YANGON – The Myanmar President’s Office announced on Thursday a plan to establish a three-member independent commission of enquiry to investigate alleged rights violations in northern Rakhine State’s strife-torn Maungdaw region, both by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and “related abuses”.
The commission is to include one international member and two local experts. The names of the appointees and a specific timeframe for the commission’s mandate have not been announced. The President’s Office merely stated that international and national experts would assist the team. The brief statement says the move is in accordance with the interim recommendations of the Advisory Board for the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, which was created in December by Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
That implementation committee contained five high-profile international figures and five local experts and was led by former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. One of the foreign members, veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson, quit the panel after accusing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of a creating the panel to “whitewash” and act as a “cheerleading squad” for the government’s policy. He refused to take part in the commission’s first visit to strife-torn northern Rakhine after his efforts to intervene on behalf of two Reuters reporters detained for their coverage of the Rakhine issue were neglected by the State Counselor.
Also Thursday, the Myanmar government signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Rohingya refugee repatriation process with two UN agencies, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The government has been discussing the agreement with the relevant parties since February 2018.
The surprise signing of a tri-party MoU with two UN agencies comes a few weeks after a visit by a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) delegation in early May to northern Rakhine, where ARSA’s serial attacks on 30 security outposts in late August 2017 triggered a devastating military clearance operation by the Myanmar military that has driven some 700,000 mostly Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh amid allegations of arbitrary killings and rapes by the security forces. The UNSC delegation described the mass devastation of Rohingya villages as “ethnic cleansing”. At a briefing in New York in May, the UNSC called on the Myanmar government to collaborate in a credible investigation. In response, Myanmar’s permanent ambassador to the UN urged the council to investigate “atrocities” committed by the ARSA against civilians.
The government’s latest move triggered a public debate on Facebook. Some Arakanese lawmakers expressed concerns, and former information minister U Ye Htut criticized what he labeled the government’s “commission cycle”. Since taking office in 2016, the ruling NLD government has already set up several commissions to address the deep-seated issues fueling the Rakhine crisis.
Yangon-based political and ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe said establishing an independent commission and signing an MoU with UN agencies was likely timed to ease international pressure, especially from international rights groups who have urged that Myanmar’s military leaders be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The government is also being pressed by the UN to allow a fact-finding mission to Maungdaw.
U Maung Maung Soe suggested the government strive for internal unity on the Rohingya issue as a first step. Myanmar’s various ethnic groups have different stances and tend to remain silent when it comes to the Army’s crackdown on the Rohingya, as they have experienced similar rights violations in Kachin, Shan and other conflict zones. Without winning the collective support of the country’s ethnic groups, the government’s successes on the international stage will only be temporary, U Maung Maung Soe said.
“Ethnic groups should have a united position on supporting the government in solving the Rakhine issue; this is the most important thing. If the government fails to solve it, international pressure on Myanmar will harden,” U Maung Maung Soe added.
Lower House lawmaker U Pe Than of the Arakan National Party (ANP) questioned why the government was offering only limited information, and had not revealed who the commission members are. And the description in the statement of the commission as “independent” is also questionable, the lawmaker said, as true independence would require the members to be able to move freely and observe the locations of alleged abuses.
“At the moment, we have very limited information about the commission. So we will wait until they reveal specific information such as the names of the members of the commission, its timeframe and who it will report to,” U Pe Than said.
He speculated that if the commission dug deeply into the details of rights abuses in northern Rakhine, such as finding the perpetrators of arson attacks on villages during the clashes, it could lead to further violence in the region as both sides—the Army and Muslim villagers—accuse each other of burning houses. Moreover, consistently demanding the resettlement of Muslim villagers on southern Maungdaw’s coastline for human rights reasons could prompt clashes with Buddhist Arakanese, as the Rakhine community sees this area as essential for security matters.
“The more independent the inquiry body, the more problems we are likely to face on the ground,” U Pe Than said.