TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) today urged the Myanmar government to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into reports of abuses by security forces against civilians in northern Rakhine State. The network of regional lawmakers also called on the Myanmar military to allow aid workers and independent journalists access to affected areas in order to provide humanitarian assistance and document developments.
"The reports coming out of Myanmar's Rakhine State are alarming and demand a credible investigation. At the same time, all authorities must take urgent action to prevent further violations and fulfill their responsibility to protect the rights of all civilians," said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
"We remain deeply concerned, however, that as a result of the lack of government oversight of security forces, effective systems are not in place to protect civilians or support their chance of seeing justice served."
Reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, and destruction of homes and property have emerged in the weeks since a coordinated attack on three border guard posts in Rakhine State killed nine police officers on 9 October. The subsequent alleged abuses by security forces have reportedly targeted Rohingya villages in Maungdaw Township, near the border with Bangladesh. Condemning all acts of violence, APHR stressed the importance of adherence to the rule of law.
"The loss of any life is a tragedy, and Myanmar authorities should certainly investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on police posts. But that effort cannot come at the expense of the safety and well-being of innocent civilians. Security forces in Rakhine State must uphold the rule of law by ensuring that their operations are limited in scope and do not target civilian populations," Santiago said.
At least 13,000 people, including members of both Rohingya and Rakhine communities, are estimated to have fled their homes as a result of operations by security forces in the aftermath of the 9 October attack. Severe restrictions on access to northern Rakhine State, where the majority of the country's Rohingya population lives, have made it difficult for independent groups to verify information coming out of the area.
"Myanmar government officials have denied outright that rights violations are occurring. But the lack of access makes these claims impossible to verify and severely undermines their credibility. Allowing independent monitors and journalists to access the area would therefore be in the interest of Myanmar authorities, as well as the local population," Santiago said.
The Myanmar government has reportedly extended invitations to select diplomats to visit areas in northern Rakhine State beginning today. APHR cautioned that this should not be seen as a substitute for a thorough investigation of alleged abuses, but expressed hope that the invitation might soon be followed by a widening of access for all groups, including journalists and aid workers.
Parliamentarians urged regional partners, including ASEAN, to support the Myanmar government in its investigation of alleged abuses, where necessary, and to play a proactive role in resolving existing tensions in Rakhine State.
"Ongoing violence could force increasing numbers of Rohingya to leave Myanmar, and many could end up caught in a web of human trafficking and further abuse. ASEAN has a moral duty to act to prevent this," Charles Santiago said.
"Just a few weeks ago State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed ASEAN as a productive partner in resolving the situation in Rakhine State. ASEAN should make clear that it is ready and willing to step into that role, recognizing that what is going on in Rakhine State has the potential to directly affect other member states, as we saw with the regional boat people crisis in 2015," said Eva Kusuma Sundari, Vice Chair of APHR and a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.
During the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) meeting in Naypyitaw on 30 September, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the situation in Rakhine State and called for regional support in resolving it, saying: "We are working to build understanding, harmony and trust between communities while standing firm against prejudice, intolerance, and extremism. In doing so, we ask for the constructive support of our regional neighbors."
Despite the State Counsellor's request, APHR noted that the recent developments highlight the problematic status of Myanmar's security forces, who remain out of the direct control of the civilian administration as a result of the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
"The constitution grants the military complete autonomy and no civilian oversight," Sundari said. "The current situation lays bare the profound problems with this arrangement and further emphasizes the need for constitutional reform and democratic accountability. The struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar is far from over. ASEAN must be ready to support Myanmar on the path toward genuine democracy."