Myanmar announced Thursday it would set up an independent commission to probe alleged rights violations that occurred during a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state that left more than 1,000 dead and drove almost 700,000 into neighboring Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government has come under heavy fire from the United Nations, human rights groups and other international community members for its denials of widely documented atrocities by the army, in which the stateless Rohingya were targeted after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents carried out deadly assaults on police outposts last August.
“The independent commission will investigate the violation of human rights and related issues following the terrorist attacks by ARSA,” President Win Myint’s office said in a statement on Thursday.
The commission is part of a “national initiative to address reconciliation, peace, stability and development” in ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state, it said.
The body will be composed of three members, including an international representative and will be assisted by domestic and international legal and technical experts, the statement said, while giving no further details.
“This decision has also taken into consideration the interim recommendations of the Advisory Board for the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations of Rakhine state,” the statement said, referring to an international panel set up in December to advise the government on the suggestions submitted by an earlier commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, regarding the situation in Rakhine.
The Annan commission’s final report called for a review of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority in order to prevent further violence in the region, and the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state.
In January, veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, a member of the 10-person advisory panel, abruptly resigned from the board, which he said was conducting a “whitewash” of the Rohingya crisis, adding that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi had demonstrated an “absence of moral leadership” over the problem.
Richardson also questioned the commitment of advisory board chairman Surakiart Sathirathai, a former deputy prime minister of Thailand, in implementing the Annan commission’s recommendations and had expressed concern over Myanmar’s attitude towards the U.N., rights groups, and citizenship for the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
A ‘proper’ investigation
The U.N., which has said that the campaign against the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, has also raised concerns along with rights groups about the safety of Muslim refugees who will return voluntarily to Rakhine state under an agreement Myanmar signed with Bangladesh in November.
Myanmar previously refused to allow a U.N.-appointed committee to investigate reports of atrocities involving the Rohingya in Rakhine. But in late April and early May, a delegation of envoys from the U.N. Security Council toured refugee camps in Bangladesh and visited violence-scarred northern Rakhine state to assess the on-the-ground situation.
They called on Myanmar to conduct what they called a “proper” investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown.
At the time, Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. and a member of the delegation, told reporters that a proper probe was necessary for there to be accountability and that Myanmar could set up such a probe through an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral, or by holding its own comprehensive inquiry.
An ICC prosecutor asked the international tribunal in April to rule on whether the court could exercise jurisdiction over the alleged expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, even though Myanmar is not an ICC member.
Though Myanmar has verified hundreds of Rohingya eligible for repatriation from a list of more than 8,000 provided by Bangladesh, official returns have not yet begun. Myanmar officials say they have been ready to accept back refugees since Jan. 23, but they have blamed delays in the process on their Bangladeshi counterparts.
Also on Thursday, the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population had “initialed” a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) and U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to help the government with repatriating the refugees from southeastern Bangladesh.
“The U.N. agencies will cooperate with the government for the repatriation of displaced persons, who have been duly verified so that they can return voluntarily in safety and in dignity,” the statement said.
“The UNDP and UNHCR have been invited to take part in various stages of return and resettlement, and to support access to livelihoods through the design and implementation of community-based intervention,” it said.
No date was given for the actual signing of the memorandum, though the statement said it would take place soon.
The U.N. already had signed a similar agreement with Bangladesh.
UN official: Conditions for repatriation not yet safe
Meanwhile in Dhaka on Thursday, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner George Okoth-Obbo told reporters that conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya had yet to be created in Rakhine state.
“Right at the moment, we don’t believe conditions have been created for safe return. [Favorable] conditions don’t exist,” he said while wrapping up a 5-day visit to refugee camps in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts.
On Monday, Okoth-Obbo had described the Kutupalong refugee camp, which houses 660,000 Rohingya, as “the largest in the world.”
During his visit, Okoth-Obbo also expressed concern about the safety of the refugees as monsoon rains started in southeastern Cox’s Bazar.
UNHCR issued a statement on May 29 warning that an estimated 200,000 Rohingya could be in danger of facing landslides and flooding.
Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of the Rohingya unit at Bangladesh’s ministry of disaster management, told BenarNews that at least 30,000 refugees had been relocated.
He said up to 100,000 Rohingya now living in Cox’s Bazar district would be moved to Bhashanchar, an island at the Bay of Bengal.
But Okoth-Obbo said relocating the Rohingya to the island in Noakhali district would not be realistic right now, as he expressed doubts that facilities have been put in place for the refugees.
“So, my own impression would be, since we talk now, I don’t really think it will be realistic that the island will be a solution,” Okoth-Obbo said.
Okoth-Obbo, who visited the camps in September last year, said UNHCR and partner agencies had raised only 20 percent of the U.S. $950 million they were seeking from the international community and donors to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis living in surrounding communities, after having launched a special fund-raising campaign for 2018 on March 16.
‘Colder’ relations with US, EU
Despite the two announcements by Myanmar on Thursday, its image has continued to deteriorate in the eyes of the U.S. and other Western countries, which had expected Aung Sa Suu Kyi’s civilian government to make great strides in guaranteeing basic freedoms and resolving ethnic and military conflicts in the developing democracy.
But relations with the U.S. and European Union have chilled because of their disapproval of Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, Myint Thu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday at a press conference in Naypyidaw.
Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) government had improved Myanmar’s international standing during its first year in power following the party’s landslide victory at the polls in November 2015, pressure from the U.S. and the E.U. mounted after the August 2017 ARSA attack and a smaller attack by the same group in Rakhine state in October 2016, he said.
“We had good relationships with the U.S. and other European countries during the first year of the NLD government, but they have been getting colder because of misunderstandings over the Rohingya crisis,” Myint Thu said.
Myanmar has accused some members of the international community of being biased and one-sided in their assessments of the Rohingya crisis.
“Though Myanmar is facing this problem, the international community still supports our democratic transition and the peace and national reconciliation process,” he said, referring to the government’s efforts to end decades of civil war in the country.
The Myanmar government has been responding to and trying to resolve these challenges and pressures, while at the same time working on advancing the country’s policies, he said.
“Myanmar is working together with China and Russia on the Rakhine problem, but it is not a give-and-take [situation],” Myint Thu said. “We are working on it based on our long relationships. We will also work together on any issue with any country that understands us.”
This report was largely produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. Sharif Khiam in Dhaka contributed to the report.