- By Nyein Maung
Formation of Investigation Commission
In order to assess the background that led to violent attacks in October 2016 in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State, and study the prevailing situation as well as to avoid the recurrence of similar incidents in future, the Government formed the Investigation Commission led by Vice-President U Myint Swe on 1 December 2016.
The aims of the Investigation Commission are to recommend the appropriate measures to avoid similar incidents in future based on the findings of background situation of terrorist attacks in Maungdaw, root causes, deaths and causalities, incidents of terrorist attacks, destruction of property and other attacks and measures to be taken to restore stability and the rule of law, ensuring security and basic rights of the people, conflict prevention and provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected people.
Report of the Investigation Commission
The Investigation Commission’s final report was released on 4 August 2017 after examining the on-ground situation of violent incidents that occurred in Rakhine State. The report widely covered the findings with 17 chapters including introduction, objectives, annexes and photographs.
The report outlines sub-sections on investigation techniques and measures taken by the Commission; situation of Rakhine State and Maungdaw area; background situation of the conflict in Rakhine State; violent incidents of terrorist attack in Maungdaw; uniqueness of the incidents; peace and stability and rule of law; conditions on security and basic rights of the people; conflict prevention and provision of humanitarian assistance; findings on external allegation; salient points of the report of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); investigations conducted by the Commission in Bangladesh and the recommendations of the Commission.
Myanmar and Bangladesh are neighbouring countries sharing border of 168.57 miles. Following the Anglo-Burman War of 1824, the Rakhine coastal region was annexed by Britain. Since then, a large number of Muslims from Chittagong region were brought in as labourers for farming. At first, they stayed temporarily on seasonal farming basis but later many settled down permanently in the area thereby increasing the Muslim population.
Ethnic nationals and Muslims have been residing in the Maungdaw District. According to the 2016 statistics, out of the total population of 834,637 in the district, Muslim population was 755,371 totalling 90.50 percent. In Maungdaw Township alone, the percentage of Muslim population stood at 93.8 percent. Within the Maungdaw District, there are 447 Muslim villages, 240 ethnic villages, 12 mixed villages of the people with different religious faiths and 4 other villages while there are 222 monasteries with 486 monks and novices, 1278 mosques, 1143 madrasa with 1659 Mawlawis, 17 Hindu temples and 7 churches.
According to the report, farming, fishery and aquaculture are the basic livelihood of the Maungdaw area, and are mostly owned by the Muslims.
The report also assessed that whereas the average poverty rate for the whole Country stands at 26 percent, the poverty rate for the Rakhine State reaches 44 percent, making the state to be the second most impoverished state in the country. The low socio-economic status of the Maungdaw area is one of the root causes of the frequent eruption of conflicts.
The report also outlined its studies on background situation of Rakhine State, including the conflict in May 1942 between Rakhine people and Muslims in the region, which took the lives of over 20,000 Rakhine people and burnt several Rakhine villages as well as the 5 month-long conflicts of 2012 in the State which had a heavy toll of lives and properties of the local populace, and further deteriorated the understanding and trust between the two communities.
Terrorist attacks in Maungdaw District
As regards the terrorist attacks in Maungdaw District in 2016, the report mentioned that on 9 October, the terrorists armed with guns, knives, spears and slingshots attacked the No. 1 Border Guard Police (BGP) Headquarters (Kyee Kan Pyin) and Nga Khu Ya Police Station in Maungdaw Township and Koe Dan Kauk BGP outpost in Yathedaung Township. The incident resulted in the loss of 6 lives and wounded 2 police personnel and looting away of 62 various weapons and firearms and 10130 rounds of ammunition.
Similarly, on 12 November at 14:15 hrs., a military column and an infantry company led by the Officiating Commander of No. 345 Light Infantry Regiment in pursuit of the terrorists retreating from Pwint Phyu Chaung Village toward Gwa Sone Village were attacked by about 800 terrorists armed with guns, swords, spears and harpoons. The military personnel had to call in two MI-2 helicopters from the Air Force and used machine guns instead of heavy weapons with warning shots to disperse the attackers. After the warning shots were fired, the attackers fled into Gwa Sone Village. In the incident, 9 males and 1 female lost their lives according to the report. The Officiating Commander of the Regiment was killed and 2 military personnel were injured.
On the same day, the terrorists made another terrorist attack on security forces near Ma Yin Daung village and Maung Hna Ma Gyi village which killed one and injured 5 military personnel. It was learnt that terrorists burned down houses in some villages during the incident. On 13 November, security forces who undertook local area security measures were attacked by the terrorists again in three areas. Terrorists also burned down the houses.
Analyzing incidents in Maungdaw District
The report divides the incidents of terrorist attacks in the Maungdaw District into three stages. In the first stage between October and November 2016, the terrorists initiated attacks on the Headquarters of the Border Police Force Command and police outposts. In this period, 6 members of the security forces lost their lives and 2 sustained injuries. Losses included 63 pieces of assorted firearms, 10,130 rounds of ammunition and weapon accessories.
In the second stage, the security forces who jointly performed security measures for peace and stability and rule of law encountered skirmishes with the terrorist group. As a result of clashes, there were casualties, injuries, cases of arsons, displacement of people, loss of properties. Various allegations were made against the actions taken by the security forces, and thus creating misconceptions at the international level.
In the third stage, peace and stability of the local area were restored to a certain extent. However, members of the terrorist group found this development unfavourable to them and began committing acts of violence and human rights violations such as intimidation, killing and abduction.
However, the OHCHR report, which was released on 3 February 2017, only focused on alleged human rights violations and brutal treatment on Muslim villagers.
The OHCHR report did not contain positive and constructive recommendations for the future based on the past and present situations. Instead, it expressed “serious concern” that the security forces and the Government are intentionally committing “ethnic cleansing” against one community.
Leaders involved in Maungdaw Incident
According to the report, the violent attacks in Maungdaw had been carried out by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) led by Ata Ullah. The group was previously known as Aqa Mul Mujahidin (AMM).
The report found out that after the attacks, the leader Ata Ullah had been continuously releasing propaganda video files through social media networks, alluring the Muslims in the region to cooperate with him to continue waging wars in Maungdaw.
The investigation of the apprehended terrorists revealed that the incident in Maungdaw had been carried out to incite the Muslims majority who lived in the area to spread terrorism amongst them and to make efforts to occupy Buthidaung and Maungdaw and build Maungdaw as their stronghold. It was found out that they received the substantial amount of financial aid from the extremists from some Middle East countries. They followed similar methods of other terrorist organizations such as Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS, through propaganda video files that had been broadcasted online and social media so that the religious extremists within and outside the country would join them.
The report summarised based on the collected evidences that the terrorists were systematically preparing to carry out further attacks in Maungdaw.
Unlike the previous conflicts that had occurred between the local communities in Rakhine State, the incidents in Maungdaw involved violent attacks on Kyee Kan Pyin Border Guard Police No. 1 Headquarters, Nga Khu Ya Police Station and Koe Dan Kauk Police outpost, and brutal killings of some members of the Myanmar Police Force. It was like the armed insurgency against a State institution by the terrorists groups receiving support and assistance from the extremist organizations in foreign countries, organizing and undergoing systematic trainings. The evidences also revealed that terrorists with foreign connections caused the situation more delicate and complex. The significant findings of the incident in Maungdaw was that the seizures of large numbers of methamphetamine tablets in Maungdaw, before the violent incidents, led to the suspicions that those who had suffered losses due to drug seizures might have played a role as well.
The report concluded the main reason of the people who took shelters in neighbouring country was having well aware of the recruitment, preparation, and trainings of sabotage activities including arson by the terrorists and their involvement in those terrorist activities led villagers leave their homes out of fears, concerns and intimidations.
Peace, Stability and Rule of Law
It is important to create a safe environment for the ethnic people who lived among the Muslim majority. At the same time, the Muslim Community should also be treated well.
It is also necessary to protect the majority of the peace-loving Muslim people who have been threatened by the terrorist group. Besides, the report advised to correct certain civil servants who committed corruption and have weaknesses in performing their respective duties. The report also revealed that since 2016 there has been increasing amount of confiscated drugs, leading to an illicit drug trafficking route in Maungdaw region.
The report also pointed out that in order to eliminate the expansion of the illicit drug trafficking routes by using Maungdaw as an exit, the special attention should be given to the nature of transnational crimes associated with the terrorist groups along the border area.
During the field trips of the Commission to Buthitaung
Township, three special courts were established to swift and just handling of the cases, and also coordinated with the local authority in arranging free transportation for Muslims families from the respective villages to Buthitaung Prison to visit the detainees.
Safety and Assurance of Basic Rights of the People
Following the discussions with the local communities comprising the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims at Nga Khu Ya village in Maungdaw Township during the first visit of the Commission, the Chairman of the Commission managed to negotiate for reopening of the local market and schools, and dispatching of teachers. Even though there is no ban for local Muslim praying at the mosque, they fear to visit the mosque because of the curfew and Section-144. The chairman of the Commission coordinated with the local authorities to allow prayers at the mosques.
Conflict Prevention and the situation of humanitarian
It is reported that the donor countries and organizations need to follow the Government’s policies in providing humanitarian assistance to ensure equitable and effective distribution of aids where it is needed.
The report highlighted that the provision of humanitarian assistance requires transparency and equity as well as thorough coordination between the Government and donors in adopting aid allocation criteria and programmes and on ground distribution of assistance.
While conducting the investigation, the Commission gave the special emphasis on the external allegations such as rape, torture, arson, human rights violations, discrimination and genocide in Muslim villages.
With regard to the cases of sexual violence against Muslim women in the foreign media, the Commission investigated the allegations in a thorough manner. The Commission investigated Noor Ayesha from Kyet Yo Pyin village whose husband was killed and her two daughters were raped, and the cases of Ma Jamal Li Har from Pyaung Pike village and Daw Than Than aka Ma Oorlan from Kyet Yo Pyin village, who presented their cases directly to the Commission. The members of the Commission personally interviewed men and women of different ages and social classes individually and in groups, but as the allegations could not be confirmed it was concluded that the cases require further investigations.
A field investigation to the villages where buildings had been burned down indicated that the fires might have been caused either during the crossfires or by the arsons. Practically, it was difficult to confirm the culprit who had set fire to village. In any case, the Commission managed to file the arsons cases in accordance with the law so that actions may be taken against the perpetrators.
The investigation processes have been continued to confirm the human rights violations and torture. Appropriate legal actions have been taken in some cases.
It is also stated that allegations of excessive use of force by security personnel may be taken as weaknesses on the part of the security forces. It is necessary to learn lessons to avoid recurrence of such actions in future. If the disproportionate use of force happens, the responsible personnel will be accountable. Appropriate actions have also been taken on some cases.
It is stressed that in order to have a better understanding on the international norms and rule of engagement, awareness-raising campaigns for the ranks and files of security forces should be further implemented.
During the conflicts, there could have been actions that were not in compliance with the law, and excessive action on the part of individual members of security forces. There could also be exaggerations and fabricated allegations. The report stated that as it was necessary to conduct thorough investigations to uncover what had actually happened, the responsible persons at various levels of administration need to look into the issues carefully and take actions if found guilty.
Points contained in the report of United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR)
The report also mentioned that the Commission took sufficient time in conducting field investigations to the affected villages including 20 villages mentioned in the OHCHR Report to verify whether the serious allegations raised in the report were true or not, whether there had been unlawful indiscriminate shootings, disappearances, rapes or gang-rapes to women, severe beatings, torture, racial and religious discrimination, looting, theft, burning and destruction of properties in Muslim villages, whether there have been incidents in which the right to life of Muslims in Northern Rakhine State has been disregarded, and whether there were any grounds of concerns that crimes against humanity had potentially been committed, possibly leading to ethnic cleansing. However, there were no testimonies and difficulties to interview in some cases so that immediate legal actions cannot be taken. The commission, however, coordinated to file cases and has been continuing the investigation.
The Commission’s Investigations in Bangladesh
A six-member team from the Commission led by its Secretary went to Bangladesh from 18 – 22 March 2017 to conduct an investigation with the displaced persons in three camps. The commission found out that the displaced persons were living in makeshift tents in dire situation at the camps. Because of the political instigation, some of the displaced persons mentioned that the recognition of Myanmar government to them as Rohingya would be a precondition for their return to Myanmar.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) made arrangements for the Commission members to conduct face-to-face interviews with male and female Muslim refugees at Kutupalaung Refugee Camp. At Balu Khali, refugees spoke only from behind a piece of yellow cloth that covered their face and upper body. At Leda, the displaced person refugees took interviews from the back of a piece of white cloth that hid them from head to toe.
The Commission was not allowed to take photographs, video or audio recordings. The IOM also prohibited the use of Myanmar language with those refugees who can speak Myanmar. Although there were many restrictions imposed by the IOM, the Commission did not make complaint, and focused on carrying out its duties.
There are 48 recommendations in the Commission’s report; 13 recommendations for governance and administration, 3 for news media, 2 for UN agencies and INGOs, 5 for citizenship verification, 3 for religious affairs, 6 for socioeconomic matters, 12 for national security and border security, 1 for cooperation with international security organizations and 3 for general purposes.
Observation on the formation of the Investigation Commission for Maungdaw
The Investigation Commission for Maungdaw in Rakhine State is comprised of 13 members. One of the members, U Htun Myat, served as United Nations Assistant Secretary General and another member, Dr. Aung Htun Thet, Senior Advisor at the United Nations, who have vast international experiences. Furthermore, in order to ensure fair, balanced and inclusiveness, representatives from all strata of life such as legal experts, parliamentarians and ethnic people as well as those from the interfaith groups are included in the Commission.
Measures taken by the Commission
The Commission held 11 meetings and conducted four field trips to the villages and camps in Maungdaw District, where the terrorist attacks took place. Moreover, the Commission members also visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh once and carried out systematic investigations.
The Commission members visited 64 places of camps and villages in Maungdaw District and interviewed 2,240 local residents, 10 prisoners from Sittwe and Buthitaung prisons, people from interfaith groups, responsible personnel from INGOs, officials from the respective departments and the security forces.
Study on the Investigation Techniques used by the
The reliability and credibility of the investigations can be assessed by studying the investigation techniques applied by the investigation committee, commission and special task forces. With a view to unfolding the actual incidents and situations while preventing the recurrence of similar incidents of violence in the future, the Commission visited affected villages and camps and interviewed the victims utilizing internationally accepted methods.
The rapid assessment method was mainly utilized in parallel with cross-sectional, qualitative methods such as roundtable discussions, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with women in almost all villages. Women were interviewed in their own groups in separate spaces where privacy was ensured. The efforts of the Commission members to reveal the truth on allegations are quite obvious as they patiently conducted interviews with females who spoke from behind a piece of yellow cloth that covered their faces and upper bodies at Balu Khali camp as well as female displaced persons who stayed behind a piece of white cloth that hid them from head to toe at Leda camp.
In some cases, interviewees were selected by local organizations and in other cases, by the Commission on a random basis. The names and addresses of the interviewees were kept confidential according to their wishes. If information on possible crimes came to light, the respective crime scenes were visited and investigated to a possible extent.
Moreover, the Commission report’s annexure contained statements, full account of the terrorist attacks in the Maungdaw District, documentary photographs of field trips and supporting photographs of the incidents.
The Commission’s recommendations reflect the on-ground situation in Rakhine State, and some of these recommendations are generally similar to those of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State led by the late Dr. Kofi Annan. The ARSA terrorist group launched attacks on 25 August 2018 as predicted in the assessment submitted by the Investigation Commission on 4 August 2017 that there would be possible terrorist attacks.
It is found out that most of the reports on the rape cases in Rakhine State were just compilations based on the narrative of the so-called victims and hearsays. In contrast, the recommendations of the Investigation Commission led by Vice President U Myint Swe were based not only on the narratives but also on the findings of the Commission from its investigations carried out during its field trips to the villages where the reported incidents were occurred.
In connection with the terrorist attacks and conflicts, it was found out that the Commission investigated not just only a single community but also other communities and ethnics groups in Maungdaw and its surrounding areas. It is obvious that the Commission exerted its efforts by reflecting fair and square statements of the affected communities.
All in all, the report of the Investigation Commission led by Vice President U Myint Swe is reliable, objective and a good source of reference for stability, development and social harmony of the Rakhine State. It contained the method of investigation, the efforts to explore the root-causes of the terrorist attacks and complexity of the issues and the background, through making frequent visits to the scenes where the incidents occurred, investigating the allegations of Human Rights violations, the observation and analysis on lasting stability and harmony, and the recommendations for reducing tension among the diverse communities thus leading to the harmonious life, etc.