MSF, Human Rights Commission at Odds Over Maungdaw Violence

By Simon Roughneen 17 February 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are at odds over the latter’s statement that it treated 22 people injured during clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township, near the Burma-Bangladesh border.

MSF, sometimes called Doctors Without Borders, said in January that it “treated at least 22 patients, including several wounded, that are believed to be victims of the violence that erupted in Du Char Yar Tan village, in southern Maungdaw Township.”

But in its newly published account of a recent investigation into the alleged Jan. 9-13 killings of 48 Muslim Rohingya, as well as a policeman said to have been killed by Rohingya, the NHRC said “it was learned from 2 doctors of the MSF that their clinics did not treat any such patients.”

MSF Burma Head of Mission Peter-Paul de Groote, however, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that “MSF is not in a position to comment on the findings of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, however we can confirm that our staff treated 22 patients in the area near Du Char Yar Tan village from a variety of violence-related injuries in the days after January 14.”

The United Nations has said it gathered “credible evidence” that between 40 and 50 Rohingya were killed either side of the disappearance of the policeman on Jan. 13. The Burma government has repeatedly denied that any massacre took place, scolding news organizations for reporting claims of a massacre, while Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that Islamic militants were involved in the disappearance of the policeman.

An NHRC delegation visited the site of the alleged murders between Jan. 30 and Feb. 3, where the commission said that it met with local police, state officials, UN representatives, as well as Arakanese and Rohingya living in and around Du Char Yar Tan, saying the various statements it obtained “contained no information that substantiate the alleged news of killings,” and later noted what it termed “discrepancies” with regard to “the news of the alleged killings of Bengalis.”

Burmese government bodies use the term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya, who are regarded by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—though people will be allowed register as “Rohingya” in Burma’s census, which is scheduled for the end of March.

The NHRC said it “urged Bengali religious leaders and women to frankly come forth with their views,” but said no proof was forthcoming to back up the allegations of a massacre.

The NHRC was set up in September 2011 and is headed by Win Mra, an Arakanese former diplomat. It is due to be replaced by a new Parliament-approved human rights commission that proponents say will be more in step with international standards for national human rights commissions, known as “The Paris Principles.”

The NHRC report comes as a separate government investigation into the Maungdaw violence gets underway in the affected region. Arriving on Feb. 15 for a six-day visit and headed by Dr. Tha Hla Shwe, chairman of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, the delegation “will tour Bengali villages, Rakhine [Arakanese] national villages and the suspected places reported by some international news agencies and organizations, and meet with responsible persons of UN agencies and those of foreign and local social organizations.”

The commission, said to be accompanied by “a team of legal and forensic experts,” is focusing on the disappearance of a policeman on Jan. 9 and makes no mention of investigating the alleged Rohingya deaths. The Burma government set up the commission after dismissing calls for an independent international inquest into the alleged massacre, though it did permit a delegation of European ambassadors to visit Maungdaw.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN “special rapporteur” on human rights issues in Burma, was followed by Arakanese protestors after arriving in the regional capital Sittwe late last week, where he later met with local politicians and people affected by sectarian violence that has plagued Arakan State since mid-2012.

Arakanese regard Quintana—who is making his final visit to Burma as UN rapporteur—as biased toward Muslims, a view that also seems to color local perceptions of foreign aid organizations such as MSF. Around 3,000 Arakanese protested in Sittwe on Feb. 3, calling for MSF and other aid groups to cease operations in the region.

MSF’s De Groote countered that his organization gives assistance based on medical needs. “Our clinics and services are open to anyone to that needs them, regardless of ethnicity or religion,” he said.

Arakan State has seen several bouts of violence between Muslims and Buddhists since June 2012, mostly pitting Arakanese against Rohingya, though other Muslim groups have been attacked. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says that 138,800 people are in camps in Arakan State, according to figures provided to The Irrawaddy. Of that total, around 5,000 are Arakanese, the rest Rohingya.