What Not To Expect From Myanmar’s Latest Commission Of Inquiry

Myanmar’s latest attempt to investigate the mass accusations of human rights violations committed in the Rakhine State appears to be withering further away from its rhetorical promises. The new “independent commission of inquiry” established by Myanmar’s government to conduct impartial investigations to identify alleged perpetrators has been heralded by Human Rights Watch as a dubious attempt at creating accountability and justice for Myanmar’s Rohingya population.

In a news conference on Thursday, August 16, the same day as its first formal meeting, the commission’s chairwoman Rosario Manalo from the Philippines outlined some of the four-member commissions ‘salient points.’ Regrettably, any hope for a due process towards accountability was stifled by Manalo’s assurance that “…There will be no blaming of anybody, no finger pointing of anybody because we don’t achieve anything by that procedure. Our procedure is: ‘Welcome, help us so we can help you.'” To point fingers she continued is not diplomatic, and to attribute blame and accountability is “quarreling.” Adding that these measures are not ones which look for peace.

Yet accountability is one move towards justice and indeed peace. It should be remembered that the commission was initially heralded as having “a view towards accountability.” Notably, Manalo also asserted that the commission’s independence and impartiality would be upheld, a comment which should be met with scepticism and attention considering the presence on the commission of one of the Myanmar nationals, economist Aung Tun Thet, who has consistently denied that atrocities have been committed by security forces, stating, “There is no such thing in our country, in our society, as ethnic cleansing, and no genocide.” The panel plans to travel to Rakhine state to speak with the remaining members of the affected communities, with the military providing security. However, speaking openly about atrocities committed by security forces with them in range seems a poor move. Beyond this, it has not been decided whether there will be any discussions with some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps in Bangladesh. Omitting these victims from investigations would further undermine the commissions credibility.

For the 700,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh, and for those who remain stateless and displaced within the country after consecutive attacks by security forces, this will fall short of what was hoped for, and what is needed. The establishment of the commission came following failed attempts to call for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged abuses by the security forces, including destruction of villages, mass rape and murder. As Myanmar is not a member of the court, it was able to reject participating in proceedings. The UN Security Council however, can and should refer the situation to the ICC. The establishment of the commission was utilised as a justification for the ICC to not press the issue further. Despite assurances of impartiality and neutrality, previous inquiries conducted by Myanmar authorities have declared the forces free of criminal actions. As such, this latest government initiative should be watched closely and critically, given that UN officials have characterized the situation as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist majority Myanmar.

It should be remembered that an independent investigation into the human rights abuses in Myanmar already exists. The United Nations Human Rights Council last year created a fact-finding mission into the alleged abuses by Myanmar’s security forces as well as other armed groups, however, it was blocked from entering the country by the government. This government established commission of inquiry should not be relied upon to pave the way to justice for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya victims. The culture of impunity that has amassed from Myanmar’s repeated denial of responsibility for atrocities committed means the Security Council must refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC immediately, before it misses another opportunity to fulfill its responsibility of maintaining peace and security.