Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET on 2018-05-01
United Nations Security Council diplomats who visited northern Rakhine state on Tuesday called on Myanmar to conduct what they called a “proper” investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya during a military crackdown.
Thousands of Rohingya were killed during the crackdown launched late last August in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by Rohingya insurgents, while others said their communities endured torture, rape, and arson at the hands of security forces.
Both the U.N. and United States have said that the campaign, which forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to safety in Bangladesh, amounted to ethnic cleansing.
A 24-member delegation representing the council's five permanent members and 10 non-permanent members spent two days in Myanmar to assess the situation on the ground in Rakhine state amid a program to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. The delegates arrived in Myanmar after visiting Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh and meeting with Bangladeshi officials.
"[I]n order to have accountability there must be a proper investigation,” Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N., told reporters during a news conference following the delegation’s visit to Rakhine state.
Myanmar can set up such a probe through an International Criminal Court (ICC) referral or by holding its own comprehensive inquiry, she said.
An ICC prosecutor asked the international tribunal in April to rule on whether the court can exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, even though Myanmar is not a member of the ICC.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement for the voluntary return of refugees who are eligible for repatriation pending verification. The program was slated to begin in late January but has been beset by delays.
The U.N. and rights groups have asked Myanmar to guarantee the safety and basic rights of the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subject to systematic discrimination. Many have said they remain afraid to return.
“It is very important to improve the security conditions for the return of the refugees [and] also improve cooperation with international organizations, particularly the United Nations,” said Security Council President Gustavo Meza-Cuadra. “We also mentioned the importance of the investigations regarding what happened there before the refugees went to Bangladesh.”
Myanmar has yet to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the United Nations Development Program and U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) on working together on the repatriation of refugees. The agencies already have signed a separate similar agreement with Bangladesh.
Maansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi, Kuwait’s permanent representative at the U.N. and a member of the delegation, expressed confidence that the agreement would be signed, adding that the U.N. wants Myanmar and Bangladesh to speed up the repatriation process.
Pierce said the delegation wanted to help the Myanmar government with implementing the recommendations on Rakhine state issued by an earlier panel chaired by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, as well as support the signing of the MoUs.
That commission’s report called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region, and the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state.
“We believe if the MoUs can be signed quickly and U.N. agencies be given unconditional access, that will be the best thing to do for the scale of the problem – the absolute scale of having to get … so many refugees back home in security and safety so they can practice their livelihoods over time,” Pierce said. “Even if it takes a long time, we need to start on that.”
‘Their attitude will change’
Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government, told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, that the delegation’s perception of the crisis may have changed after its visit.
“Because there was a planned meeting between the U.N. security team and local [Rakhine] ethnics, they learned that the truth is different from what they have heard,” he said. “They got to know about what really happened in Rakhine state, and because they have seen and know the truth, we think their attitude will change at least a little.”
Aye Lwin, a Muslim representative on the Annan’s advisory commission, met with the delegates in Rakhine state and urged them to ask the international community for support for Myanmar.
“I told them that Myanmar needs positive help from the international community,” he told RFA after the meeting. “We need to find a new way because we are facing many hardships when it comes to solving problems.
“I told them that if the international community, including U.N. agencies, can give positive suggestions to Myanmar’s policymakers, there will be some good results,” said the Muslim leader and founder of the interfaith group Religions for Peace Myanmar.
Aye Lwin also reminded the delegates that refugees living in makeshift shelters in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar will face a major risk from floods and landslides during the fast-approaching monsoon season.
“We all know that people from Bangladesh’s refugee camps can’t return home in the short term, so they need to be in the proper shelters during this season,” he said.
Aye Lwin also told the diplomats that the level of trust among the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists needed to be strengthened to implement the recommendations of the Annan commission because both communities remain suspicious of the other.
An impartial judgment
Nyo Aye, chairwoman of the activist organization Rakhine Women’s Network, met with the diplomats for 15 minutes to discuss the contentious relationship between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state.
“They asked us why we hate each other and how we can get along with each other again,” she told RFA. “We replied that we [ethnic Rakhines] are always careful and still have a relationship with them [Muslims] in the region.”
“We told them that the hatred between us grew because of the international media as they spread false news” about the situation in Rakhine state, she said.
Nyo Aye informed one delegate that some of the refugees the U.N. team saw in displacement camps in Bangladesh before visiting Myanmar were not all from Rakhine state, but were Bangladeshis who themselves live in the camps. She did not say how she knew the refugees were Bangladeshis.
“I also told her that now that she had seen both the situations in Bangladesh and in Rakhine, I hope you can form an impartial judgment about them.”
On Monday, the 15 diplomats met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and other government officials.