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Can we trust the Maungdaw probe?

By Gabrielle Paluch
The Myanmar Times
March 17, 2014

When the Du Chee Yar Tan Investigation Commission presented its final report last week into the alleged killings in Maungdaw township, the group’s leader appeared genuinely offended at having to answer probing questions from the media on the investigation. “I’m not biased, I’m not incompetent,” U Tha Hla Shwe said. “Why don’t you trust us?”

A devastating blaze and alleged clashes between security forces and Muslims which rights groups say left dozens killed and a policeman missing have once again pitted Maungdaw township’s Rakhine and Rohingya communities against each other. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)

U Tha Hla Shwe was asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of trust. The media are there to ask questions about the report and the commission is expected to give reasonable, rational answers.

The commission occupies the most unenviable of positions, caught between the government and all the groups that don’t trust it. Maintaining independence is key to walking such a tightrope.

Yet the commission is not independent. One example is the manner in which the commission stood by the government’s refusal to even acknowledge that the Muslims of northern Rakhine State self-identify as “Rohingya”. Their insistence on the use of “Bengali” – and hostility to those who disagree – is perceived as disrespectful by the very people with whom the commission says it wants to build trust. While previous investigation commissions at least tried to justify this by saying it was done to “avoid problems”, no such effort was made last week.

A number of the report’s findings suggest that the commission was dismissive of testimonies given by Muslims. The commission said it saw “no evidence of the deaths” of Muslims in Du Chee Yar Tan because witnesses failed to produce evidence in the form of corpses. Although 88 percent of Muslims interviewed confirmed there had been killings, and 26pc could state the precise number of deaths, this was deemed insufficient evidence. The the testimony of Daw Mahanayatu, who said her three-month-old child was taken from her while they were sleeping side by side and killed, was disregarded. The question of the where-abouts of other missing Muslims was never addressed.

However, the death of Police Sergeant Aung Kyaw Thein is not questioned, despite the fact that his body has yet to be recovered. Full credence was given to one witness in police custody who claimed he heard Pol Sgt Aung Kyaw Thein cry out in pain. The commission appears to have shown a bias toward testimonies that support the government’s version of events.

The collection of testimonies that the United Nations presented to the government was published in the Myanmar-language version of the report, despite being labelled confidential. The commission nevertheless blames the UN and international NGOs for inflaming tensions by reporting unconfirmed information.

Gaps in the report, beyond the aforementioned, are glaring. Whether these are the result of bias or incompetence is irrelevant: They should be pointed out openly.

Among the commission’s recommendations for building trust is to prioritise Rakhine State in the citizenship verification process. Should the 1982 citizenship law be applied, the citizenship status of Muslims who identify as Rohingya would rest on the evaluation of a government body relying on village elders.

Ideally, a transparent verification process will lead to genuinely eligible Muslims, regardless of how they describe their ethnicity, being awarded citizenship – a key step toward reconciliation. In the best-case scenario, this recommendation from the investigation team demonstrates true courage and the right balance of political verve. In the worst-case scenario, the recommendation condemns the Rohingya to a future without access to the rights associated with citizenship.

It appears that the commission is trying its best to work from within the system to change it, and in this sense they should be commended. They have the power to create the political will needed to resolve the conflict. But its job was to uncover the truth about what happened in Du Chee Yar Tan. While the commission might win favour for publishing a report that downplays a crisis, it won’t build the trust needed to start moving down the path of reconciliation.

Gabrielle Paluch is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. She worked for The Myanmar Times in 2009.

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