More than 50 domestic organizations call on government to support human rights mission

(YANGON, May 25, 2017)–Fifty-nine Myanmar-based civil society organizations today called on the Government of Myanmar to cooperate with a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission into the human rights situation “in at least Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, and other ethnic states of Myanmar.”

“[T]he Fact-Finding Mission is important for the people of Myanmar and our shared struggle for rule of law and human rights,” the organizations said. Today’s statement is the largest demonstration of support for the Fact-Finding Mission from within Myanmar.

“It’s not too late for civilian and military authorities to work with this mission to establish the facts and prevent further violations and abuses,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a signatory to the statement. “National reconciliation, stability, and development depend in large part on ending and remedying abuses and atrocities, and that can’t happen until the facts are firmly established.”

On March 24, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces . . . with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” The resolution further encouraged the Government of Myanmar to “cooperate fully with the fact finding mission,” stressing the need for “full, unrestricted and unmonitored access to all areas and interlocutors.”

The diverse signatories to today’s statement include prominent women-led organizations, human rights organizations, and development organizations representing various ethnicities throughout the country. Fortify Rights is not a signatory to the statement but supported civil society organizations in developing and publishing it today.

“These organizations know the scourge of atrocity crimes and impunity and want real solutions,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “The government has a responsibility to protect the population and hold perpetrators accountable, and this mission would help them do just that.”

Today’s statement comes during the “21st century Panglong Conference” – a meeting convened by Myanmar’s de-facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, ostensibly to end the country’s long-running wars and achieve “national reconciliation.” The meeting includes leaders of the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups, elected officials, and observers from civil society.

Any failure by the government to cooperate with the U.N. mission may demonstrate unwillingness to end and remedy human rights violations in ethnic states and that may adversely affect the country’s fledgling “peace process,” Fortify Rights said.

Upon its passage, the Government of Myanmar immediately “disassociated” itself from the resolution. At a press conference in Brussels on May 2, State Counselor Suu Kyi reiterated the government position, saying the resolution was “not in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground.” Suu Kyi’s offices have routinely denied allegations of serious human rights violations in Rakhine State since October 2016.

On October 9, 2016, armed militants attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine State, killing nine police. In response, the Myanmar military launched “area clearance operations,” forcing the displacement of more than 100,000 civilians.

Amid increasing allegations of human rights violations, in January, 40 Myanmar-based civil society organizations called for a “truly independent” investigation into the situation in Rakhine State. On February 3, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a “flash report” that documented mass rape of women and girls, extrajudicial killings, and the widespread burning of villages by Myanmar state security forces in Maungdaw Township since October 9. The report concluded the attacks could “very likely” amount to crimes against humanity.

Fortify Rights similarly documented how Myanmar state security forces in northern Rakhine State committed unlawful killings of ethnic Rohingya Muslims, including infants and children, raped and gang-raped ethnic women and girls, looted property, and razed entire villages, including religious structures and food stocks, since October. Fortify Rights also documented the severe restrictions imposed on Muslims in Rakhine State for decades, including restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of daily life.

Since October, Myanmar authorities have denied humanitarian agencies, journalists, and human rights monitors unfettered access to affected areas in Maungdaw Township. The authorities have denied life-saving humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya. Despite Myanmar authorities’ repeated promises to diplomats and others to increase humanitarian access to the area, aid operations remain limited.

Unchecked human rights violations also continue in northern Myanmar. In June 2011, civil war resumed in Kachin State between the Myanmar Army and Kachin Independence Army, spreading later into northern Shan State. Fighting in these areas increased during the last year. Fortify Rights and community-based organizations have documented extrajudicial killingstorture, forced labor, rape and other acts of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and pillaging of property by the Myanmar Army in Kachin and Shan states since 2011.

Human rights violations by the Myanmar Army in Kachin and Shan states have been perpetrated with near-complete impunity and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, Fortify Rights said.

Myanmar authorities also continue to restrict humanitarian aid groups and human rights monitors from operating freely in Kachin State and northern Shan State, resulting in avoidable deprivations of food, healthcare, and other humanitarian provisions for displaced communities.

State Counselor Suu Kyi has consistently promoted the concept of rule of law as an essential solution to the longstanding problems in ethnic states and the country. Today’s statement notes that the Government of Myanmar’s “full support for this Fact Finding Mission is an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to rule of law” and warns that a failure to cooperate with the mission could lead to a worsening human rights situation in Myanmar and further atrocity crimes. 

Today’s statement also follows an open letter from Fortify Rights and 22 international organizations on April 27 calling upon the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission.

“The mission will collect evidence and draw conclusions even if the government denies it access, but it’d be wise for the authorities to avoid that route,” said Matthew Smith. “Any failure to cooperate with this mission will raise international alarm bells, intensify pressure, and further damage trust with ethnic populations.”

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