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More than 20 human rights organisations have issued a call to the international community, urging world leaders to pressure the Burmese government into cooperating with a United Nations fact-finding mission on alleged human rights violations in Arakan State and elsewhere in the country.
Twenty-two groups, including Amnesty International and Burma Campaign UK, signed the open letter, calling on the governments of the United States, Britain, the European Union, ASEAN nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to “strongly encourage” Naypyidaw to assist with the upcoming mission.
In March, a resolution was approved at the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council green-lighting an independent fact-finding mission. It will be tasked with investigating allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by state security forces, with a special focus on northern Arakan State. The mission will also examine concerns in Kachin and Shan states.
Burma’s ambassador to the United Nations, Htin Linn, immediately rejected passage of the motion in Geneva as “not acceptable,” echoing State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s request that Burma be allowed to retain autonomy in dealing with the crises. Regional neighbours India and China also disassociated themselves from the motion.
In the letter released on Thursday, the coalition of human rights organisations cited reports of a grossly overhanded response to the deadly 9 October attacks against police posts in northern Arakan State, carried out by an Islamic militant group that today calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. In the days following the attacks, which claimed the lives of nine police officers, government security forces began carrying out “area clearance operations.” The initial attack and subsequent counter-insurgency campaign has amounted to the largest crisis to confront the young National League for Democracy government.
“We are deeply concerned that if the government of Myanmar fails to fully cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission, the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State may further deteriorate. Failure to provide accountability may further fuel frustrations among the Rohingya population,” read the 22 organisations’ letter to the international community.
“Emboldened by the lack of consequences for abuses during its military operations in response to the October 9 attacks, the Myanmar military may continue to punish the civilian population and carry out further atrocities under the pretext of maintaining national security.”
The Burmese government has stridently denied the counter-insurgency operation has been disproportionate, claiming the 9 October attacks were an attempt to disrupt national harmony. In a recent interview with Reuters, Information Minister Pe Myint lashed out at the media and likened the attacks to 11 September 2001 — when the hijacking of four US airliners brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York and killed more than 3,000 people.
“This is like 9/11 in America, we were targeted and attacked in a huge way. But the media is neglecting this and are only emphasising and reporting the counter-attacks, and by looking at the humanitarian point of view,” Reuters quoted Pe Myint as saying.
The UN Human Rights Council confirmed to DVB that its president, Joaquin Alexander Maza Martelli, will appoint members to the fact-finding mission “in the coming weeks,” despite the Burmese government’s vocal opposition.
DVB reached out to Pe Myint for a reaction to the upcoming staffing of the mission, and to clarify his statements on 9/11. The Union minister had not replied at the time of publication.
UN Human Rights Council spokesperson Rolando Gomez said the mission will go forward with or without the government’s blessing.
“In selecting the mission members, the President will consult with various interlocutors to ensure the best candidates are selected to fulfil the mandate entrusted to them. In the meantime, a team of human rights specialists with various expertise pertinent to the mandate is being assembled in Geneva to support the mission members establishing the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State,” he told DVB via email.
“It remains the hope of the Human Rights Council that the Mission will be facilitated by the Government of Myanmar through unfettered access to the affected areas,” he said.
The United Nations has initiated fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry in other countries where local authorities have refused to cooperate, notably North Korea in 2013 and Syria in 2016. Human rights violations in North Korea were also discussed at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council, the same sitting in which the Burma mission was approved.
The reputation of Suu Kyi and her government has taken a battering on the international stage in the wake of increased civil conflict between ethnic armed groups and the military. In just over one year since the NLD government assumed power, the Nobel laureate has been accused of sitting idle as the military ramps up offensives against ethnic minorities. More than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates criticised Suu Kyi in December, taking aim at her “lack of initiative” in standing up for the Rohingya Muslim community in Arakan State.
Burma Human Rights Network, the organisation spearheading this week’s open letter, said the Burmese government’s reputation will plummet if it refuses to cooperate. The network’s executitve director, Kyaw Win, told DVB the military and government “have a long track record of playing games” when it comes to allowing humanitarian and media access to conflict zones.
“It immediately gives the impression to the outside world that higher levels within the Myanmar Government mean to hide something, rather than prove their claims. If allegations of human rights abuses prove true and the Government or Military are attempting to derail an investigation into those allegations, it gives the appearance that they are [at] the very least facilitating those crimes and preventing those responsible from being held responsible,” he said via email.
At a press conference earlier this month, National Security Adviser Thaung Tun denied the military counter-offensive in northern Arakan State was tantamount to ethnic cleansing, saying the government is “not oblivious to the plight of the Rohingya.”