Parliament Divided Over Latest Rakhine Investigation Commission

By The Irrawaddy 16 June 2018

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Last Friday, Parliament was suddenly adjourned and what could be considered a meeting of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) was held at the presidential residence. This was followed by a vote in the Lower House on Monday regarding the inclusion of an international member in the proposed independent investigation commission looking into issues related to Rakhine State. Ethnic and political affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe and columnist U Thiha Thwe join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Last Friday, the Lower House session was suddenly adjourned and top leaders in the country met at the presidential residence in what could be dubbed an NDSC meeting. Then, on Monday, lawmakers debated in the Lower House over the inclusion of an international member in the government’s independent investigation commission to investigate issues regarding northern Rakhine State. Tatmadaw representatives and lawmakers of the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Arakan National Party strongly objected. The opposition parties questioned the government about why it favored international personalities over local eminent persons. They also asked if the country was ruled by the government or the international community. They even called the decision to include an international member a risk to the sovereignty of the country. This has led to concerns over the future of civil-military relations. What is your assessment of this, U Maung Maung Soe?

U Maung Maung Soe: Many commissions have been formed since the outbreak of the Rakhine issue—an investigation commission led by Vice President U Myint Swe, the Kofi Annan-led Commission, the Rakhine advisory panel led by former Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathi, the UEHRD [Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State], the commission to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission, and this latest one. The international community accepted the advisory commission led by Kofi Annan, who has influence on the international stage. So, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government apparently wants to take the same approach and include an international member who is respected by the international community. But we need to acknowledge that we have weak points regarding fact-finding in Rakhine.

Investigation teams were sent to Rakhine around the end of August. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) sent an investigation team led by its Inspector-General Lt-Gen Aye Win. But there were no results from this. After the Inn Din massacre was exposed, the Tatmadaw had to send investigation team again and take action. With widespread allegations of abuses, the international community believes that investigation commissions of Myanmar are not credible. Also, the international community believes that there is still no press freedom regarding Rakhine. Reporters have been restricted from traveling freely to the area. And the trial for two Reuters reporters is still ongoing. The key to solving this problem is how we can give an acceptable answer to the international community. The question is not about inclusion or exclusion of an international member. I want the government to think about giving acceptable information to the international community. But on the other hand, no foreigner can know as much as a Myanmar citizen about Myanmar. No matter how much he is competent, he won’t know about Myanmar. I personally prefer Myanmar scholars [be included in the investigation commission].

YN: I agree with your point that the commission should be credible with or without an international member on it, from the point of view of both local and international critics. Ko Thiha Thwe, what do you want to say about the formation of the commission?

Thiha Thwe: As U Maung Maung Soe has said, the government has had to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission. I already knew that the government would face this problem if it implemented those recommendations. Since the formation of the Kofi Annan Commission, opposition parties and the Tatmadaw have spoken against the involvement of foreigners in addressing the Rakhine issue. So, I already predicted that there would be confrontation if an international member were included in the independent commission.

When I read Kofi Annan Commission’s recommendations, I didn’t think it would be so difficult [to implement those recommendations]. But after the Inn Din killings were exposed, a number of foreigners I talked to were suspicious that more people were killed and buried there. There are such allegations. Recently, groundwork was carried out in Maungdaw to build repatriation centers. There was excavation of land and the international community, which watched the process by satellite, alleged that the earth was moved to destroy the bodies. Their suspicion has grown significantly. If we fail to solve this, the pressures from the international community will keep growing.

The international community is apparently preparing to put political and economic pressures on our country. Our country will get into big trouble if it keeps failing to address those suspicions. As U Maung Maung Soe has said, the question is how to allay those suspicions, and not about the inclusion or exclusion of an international member. We should find a solution to dispel those suspicions together, rather than arguing about inclusion or exclusion of an international member. Suppose we are against the idea of including an international member in the commission, the question is how to make the commission acceptable to the international community. Or [the government] may choose to allow the international media to visit Rakhine State rather than forming investigation commissions. The opposition said that the country would be fraught with problems if we failed to follow the recommendations of a commission that included an international member; and that we wouldn’t be able to dismiss what it says.

But I have a different view. We should not always have a negative view of international investigations. An Amnesty International delegation came to Sittwe and investigated, and as a result, the violence against Hindu residents was revealed and tensions have significantly declined. This was an immediate benefit of allowing an international investigation. There are both advantages and disadvantages of allowing this. In the case of Amnesty International’s visit to Sittwe, I’ve seen two significant benefits so far. Because of Amnesty International, the international community accepted that the killing of Hindus was a reality. Previously, they didn’t believe what we said. But now, since the international community believes the report of an international intermediary agency, pressures on us were largely reduced. We also found that the United Nations Security Council pays heed to the Kofi Annan Commission.

There are benefits of forming a commission that includes an international member. Can’t we make use of such a commission shrewdly? What are we afraid of? [The opposition] said that they are afraid of our sovereignty being compromised. I have written in my articles that we will face sanctions by the international community if we resist investigation into this problem. If we were faced with sanctions like in the past, we would have to rely more on China. If this happens, how can we avoid the problem of our sovereignty being compromised? It is inevitable. So, rather than arguing about including an international member, the opposition, the government and the Tatmadaw should work together to find a solution that is acceptable to the international community.

YN: As I’ve said, the parliamentary session was adjourned and a meeting was held at the presidential residence [on Friday]. The proposal [to include an international member in the commission] was approved through voting [on Monday]. U Maung Maung Soe, what do you think of the government’s handling of this?

MMS: The fact that there was a meeting of NDSC members shows that there is serious disagreement between the Tatmadaw and the government. The decision was made through voting on Monday. Personally, I feel like national reconciliation gets further and further away whenever a decision is made through a vote in Parliament over issues on which the Tatmadaw and the government have different views. As the National League for Democracy makes up the majority in Parliament, it can make the final decision regarding most issues.

But regarding provisions about constitutional amendments including Article 436, and about peace and ethnic issues, nothing can be changed without the approval of the Tatmadaw. Top leaders should take the approach of serious negotiation. They live in Naypyitaw and they can meet easily. They should find a solution acceptable to both sides. Only then, can national reconciliation be realized. Only then, will we be able to initiate further reforms. Otherwise, reforms won’t be carried out and national reconciliation will remain distant.

YN: What else would you like to point out, Ko Thiha Thwe?

TT: The parliamentary session was adjourned to hold the meeting of top NDSC leaders. We can conclude that important decisions regarding the Rakhine issue were made at the meeting. So far, there is no report of the results of the meeting. There was a heated debate and political confrontation when Parliament resumed on Monday, as one side opposed strongly and another side passed the proposal with its voting majority. We don’t want to see political confrontation. We feel that it is not yet over. If the NLD uses the power of its voting majority, others will also follow its example. For example, in Rakhine State Parliament, the Arakan National Party has the majority. There may be fighting in the Rakhine State Parliament [to oppose the investigation commission]. There may also be opposition on the ground. There was constant opposition to the Kofi Annan Commission. We can’t put out fire with fire, but with water. We need to approach this with water to extinguish the fire.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!