A long-awaited official report on last year’s sectarian violence in western Myanmar is being heavily disparaged by human rights and advocacy groups, who say a government-backed commission has placed undue emphasis on strengthening security while almost completely ignoring issues of discrimination and accountability.
The commission was created in August, in the aftermath of violence between Buddhists and Muslims that spiked in June and October in the western state of Rakhine (also known as Arakan). Yet the 27-member body included no representation from the Muslim Rohingya community, a heavily marginalised group that has suffered by far the greatest losses of life and home during the continuing violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar (also known as Burma).
Indeed, the report throughout refers to the community as “Bengalis”, a reference to the perception that the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, while also making derogatory comments about the community’s “high population growth rates”. Such officially held views have been used for decades to rationalise exclusionary policies that have denied the Rohingya the option of Myanmarese citizenship.
According to newly released government figures, the 2012 violence resulted in nearly 200 deaths, the destruction of more than 8,600 homes and around 100,000 displaced people, mostly Rohingya and other Muslims.
The report was released Monday but came months overdue, reportedly due to sharp disagreements among the commission members.
Yet despite the findings being eagerly anticipated as a key indicator of the quasi-civilian government’s ability to enforce human and civil rights following decades of repressive military rule, the commission’s recommendations are overwhelmingly focused on boosting security. This includes a full doubling of security forces in Rakhine.
“We’re dismayed that this effort took so long to reach a conclusion and made so many recommendations that are either off base or outright counter-productive,” John Sifton, a Washington-based researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), an advocacy group, said.
“The recommendation to double the local security force size in [Rakhine], for instance, completely overlooks the fact that these forces were complicit in the violence that led to the commission being appointed in the first place. That raises strong questions about the objectivity and intentions of the report authors.”
Sifton says such recommendations are of little surprise when viewed alongside the report’s broader absolving of government entities of any responsibility for the violence.
“This is in direct opposition to findings by the United Nations, HRW and other human rights groups on the ground,” he says.
“There is simply no doubt that local security forces were complicit in the violence, in some cases taking part in the violence directly or else standing by as Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya people. If you don’t offer any criticism of the fact that no one has been arrested or held accountable for this violence, there is clearly something wrong with your report.”
According to a study released last week by HRW, the 2012 violence amounted to crimes against humanity. That document is one of the most thorough public compilations currently available of what happened last year, and includes reference to government authorities destroying mosques and refusing to allow humanitarian aid to reach displaced Rohingya communities.
“The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said last week. “The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country.”
Meanwhile, an estimated 125,000 people remain displaced, with Rohingya Muslims living in camps that rights groups have criticised as ghettoes. The new commission report does little to chart a clear path forward on how to do deal with this issue, however, though it does note that the official response to the situation has had “many gaps”, including a current 90 percent unmet need in the provision of shelter.
Yet on Monday the commission’s secretary was quoted in the media stating that the current “segregation” of Muslims and Buddhists will need to continue. “We cannot recommend swift resettlement to people’s original places because that would trigger more riots,” the secretary, Kyaw Yin Hlaing, said.
The report does offer some strong language on issues of citizenship and discrimination. For instance, the commission notes that the government “needs to urgently initiate a process for examining the citizenship status of people in RakhineState” and calls for a ban on “hate language against any religion”.
There were some very offensive parts of this report, but none of those should detract from the realisation that this was first and foremost a failure as a government investigation
It also urges the creation of a “truth-finding committee”, “to determine the root causes of sectarian violence between the Buddhist and Islamic communities”.
While potentially positive, critics are seeing such calls as either too weak in comparison to the rest of the recommendations, or as potentially laying groundwork for further entrenching discrimination in the future.
“A Truth-Finding Committee is a positive step, as long as it is part of an independent investigation to determine responsibility for the violence and its findings are released to the public,” Isabelle Arradon, deputy Asia director for Amnesty International, a rights watchdog, said Monday.
“But such a commission should not bar or replace criminal justice, or reparation for crimes under international law.”
According to HRW’s Sifton, the new commission report ultimately highlights that the Myanmarese government “is simply not ready to take care of its own affairs without international assistance.”
He points to a promise made by President Thein Sein during President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Yangon in November that Myanmar would allow the United Nations to open an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – something that has yet to happen.
“There were some very offensive parts of this report, but none of those should detract from the realisation that this was first and foremost a failure as a government investigation,” Sifton says.
“The government was given an opportunity to investigate this violence and it failed. So now it falls on the international community – in the form of the United Nations – to facilitate an independent investigation.”
A version of this article was first published by Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.