Rohingya Refugees Seek to Testify on Atrocities to Myanmar Panel, But Fear Retribution

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar want to give eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed against them by state military forces in 2016-17 to the members of a government-appointed inquiry commission, but they refuse to travel to the country from their camps in Bangladesh for fear of retaliation by authorities, a Rohingya activist said Thursday.

We have comprehensive evidence, and the evidence we’ve gathered is totally undeniable by Myanmar government, said Mahmout Sori, a refugee and member of the Arkan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, a new group formed by Rohingya in the Kutupalong refugee camp to advocate for their rights and protection.

We’d like to present our evidence if they are ready, he said, referring to Myanmar’s four-member Independent Commission of Enquiry set up by the government in July to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state.

But we feel as though they [Myanmar authorities] are checking our personal information, and we are worried because they asked who gave the information and where did they live before [fleeing Rakhine state], Mahmout Sori said.

So, we’d like to present our comprehensive information once the commission comes to this side, he said, referring to the Bangladesh side of the river border between the two states.

Mahmout Sori said the refugees have formed other groups, and that all of them are discussing how to proceed with testimony because they fear that Myanmar authorities will threaten or harm them for speaking out.

Our people fear they will be intimidated by Myanmar government once they provide their accounts [of what happened], he said.

The Arkan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights presented its findings to Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a visit to the refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh in November.

Rohingya camp leaders gave him a letter addressed to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in which the refugees demanded that the government to accept them as an official ethnic group and restore their full citizenship rights as two of several key conditions for their return to northern Rakhine under a repatriation program.

They also called for the lifting of restrictions on their movement and on access to services such as health care and education.

The Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and face systematic discrimination, maintain that they were recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar with rights to full citizenship prior to the enactment of the country’s Citizenship Law in 1982.

The law prohibits the Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens because the minority group is not listed included among country’s official ethnic groups.

Commission’s probe underway

The commission began its probe in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district on Aug. 31, a year after a violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims by security forces that drove more than 725,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh. A previous crackdown in northern Rakhine in October 2016 forced out more than 90,000 Rohingya.

Myanmar established the panel in response to mounting international condemnation over the brutal 2017 campaign, which included killings, torture, rape, and village burnings, following deadly attacks by a Muslim military group on Aug. 25, 2017.

The government has denied that its forces committed the atrocities and defended the military action as a necessary counterinsurgency against Muslim terrorists.

An extensive report issued in September by United Nations investigators, however, detailed violence by Myanmar security forces and called for the prosecution of top military commanders on genocide charges at the International Criminal Court or by another criminal tribunal.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, but the program has yet to get underway.

An initial group of refugees had been approved for repatriation in mid-November, but they failed to show up at the border for processing.

‘We will find out the truth’

At a press conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Thursday, Rosario Manalo, a senior Philippine diplomat who chairs the panel, called on people with evidence of human rights violations in northern Rakhine following the attacks to submit them to the commission by Jan. 31, 2019, the Myanmar Times reported.

She also said the commission’s objective of commission is to collect information and evidence of wrongdoing carried out by the Myanmar government.

We believe that we will find out the truth, Manalo was quoted as saying.

The other three commissioners are Kenzo Oshima, Japan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Myanmar lawyer Mya Thein who previously served as chairman of Myanmar’s constitutional tribunal and as senior official at UNICEF; and Aung Tun Thet, a Myanmar economist and former U.N. official who is the chief coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettle and Development in Rakhine.

The commissioners have already met once met with ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state as well as state government officials, but have yet to visit the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In early November, the commission appointed two experts to conduct a legal, forensic and criminal investigation team that will collect information and data on human rights abuses, the Myanmar Times report said.

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