Burma to launch internal investigation into military conduct against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state

Campaigners point to failure of past investigations and say it is nothing more than a PR exercise 

Friday 13 October 2017 17:24
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Burma’s military has launched an internal investigation into the actions of its soldiers in Rakhine state, from where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled in recent weeks.

An adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most senior civilian leader, has claimed she is “appalled” at the crisis and has a plan to help the refugees.

But critics said both actions are part of a wider public relations effort on behalf of the Burmese government.

A previous internal probe into alleged military violence in Rakhine was dismissed as a whitewash after it found no wrongdoing.

Since late August, horrific accounts have emerged from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including allegations of children being beheaded and people set on fire by Burmese army soldiers.

Now, military chiefs have announced a committee led by military Lieutenant-General Aye Win has begun an investigation into the behaviour of soldiers in Rakhine, who were sent there after Rohingya militants attacked a security forces outpost.

A statement by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the panel will examine of the military: "Did they follow the military code of conduct? Did they exactly follow the command during the operation? After that (the committee) will release full information."

The announcement came just before the United Nations Security Council was due to be briefed by former chief Kofi Annan on the Rohingya’s plight. Sanctions from the international community are also believed to be imminent.

Previous UN investigations teams to other alleged military misconduct in Burma have been denied entry to the country. In addition, journalists have been banned from entering the worst affected parts of Rakhine state without government minders.

The government has maintained the military was acting legitimately and has refers to the Rohingya minority as ‘Bengalis’, which infers they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Ms Suu Kyi has been criticised internationally for her silence on the Rohingya issue. She has previously declined to name the ethnic group, who even in peacetime were much maligned within Burma – they are not considered citizens and lack access to basic services.

“She is appalled by what she has seen. She does care deeply about this. I know that does not always come across. But she really does,” an unnamed adviser to Ms Suu Kyi told Reuters.

Rights activists have claimed that a marked change in tone from the government is likely a result of publicity guidance from a western firm.

“This isn’t an investigation, it’s a public relations effort,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK.

“It does appear that the government and perhaps the military have been receiving some public relations advice.

“We’ve seen a concerted effort this week and a significant change in tone in the way they are talking about what’s going on.

“We know there isn’t going to be a genuine investigation by the Burmese army, we saw this after the attacks against the Rohingya in October last year.”

Mr Farmaner said the purpose of the alleged public relations exercise was to avoid sanctions and other pressure being imposed by the US, European Union and other nations.

He added that Burmese rulers have long worked used these types of strategies to buy time.

Burma was an international pariah until 2015, when elections were held and the ruling general ceded power to Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

On Thursday, Ms Suu Kyi announced the creation of a committee that will oversee all international and local assistance in Rakhine state.

She said in a televised speech that her country was facing widespread criticism over the refugee crisis and called for unity in tackling the problem.

Her government is holding talks with Bangladesh on the return of "those who are now in Bangladesh," she said, giving no further details.

But officials have suggested the Rohingya who fled would need to provide residency documents, which few have.

Mr Farmaner stressed that despite the talk of repatriation, Ms Suu Kyi did not control the military and the safety of any Rohingyas who did return would not be guaranteed.

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