Myanmar has established a commission of inquiry to probe the allegations of human rights abuses in the conflict-torn Rakhine state.
The announcement was made earlier this week, as it faces growing international calls to investigate accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims.
Nearly a million have fled across the border since late August last year, when fresh violence erupted in the wake of “terrorist” attacks by the insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army, on over a dozen of border patrol posts, killing a dozen security guards.
Myanmar military’s conduct in Rakhine is expected to be put under the microscope at the forthcoming United Nations Annual General Assembly, which starts next month in New York.
International human rights organisations are pushing for sanctions to be imposed on the country’s military, while some countries have begun to explore the possibility of bringing Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
The committee’s formation has been in the works for months, and was originally suggested to the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi by the former Thai foreign minister Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, who heads the advisory board created by Myanmar authorities last December, to advise on the best ways to bring peace and national reconciliation in Rakhine.
He underscored the need to investigate the persistent allegations of abuse and to involve international experts in the inquiries.
The country’s civilian leaders have long understood that it needed to confront the international pressure to allow an independent “fact finding” mission to investigate the situation in Rakhine, by conducting its own credible probe, according to government insiders.
It is being called a commission of inquiry instead of “fact finding” because it seems to be less obtrusive.
“The COI demonstrates the commitment of the Myanmar government to find out the facts behind the conflicts in Rakhine State,” Dr Surakiart told the Bangkok Post by email.
“The facts that will emerge from its deliberations will help to narrow the gap in differences in interpretation of the events that have occurred [since last August]. And the disclosure of this information will create an environment conducive to promoting peace and reconciliation among the communities in Rakhine.”
Various models have been considered over the past six months, before authorities decided on a four-member commission comprising two international representatives: Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo, Japan’s former ambassador to the UN Kenzo Oshima, and two local members — lawyer Mya Thein and Aung Tun Thet, an economist and former UN official.
The 82-year old Manalo, a former diplomat who is currently the Philippines’ representative to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, will chair the commission.
Some diplomats fear that the international members are compromise candidates to appease the powerful Myanmar military, who had originally opposed the involvement of foreign representatives in the investigation.
But Asian diplomats, who know the two chosen members, feel their forthright approach may even take Nay Pyi Taw by surprise.
“Ambassador Manalo is a veteran Filipino diplomat, highly regarded in Asean circles as a tough, experienced negotiator, but also as someone who stands and fights for her principles,” said Kobsak Chutikul, a former senior Thai diplomat and a former member of Dr Surakiart’s advisory board, until he resigned last month over the lack of progress in Rakhine and government inaction.
While Mr Kobsak agreed that the establishment of the COI, especially the inclusion of Ms Manalo, was a “sign of hope”, others with a long track record in Myanmar and Rakhine affairs are less optimistic about the the outlook.
“It would have been good if at least one of the members [of the COI] had had solid experience and background in criminal law and procedure,” said Laetitia van den Assum — a former senior Dutch diplomat and a former member of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine.
“It will be important to see the full terms of reference,” she told the Bangkok Post.
“I hope the full mandate and rules of procedure will be made public. Transparency will be critical for the commission’s credibility.”
The government, continued Ms van den Assum, has to address the issue of the commission’s authority and procedures.
“For a criminal investigation you have to be very precise,” the Dutch diplomat pointed out.
“For example, can it compel people to appear before it? How will it guarantee the safety of those who do appear before it? And so on.”
But the government is obviously walking a tight rope as far as the military are concerned.
It was clear all along that they were reluctant to have this initiative thrust upon them, opposed the participation of foreigners and even threatened action against the government.
It seems that they have reluctantly conceded. However, the inquiry will only progress if the army cooperates with it. And this is far from certain.
“We will have to wait and see of course how much the Tatmadaw is willing to receive and cooperate with Ambassador Manalo and the new commission,” Mr Kobsak told the Bangkok Post.
If the recent experience of the advisory board is anything to go on, this is far from certain mused the former Thai diplomat and ex-board member: they met with the Kofi Annan commission but refused to see the advisory board, but later welcomed the UN special envoy, he pointed out.
Many diplomats and government supporters though believe the commission should not be dismissed before it has been given a chance.
“The commission’s establishment reflects a principled and pragmatic response to one of the world’s most talked about conflicts,” said Janelle Saffin, a former Australian MP and lawyer with specialist knowledge of Myanmar, who conducts specialist development programmes with Myanmar’s parliamentarians.
But more critical observers, like the Dutch diplomat Ms van den Assum, believe the Myanmar government needs to do more to convince the world of its sincerity and good intentions.
“It’s important to confirm that the inquiry is guided by international norms and standards,” she said.
Supporters of the initiative argue that it is the only hope for what the government — in its statement announcing the panel called “part of its national initiative to address reconciliation, peace, stability and development in Rakhine.”
Ms Saffin added: “I would hope that critics would see that these are calibrated actions that will address human rights within a framework of advancing reconciliation and peace and maintain the transition.”