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Yangon – The Muslims listening weren’t happy. Five of the 27 original members of the Rakhine Investigation Commission to the Government of Myanmar had just presented the findings of their long-awaited and much-delayed report into last year’s sectarian violence in the west of the country.
Among the recommendations the commissioners advocated included sending more soldiers to the region and strengthening the controversial border police — deemed part of the problem by human rights groups.
When asked at the press conference if the commission had found or heard of mass graves or encountered evidence of complicity among Myanmar security forces in the attacks on Muslims in Rakhine state — allegations contained in a Human Rights Watch report published a week previously — the five commissioners on the podium shook their heads.
“We did not hear of any mass graves,” said Yin Yin Nwe. “As for the army, all we know is that they moved to restore order between the two sides, after a few days.”
Elsewhere, the commission recommended “family planning” education for Muslims, to offset their alleged “high population growth rates.” The Rakhine, the ethnic group also known as Arakanese and for whom the western Myanmar region is named, apparently fear being outbred by the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around 800,000 people.
Describing meetings she had with Rohingya women, commissioner Yin Yin Nwe, an economic advisor to Myanmar President Thein Sein, said that “many of the women told me the religious leaders told them they would go to hell if they used contraceptives.”
And, ignoring the rise elsewhere in Myanmar of groups such as the controversial “969” Buddhist monk-led movement, which promotes a boycott of Muslim businesses, the commission said that civic education is needed “to counter extremist teachings for the Muslim communities in Rakhine state.”
No wonder perhaps, that Rohingya politician Myo Thant described the report as “biased and incomplete,” when speaking to this correspondent after the commissioners finished their presentation.
But it wasn’t even those recommendations that irked Myo Thant — and Mohamed Salim, another Rohingya politician — who listened as former political prisoners and Myanmar icons such as Ko Ko Gyi and comedian Zarganar — both commissioners — outlined their findings from several visits to Rakhine state.
Foremost in their minds was what the report left out: the R word. Rohingya. In the report and throughout the press conference, there were regular mentions of “Bengalis” and “illegal immigrants,” to the chagrin of the Rohingya in the audience.
“We are Rohingya, not Bengali, and that is the main point that is wrong with this report,” said Mohamed Salim, speaking to this correspondent after the event. “I am angry because of that.”
The report’s executive summary carried the following footnote: “Those who are not of the 135 indigenous ethnic groups of Myanmar, according to the country’s laws and official documents, have always been classed as ‘Bengali,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘Chinese,’ etc., according to their ethnic root. For example the race and citizenship of Chinese citizens of Myanmar are written on their identification cards as ‘Chinese/Myanmar.’”
The Rohingya claim to have lived in what is now Myanmar for centuries, although there is a lack of paperwork to back their claims — or refute the contentions of the government. Almost all of the Rohingya have been denied citizenship under a 1982 law and are not recognised as a separate ethnic group in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated opposition leader and MP, said she does not know if the Rohingya, or some of them at least, are entitled to citizenship. Thein Sein, the country’s much-lauded reformer-president, said last summer that the Rohingya should be deported en masse to a third country.
The commission recommends assessing “Bengali” citizenship claims in the context of the widely-criticised 1982 citizenship law: sort-of like squaring a vicious circle for the Rohingya, given that the same law effectively denies the Rohingya citizenship
The commission’s recommendations about aiding the displaced were welcomed by the Rohingya who listened, however. “The most immediate task is to build shelters for everyone,” advised commissioner Aung Naing Oo, another prominent former dissident and long-time political exile in Thailand, who returned to Myanmar in the wake of political reforms started in 2011.
With the monsoon season imminent, 120,000 or so people made homeless by last year’s violence are languishing in fetid camps, many of which could wash away in the looming downpours, aid workers warn.
The commission said that aid should be supplied to all those affected by the violence, adding that “it is becoming extremely urgent to provide the Bengali IDPs with access to safe and secure shelter prior to the monsoon season.”
However, the report failed to discuss some of the hurdles faced in distributing aid. Vickie Hawkins, the Deputy Country Director for Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar, said that some in the Rakhine population have threatened local and international aid workers, seen by the Rakhine as biased toward the Rohingya. “This is directed towards the government’s own people,” she told the commissioners, warning that a failure to address this intimidation “will make it very difficult to implement your humanitarian recommendations.”Show