Hopes for democracy in Myanmar are this week at their most vulnerable point since the National League for Democracy swept to electoral victory last year, as the military continues to ignore Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s calls for it to abide by the rule of law in northern Rakhine State and allegations of rights violations grow.
In an interview that bodes very badly for people in Rakhine and across the country, U Zaw Htay of the President’s Office flatly denied allegations of arbitrary arrests and torture in the state’s north as troops there continue to hunt for those behind three deadly assaults on border police bases on October 9.
On October 25, meanwhile, a video posted on YouTube by a group calling itself Faith Movement claimed that Rohingya rights activists were behind the attacks, the first time any organisation has taken responsibility for them since they occurred.
Speaking in the Myanmar language, one of the armed men in the video says the aim of the organisation is to secure rights for Rohingya people and that the group’s targets are the “colonial military”, not ethnic Rakhine civilians.
U Zaw Htay’s comments, published in The Irrawaddy yesterday, came on the same day The Global New Light of Myanmar reported that a 60-year-old man had died while in custody, the third suspect in the attacks confirmed by authorities to have done so.
The presidential spokesperson also said the reason authorities were denying access to those seeking to deliver aid to thousands of Muslims believed to have been displaced during counter-insurgency operations in the state was that they wanted to “push them back” to their villages.
Such a move is in clear breach of internationally recognised humanitarian principles, and a UN representative has voiced concern over the policy.
“The allegations of arrests made without evidence, and of torture, are totally wrong. We haven’t done that. We deny those accusations,” U Zaw Htay said.
It is a risky game indeed to personally vouch for the actions of thousands of soldiers and police in a remote region – particularly in what is an extremely tense situation.
As has been widely acknowledged, authorities have every right to carry out a lawful investigation into the brutal attacks on the border guards and bring the culprits to justice under the rule of law, but they do not have a right to abuse innocent civilians in the process. Furthermore, those arrested must be treated in accordance with internationally recognised rights protocols.
The Myanmar military has an exceptionally bad record when it comes to human rights. In refusing to countenance the possibility such abuses have taken place, U Zaw Htay has backed himself into a corner, from which it will be very difficult to extricate himself later.
Hopes for any kind of credible, independent investigations into the deaths in custody have been set back considerably by this, for were such an inquiry to find things other than the spokesperson has claimed it would be a considerable loss of face for the government.
And the admission that the government is deliberately denying aid – including food – to vulnerable civilians in order to push them back to their villages to make it easier for security forces to conduct their “clearance” operations as they hunt for insurgents amounts to a very clear acknowledgement that rights protocols are being ignored.
Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Myanmar, said, “In all cases such as this, it is important that the return or resettlement of displaced people is completed through an informed, voluntary, safe and dignified process that is in line with international standards.”
Mr Peron said aid organisations “urgently” need access to all affected people in all areas to assess humanitarian needs and deliver life-saving assistance.
“The UN and humanitarian partners are ready to provide assistance to all people wherever it is needed. Humanitarian need is our only measure and impartial aid is our only objective,” he added.
A Tatmadaw soldier stands guard at an outpost in Maungdaw township, northern Rakhine State, after the area was declared an “operation zone” following a deadly attack on Border Guard Police on October 9. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times
U Zaw Htay’s comments came during a week that has seen a number of developments regarding northern Rakhine, but also increasing rumour, fear and speculation, accompanied by denials by the authorities – at times angry ones, according to some of those who have questioned ministers over official versions of events.
Aid agencies say as many as 12,000 Muslim people were displaced during the security operations, with Reuters reporting on-the-ground sources saying border police had ordered the entire village of Kyikan Pyin village – about 2000 people – to abandon their homes on October 23. Villagers have reported that empty properties have been looted by both state security forces and Buddhist residents.
And yesterday The Myanmar Times reported that dozens of Muslim women have allegedly been raped by state security forces during the counter-insurgency operations, according to rights groups citing “credible” sources.
These allegations, as with those of other abuses, have been impossible to independently verify because no outside observers are being given access to check. This has led to mounting demands for access.
U Zaw Htay suggested in his interview that both the UN and international media had been misled or “confused” by propagandists from the Rakhine Muslim population who were disseminating lies mixed with facts.
It is highly likely that his claim of misinformation has some truth to it. Activists within the Rohingya community, especially those operating online, have done their cause little favour by regularly reporting rumour as if it were fact.
However, the weight of evidence that atrocities are taking place is increasing and if the authorities have nothing to hide, there seems no reason outside observers should not be allowed to enter the area.
“Whenever facts on the ground are disputed, access helps to establish the truth,” Laetitia van den Assum, a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, wrote on her personal Twitter account yesterday in response to the report on the rape allegations.
Such a principle would seem obvious, yet the government still refuses to allow access – not just to journalists but also humanitarian actors.
Sources involved in negotiations for this access say such decisions are being made by the military and not Myanmar’s democratically elected civilian administration, and that State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is effectively powerless in the current situation.
Whether she is now actively seeking outside support in her calls for a more measured approach and for security forces to abide by the rule of law in their operations remains unclear.
But this week a group of high-profile UN rights experts, including the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, urged the government to address the allegations of rights violations.
“In the aftermath of the attacks, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has rightly called for proper investigations to be conducted and for no one to be accused until solid evidence is obtained,” Ms Lee said.
“Instead, we receive repeated allegations of arbitrary arrests as well as extrajudicial killings occurring within the context of the security operations conducted by the authorities in search of the alleged attackers.”
The outright denial by U Zaw Htay that such violations are occurring at all suggests that even with international backing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has no real negotiating power on this issue at all and the military will continue its operations regardless.
According to sources receiving on-the-ground reports from the Maungdaw area, the initial military response allegedly involved sweeping raids and on-sight shootings of anyone – including women and children – deemed a threat.
But these sources said that has now changed to a more targeted approach by security forces, focusing on village heads and other key community figures from whom the authorities want to extract information about insurgents suspected to be living among ordinary villagers.
That would tie in broadly with what U Zaw Htay described in his interview when he said, “The police force has the responsibility of clearing [villages], and the military of accompanying them as an auxiliary force. In forests or mountainous areas, the military takes [overall] responsibility. This way, we get information from administrators and community elders in villages as well as from investigating those arrested. We then make additional arrests based on this information.”
It is for this reason that the authorities are keen to see those displaced return to their village.
Where the reports from those on the ground and the government differ wildly, however, is that people in the villages say a number of these village heads are returning from interrogations unable to walk, or not returning at all.
For U Zaw Htay to suggest the international community or the Myanmar public should simply believe the government when it denies widely reported abuses highlights how the current administration has little if any more commitment to democratic accountability than its predecessor – whose president, U Thein Sein, U Zaw Htay also represented.
As the hunt for those behind the attacks continues and allegations of rights abuses grow, it becomes increasingly undeniable that those in the international community who have lauded Myanmar’s rapid progress toward democracy have been lured into a trap of optimism that is rapidly being exposed as a fallacy.
Ultimately this remains a military regime and the generals have no compunction in showing that when it suits their aims.
It is true that other countries in the world have failed to uphold human rights in the battle against Islamic terrorism. That is to be condemned in itself. But it is important to highlight that there is so far little or no convincing evidence that those behind the attacks on the border police posts in Rakhine had any links to major international terror organisations.
The most recent videos that have emerged from those claiming to be behind the attacks have sought to paint the assaults in the light of ethnic rights for those who identify as Rohingya and to link their fight to that of the recognised ethnic minority groups staging armed insurgencies in other parts of the country.
“I’d like to speak seriously: The war we have today waged to defend ourselves is not a war between Rohingya and Rakhine,” the group spokesperson said.
“We openly let the Rakhine people know we did not destroy lives, properties and religious buildings of Rakhine people and we will never destroy them in the future.”
There may well be an element of damage limitation in such moves, as the Muslim community in Rakhine realise that being associated with Islamic terrorism gives the authorities every excuse to further ramp up abuses against them. However, it remains the fact that for now, any atrocities against civilians being carried out by the military in the name of a fight against Islamic terrorism are happening without any evidence being produced that those behind the assaults are involved in such a cause.
It is vitally important, therefore, that the international community continues to stand behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in pressing the military to abide by internationally recognised human rights standards in its operations in Rakhine.
Any real democracy may be further off than many choose to believe, but this country has shown progress in so many ways over the last few years. If that were to collapse now and the military is allowed to entirely ignore its democratically elected leader and ride roughshod over the basic principles of human rights, it will be tragedy – not just for the Muslim population in Rakhine and those civilians suffering in the Tatmadaw’s fights against ethnic armed groups in other parts of the country, but for the entire nation.