The Burmese government should invite the United Nations to participate in a thorough and impartial investigation into deadly attacks on police and subsequent allegations of summary killings, sexual violence, and other rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said.
On October 9, 2016, gunmen attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw township near the Bangladesh border, reportedly leaving nine police officers dead. The government reported that the attackers made off with dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The Burmese government maintains the attack was carried out by a Rohingya group, but who was actually responsible is unclear. The media and local rights groups have reported numerous human rights abuses against Rohingya following the attack, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, arbitrary arrests, and burning of homes. On October 28, Reuters published interviews with Rohingya women who claim they were raped by Burmese soldiers. Government-imposed restrictions on access to the area by journalists and human rights monitors have hindered impartial information-gathering.
“The Burmese government should ensure a credible inquiry into the October 9 violence by inviting UN human rights experts to take part,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rakhine State’s ethnic divide is perhaps Burma’s biggest fault line. The government’s handling of this inquiry is a big test for preventing future violence against the Rohingya and other populations.”
On October 27, the president’s spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said that allegations of human rights violations by the security forces were “totally wrong,” but asserted that the government would take them seriously. On October 28, the office of President Htin Kyaw said authorities had opened an investigation into a case of the death of a 60-year-old man detained on October 14, on suspicion of involvement in the October 9 attack.
On October 24, the parliament of Rakhine State (also known as Arakan State) announced the establishment of a commission of legislators to investigate the October 9 attacks. This followed a statement by UN experts calling on Burma to address allegations of serious human rights violations in the state, where ethnic Rohingya Muslims have long been the target of state-sponsored abuses.
The composition of the commission raises concerns about independence and impartiality, Human Rights Watch said. The commission is comprised of six members of the Arakan National Party (ANP), an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist party; two members of the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP); one member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD); a military appointee; and a legal advisor to the regional parliament. There are no Rohingya on the commission, although they constitute a third of Rakhine State’s population of 3 million, and have long been the targets of rights violations.
Beyond problems with the commission’s composition, members have also indicated a lack of impartiality. U Tun Hla Sein, a USDP commissioner from Rakhine State, stated that one of the purposes of the commission was “to help indigenous people who fled the clashes.” The phrase “indigenous people” is commonly used to refer exclusively to ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Burma is obligated under international law to conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of alleged human rights violations, prosecute those responsible, and provide adequate redress for victims of violations. Standards for such investigations can be found, for example, in the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, and the UN Guidance on Commissions of Inquiry and Fact-Finding Missions. Burma’s failure to conduct such investigations in the past underscores the need for UN assistance, Human Rights Watch said.
In December 2015, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling upon the government to establish without further delay a country office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with a full mandate. In her August 2016 report, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, emphasized that the prompt establishment of such an office “could give vital assistance to the Government in addressing the complex and wide-ranging human rights challenges currently facing Myanmar.”
“Promptly establishing an unbiased and independent commission that has the mandate to investigate all alleged abuses is an essential first step,” Adams said. “The parliamentary commission appointed by the state government is partisan and appears to lack the independence and technical skills needed to carry out such a sensitive investigation, which is why the UN is needed.”
Immediately after the attacks, government forces declared Maungdaw an “operation zone” and began sweeps of the area to find the attackers and lost weapons. They severely restricted the freedom of movement of the local populations and imposed extended curfews, which remain in place. Humanitarian aid groups have also been cut off, placing tens of thousands of already vulnerable people at greater risk.
Aid groups told Human Rights Watch that the lack of access is worsening the impact on the local population. The World Food Programme said that while areas surrounding Maungdaw and Buthidaung towns are slowly receiving aid, 50,000 food-insecure people in rural Maungdaw remain without routine food distributions.
“The Burmese government and army need to end restrictions on access to northern Rakhine State for aid groups, journalists, and human rights monitors to allow aid to reach the vulnerable Rohingya population and independent reporting on the situation,” Adams said.