YANGON: The Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) tasked by Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi last July to investigate allegations of human rights abuse in Rakhine State has told CNA it is now waiting to enter Bangladesh to complete its findings.
The panel, headed by diplomat Rosario Manalo from the Philippines, has been given one year to complete its task.
However, ICOE has yet to enter Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, where more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees are staying after fleeing violence in Rakhine State in August 2017, it told CNA.
“Extensive enquiry work is necessary before being able to make any concrete finding of facts,” an ICOE spokesperson said.
“In the event that Bangladesh does not respond to ICOE’s request to visit Cox’s Bazar, then Bangladesh deprives both the ICOE’s investigators and the witnesses in Cox’s Bazar to have an effective and completed work,” she said.
“Consequently, Myanmar’s national enquiry process to seek accountability is being frustrated by Bangladesh.”
However, the spokesperson added ICOE remains optimistic Bangladesh will respond.
On Jan 7, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed Dr AK Abdul Momen as the country’s new Foreign Affairs Minister.
ICOE said Ms Manalo wrote to Dr Momen on Jan 10, requesting a courtesy call.
“The latest follow-up letter dated May 28, 2019 was sent by the chairperson (Ms Manalo) of ICOE, addressed to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh enclosing all the details required,” the ICOE spokesperson said.
“However, there has been no response,” she said.
ICOE said that it hopes to - with Bangladesh’s approval - conduct enquiries in Cox’s Bazar “for as long as allowed, depending on the ground situation and what can be observed”.
The commission aims to record statements, collect evidence and information from witnesses residing in Cox’s Bazar.
CNA has reached out to Dr Momen for a response.
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In the meantime, ICOE told CNA, it has held dialogues with different communities in various villages in Northern Rakhine, including Rakhines, Muslims and Hindus living in mixed villages.
ICOE said it has also met a Muslim family who returned to Myanmar on their own volition.
“They had candid discussions on their experiences prior to and after their return,” the spokesperson said.
To date, not a single Rohingya refugee has returned from Bangladesh to Myanmar via the official channel despite the repatriation deal between both nations in November 2017.
Myanmar has come under immense international pressure over the Rohingya crisis, with many global partners calling for Myanmar to address allegations of human rights abuses.
In March 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council set up a Fact-Finding Mission to establish facts and circumstances of alleged human rights violations in Myanmar by military and security forces.
Five months later, on Aug 25, 2017, violence broke out in Rakhine State.
This came after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – which Myanmar brands as terrorists – attacked Myanmar police posts and a military base in the early hours.
Myanmar troops responded by sweeping through villages, causing some 700,000 villagers to flee out of fear.
Nearly a year later, the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (UNIIFFM) released a 400-page report in September 2018, accusing the Myanmar military of conducting genocide against the Rohingyas.
UNIIFFM – which spoke to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar – had not been allowed to enter Myanmar to conduct findings.
Myanmar has rejected UNIIFFM's findings, adding that its government has serious questions about the mission’s objectivity, impartiality and sincerity.
In July 2018, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi formed the ICOE, tasking the panel to conduct investigations in Rakhine State.
ICOE told CNA it has approached the UN’s fact-finding mission as “ICOE is an enquiry mechanism seeking to gather data, information and evidence”.
UNIIFFM member Chris Sidoti told CNA that it has had several exchanges of correspondence, a skype conference call, and a lengthy meeting with Ms Manalo in Geneva.
“We have discussed with her (Ms Manalo) the ICOE’s mandate, resources and working methodologies. The UNIIFFM and the ICOE chairperson agreed to cooperate,” Mr Sidoti said.
“The UNIIFFM has not received any specific request from the chairperson,” he said.
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Mr Sidoti added: “The ICOE had the benefit of being able to visit Rakhine State for its work. The fact-finding mission did not, having been refused entry by the Government of Myanmar. But access is meaningless, and potentially harmful, if not carefully used. Rohingya refugees we’ve spoken to fear reprisals for speaking out against the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military’s) brutality in Rakhine."
Mr Sidoti also raised concerns that ICOE’s relationship with the government could deter people, in particular the victims, from speaking honestly, thereby affecting the credibility of its findings.
“We would hope that the ICOE's report contains extensive accounts of the evidence given to the ICOE by significant numbers of people in Rakhine State, from the various ethnic groups there, as well as reports on visits to the sites of alleged human rights violations," said Mr Sidoti.
“We would also hope that the ICOE report analyses and evaluates the evidence gathered by the ICOE, according to internationally accepted standards for human rights investigations," he added.
ICOE chairperson Ms Manalo has said the panel is independent and conducts its activities with transparency, integrity and professionalism, adding the panel will carry out its work guided by the laws of Myanmar.
ICOE said its work is still ongoing.