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Local CSOs pressure govt to cooperate on UN fact-finding mission

Men indicate the place where they say a victim from recent violence was buried, at a village outside Maungdaw in Arakan State on 27 October 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Nearly 60 Burma-based civil society organisations on Thursday called on the government to fully cooperate with a UN fact-finding mission tasked with looking into allegations of grave human rights violations in Arakan State and elsewhere in the country.

The fact-finding mission was established via a UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in March. The National League for Democracy administration has indicated that it does not approve of the international probe, however, calling it an encroachment on the country’s sovereignty.

The 59 CSO signatories “believe that the NLD Government desires to establish a rule of law culture during our transition to democracy, maintaining that ‘no one is above the law,’ regardless of rank or position. The government’s full support for this Fact Finding Mission is an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to rule of law,” their statement reads.

The signatories represent a broad swathe of Burmese civil society, including groups advocating for women’s rights, ethnic minorities, development and youth. Acknowledging the dire situation in Arakan State, where the UN has determined that rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by security forces could amount to crimes against humanity, the signatories noted, “Communities and human rights defenders from Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan states have long noted similar patterns of violence and abuse on their soil, including to the present day.”

Northern Arakan State has been on security lockdown since 9 October, when Rohingya Muslim militants staged a coordinated attack on border police posts, killing nine officers. The counterinsurgency operation that followed has seen hundreds of suspected militants locked up and caused more than 70,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Of greater concern for human rights advocates has been mounting reports of security forces indiscriminately killing Rohingya and raping Muslim women. A UN report released in February and compiled from testimonies of dozens of recently displaced Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh detailed harrowing violence allegedly perpetrated by security forces in the weeks following the 9 October attack, including gang-rape, extrajudicial killings and the razing of Muslim homes.

The military and government have offered near blanket denials of accusations that the counterinsurgency campaign has involved unlawful conduct. The latest came earlier this week, when the results of a military investigation into the February report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) rejected the rights body’s findings in full.

“Out of 18 accusations included in OHCHR’s report, 12 were found to be incorrect, with remaining 6 accusations found to be false and fabricated accusations based on lies and invented statements,” read a summary of the military probe’s findings, as reported in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.

That report prompted New York-based Human Rights Watch, like the 59 CSOs on Thursday, to call for full cooperation from the government as the fact-finding mission unfolds.

“The Burmese army’s denials of well-documented abuses shows unvarnished contempt for truth, accountability, and respect for human rights,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying on Thursday. “The army’s approach highlights the need for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to allow the UN fact-finding mission into Burma, and to call on the army to provide full access to conflict areas.”

Human Rights Watch was among 23 international advocacy organisations to make a similar demand last month, but Thursday’s statement marked the first large-scale indication of support for the fact-finding mission’s mandate within Burma.

Matthew Smith, director of one of the international organisations that signed the 27 April statement, told DVB the 59 signatories to Thursday’s statement indicate that — contrary to government insistence that the fact-finding mission as an unacceptable intrusion of sovereignty — there is domestic appetite for international involvement.

“Pressure on this issue is coming from within. It’s not external,” said Smith, of the group Fortify Rights. “Civil society is in the driver’s seat here and their requests and recommendations are clear and sensible. These are citizens, voters, and constituents who want solutions to atrocities and an end to the culture of impunity.”

Early this year, prior to the UN fact-finding resolution’s passage, many of the same signatories to Thursday’s statement had called for outside intervention in Arakan State.