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Burma should respond to a crisis over its Muslim Rohingya community in a “calibrated” way without excessive force, a panel led by former UN chief Kofi Annan said on Thursday, adding that radicalisation was a danger if problems were not addressed.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Rohingya has emerged as majority Buddhist Burma’s most contentious human rights issue as it makes a transition from decades of harsh military rule.
Annan’s commission — appointed last year by leader Aung San Suu Kyi to come up with long-term solutions for the violence-riven, ethnically and religiously divided Arakan State — said perpetrators of rights abuses should be held accountable.
Security deteriorated sharply in the western state on the border with Bangladesh last October when Rohingya militants killed nine policemen in attacks on border posts.
In response, the Burmese military sent troops fanning out into Rohingya villages in an offensive beset by allegations of arson, killings and rape by the security forces, and which sent 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
The situation in the state deteriorated again this month when security forces began a new “clearance operation” with tension shifting to a township, Rathedaung, where Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya communities live side-by-side.
“While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarised response is unlikely to bring peace to the area,” the nine-member commission said in its final report.
Instead, a nuanced, comprehensive response was urgently needed to “ensure that violence does not escalate and inter-communal tensions are kept under control,” it said.
The commission warned that if human rights were not respected and “the population remain politically and economically marginalised — northern Rakhine [Arakan] State may provide fertile ground for radicalisation, as local communities may become increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.”
The Rohingya are denied citizenship and classified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite claiming roots in the region that go back centuries, with communities marginalised and occasionally subjected to communal violence.
Annan has visited Burma three times since his appointment, including two trips to Arakan State. On Thursday, he presented his findings to Suu Kyi and army chief Min Aung Hlaing and was due to give a news conference later in the day.
The United Nations said in a report in February security forces had instigated a campaign that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity and possibly ethnic cleansing.
That led to the establishment of a UN fact-finding mission a month later.
But Burma’s domestic investigation team criticised the UN report this month and rejected allegations of abuses.
Burma declined to grant visas to three experts appointed by the United Nations and instead the government said Burma would comply with recommendations by the Annan team.
But Annan’s panel — which has a broad mandate to look into, among other things, long-term economic development, education and health care in the state — said it was “not mandated to investigate specific cases of alleged human rights violations.”
It said that the government “should ensure — based on independent and impartial investigation — that perpetrators of serious human rights violations are held accountable.”
The commission made a host of other recommendations, ranging from a faster and more transparent citizenship verification process, to lifting restrictions on movement and equal access to health care for all residents.