Following weeks of international pressure, President Thein Sein today formed a commission to investigate the deadly sectarian violence in Arakan state, which controversially pitted Buddhists against the Muslim Rohingya minority in June.
The 27 member commission, headed by former director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs Dr Myo Myint, is mandated “to reveal the truth behind the unrest” and “find solutions for communities with different religious beliefs to live together in harmony”, according to the President’s website.
The new body includes representatives from various religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, as well as political parties and democracy groups, but no Rohingya.
A number of controversial figures have also been included, such as student leader Ko Ko Gyi, who notoriously called for the minority to be expelled from Burma, as well as the vehemently anti-Rohingya leader of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) Dr Aye Maung.
“It is a good to form a body with people of various religions as the international community has been calling for the formation of an investigation commission,” he said of the appointment. “I assume we will be able to present the truth accurately.”
The Burmese government has faced fierce criticism for its handling of the Arakan crisis, which left at least 78 people dead and destroyed over 5,300 houses, according to government figures. A recent Human Rights Watch report accused the government of both failing to prevent the violence and later colluding in attacks against the Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and widely despised in Burmese society.
Although the formation of the commission marks a U-turn for the government, which until recently has rejected calls for an investigation into the violence, it is likely to face tough questions about its independence and reliability, as well as accusations of “window-dressing”.
Earlier this week, a coalition of 24 political parties, led by the RNDP, called for the removal of UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, who recently visited the conflict-torn region, over allegations of bias in favour of the Rohingya.
“When the president offered me to take part in the commission, I asked for only one thing; that I want it to be really independent and transparent,” said commission member and comedian Zaganar, who has previously condemned discrimination against the Rohingya. “I said I don’t want to be a part of it if there are interferences and I was given an answer that it won’t happen.”
Some members have also complained about the lack of clarity for their role.
“It would be very good if the president were to give us a specific mandate and power to deal with the issue,” said commission member Kyaw Khin, General Secretary of the Myanmar Muslim National Affairs Federation.
“I think conducting an independent investigation would be the best for Arakan state. I’m taking part in this more as a citizen rather than a religious leader. I think it’s a good thing that we are able to address both citizen rights and religious issues.”
Tensions flared in the western state after the rape and murder of an Arakanese girl in late May, allegedly by three Muslims, led to a brutal revenge attack on ten Muslim pilgrims. It brought to the fore long-simmering distrust against the Rohingya, who are viewed as “illegal Bengali immigrants” by many Burmese, including Muslims, and denied basic rights by the government.
The commission is set to present its findings to the President on 17 September.