign experts in the commission according to their biographies that show they have good international reputations.”
Al-Haj Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar and a member of the Kofi Annan Commission said he welcomed the formation of the commission as a “right step.”
“We need to see what it will do,” he told RFA.
Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said “having internationally respected people in the commission is a good step,” adding that the commission must meet with the powerful military, the ANP and local civic and government groups.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth dismissed the commission in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Aung San Suu Kyi isn't even pretending that her latest ‘investigation’ of the mass atrocities against the Rohingya will be credible. One member of the investigative team she just appointed--Aung Tun Thet--has denied that ethnic cleansing even took place,” he wrote.
Kyaw Thu, Khin Khin Ei and Win Ko Ko Lat for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.