Myanmar Rights Commission Declines to Conduct Rakhine Abuse Investigation

Myanmar’s human rights commission will not investigate alleged abuses committed against civilian detainees in war-ravaged northern Rakhine state, including deaths in custody of the government military, unless the army first finds soldiers guilty of such abuse, two lawmakers who requested probes told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday.

Lawmakers Oo Tun Win and Myint Naing from Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township submitted a formal letter to Myanmar’s parliament on June 21 through the Committee for Compliants and Appeals, urging an investigation into incidents in which suspects died in military detention and calling for legal action against violators.

On Monday, nearly six months after submitting the letter, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) replied that it would take legal action only if current investigations by a Ministry of Defense tribunal found soldiers guilty.

Oo Tun Win said the commission’s response is unsatisfactory.

“I would like to hear the human rights commission’s conclusion on the case,” he told RFA. “It has the authority to investigate and expose the losses of citizens’ rights and present the findings to the relevant ministries.”

“We would like to see its recommendations to take action against the offending organization for its rights violations,” he said. “We are expecting that. So far, we haven’t seen any satisfactory responses.”

At least 10 villagers have died in military custody in war-torn Rakhine state after soldiers detained them for interrogation in Minthartaung village in Kyauktaw township, Letka and Waitharli villages in Mrauk-U township, and Panmyaung village in Minbya township.

Myanmar troops often detain civilians for interrogation during “clearance operations” in villages near conflict zones to determine whether they have ties to the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine rebel military fighting for greater autonomy in the state.

Numerous civilians have reported being tortured and injured by soldiers during questioning.

But MNHRC member Yu Lwin Aung said the commission does not plan to investigate the incidents mentioned in the letter signed by the Rakhine legislators.

“So far, we don’t have any plans to investigate,’” he said, adding that commission members were busy looking into the case of a university student trafficked to Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region to work on a fishing raft and later abused by the boat’s foreman.

“We’ve got a lot on our plate right now and don’t have plans to investigate the cases you mentioned,” he added.

‘It is intolerable’

The Myanmar military announced on July 12 that a tribunal would be formed to investigate cases of civilian deaths while in army detention, but it has issued no  updates since then.

Family members of some of the villagers who have died during military interrogations told RFA that they had been interviewed by Kyauktaw township police, and that army officers never contacted them.

RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun on Monday to get updates on the military’s investigation of these cases.

“It is intolerable that my husband had been arbitrarily detained and killed despite his innocence,” said Saw Saw Than, wife of Kyaw Hlaing from Kyauktaw’s Minthartaung village, who died in army detention.

“They should have done the investigation only. They should not have harmed him. We have been silent because we are not allowed to speak out about it,” she said.

Kyaw Hlaing, 43, was detained by Myanmar troops in May while he was gathering firewood in a forest near the village. He died at Kyauktaw Hospital on May 26 due to injuries sustained during interrogations after the military's 9th Infantry Battalion based transferred him to township police.

Human rights groups have called on Myanmar forces to stop arresting, detaining, and torturing civilians suspected of being members of the AA or having connections to the rebel army. They say such detentions and deaths in custody by soldiers violate international human rights treaties.

The Thazin Legal Aid Network in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe has said that Myanmar forces have charged more than 500 people this year on having suspected ties to the AA.

Myat Tun, director of the Rakhine State Human Rights Defender’s Association, said that members of the MNHRC cannot be trusted because, he asserts, they are appointed by the Myanmar armed forces.

“The members of the National Human Rights Commission are appointed by the military, so we don’t trust them,” he said. “In fact, they should be investigating the case thoroughly and taking action against the offenders.”

Formed by the Myanmar government in 2011, the purportedly independent commission comprises 11 retired bureaucrats and academics who investigate complaints of possible human rights violations.

The commission replaced an earlier human rights committee formed under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs.

Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.