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INTERVIEW - Independent inquiry into alleged Muslim massacre needed in Myanmar – U.N. envoy

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 21 Feb 2014 10:54 GMT
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Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, reads a statement at Yangon International Airport February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
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BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A credible, independent investigation led by national and international experts into the alleged January massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is needed to break the cycle of impunity that has plagued the country for decades, a United Nations human rights envoy said. 

Lack of accountability in the Southeast Asian nation is a "historical problem", Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said after his last official mission to the country as his six-year mandate draws to a close. 

"If you look all over the country - the number of human rights violations that took place in the past or recently - you don't see any process of accountability. That is absolutely needed," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on Thursday.

"I am asking the Human Rights Council in Geneva from the United Nations to get involved in this. My conclusion is that there's no independent investigation in Myanmar," he said. 

An independent investigation that uncovers what happened would be an opportunity for the international community to work with the Myanmar government, he said. It would also send a message to those instigating violence and avoid further bloodshed, he added. 

After emerging from 49 years of military rule in 2011, Myanmar has faced repeated sectarian violence that has marred its transition to democracy.

Since June 2012, religious conflict across the country has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000, most of them Rohingya.

The latest incident concerns allegations by the United Nations and human rights groups that at least 40 Rohingya, including women and children, were killed by security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians as reprisal for the death of a policeman in Maungdaw township, a restricted area of Rakhine state.

Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has so far resisted calls for an international investigation. It has launched two probes. One led by the Rakhine Investigation Commission has already said it found no evidence of the killings except that of the policeman. The Myanmar Human Rights Commission will lead the other. 

Incidents in Maungdaw and other parts of Rakhine are difficult to independently verify because they are off limits to journalists and the government strictly controls access by international aid groups.

RAKHINE BUDDHISTS NOT FORGOTTEN 

Since violence first broke out in 2012, the U.N. and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have been criticised by Rakhine Buddhists who say the humanitarian agencies are biased towards Muslims. 

They object to the assistance provided to the displaced Rohingya, who have suffered decades of discrimination. Tens of thousands of Rohingya languish in sprawling camps under policies that have been compared to South Africa under Apartheid

Rallies have been held calling for the agencies to leave Rakhine, leaflets warning Rakhines not to rent their homes to aid agencies were distributed, and aid workers threatened. 

On this trip, Quintana - also accused of bias by Rakhine Buddhists groups - met the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), a powerful force that rights groups said has been involved in organising anti-Rohingya activities. Despite strong emotions, the meeting was productive, Quintana said. 

"Rakhine Buddhists may have very genuine demands and we need to hear those demands but we cannot accept that the pursuit of (these) demands be the loss of lives," Quintana said.

"We want to listen to you but please, we need to avoid violence. (It’s about) continually repeating this message," he added. 

He said aid agencies were in Rakhine to meet humanitarian needs. 

"Unless the situation escalates to something really, really serious, the U.N. will remain there and the INGOs also, so we need to start talking about it," he said. "We need to try to build dialogue."

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT HAS RESPONSIBILITY 

Quintana said the central government, not just the Rakhine state government, should ensure violence does not escalate. 

"I believe the central government has a responsibility and needs to offer a plan of action on how to address the problem in Rakhine state," he said. 

"The Muslim Rohingya community has been under systematic discrimination throughout the years. It’s very serious and we're not seeing anything from the central government in this respect on how to address the situation," he added. 

He said the situation was "not encouraging". 

"I think ordinary people have learnt throughout the years of military government to express themselves through violent means. The military has been quite violent against their own people, particularly against Rakhine Buddhists," Quintana said. 

He praised the reformist President Thein Sein, however, as "consistent in moving the reforms forward". 

Quintana was appointed in 2008 while the military junta was still in power. His final mission before his mandate ends in May included visits to Laiza, the rebel-controlled area in Myanmar’s north, sites of two major infrastructure projects and two prisons.  (Click here for the full Q&A)

He said he could see an improvement in human rights in Myanmar, but noted a number of challenges, including the need for a lasting ceasefire with the Kachin ethnic army in the north, freedom of expression and media freedom. 

"There is little space for backtracking. The transition is still fragile," he said. "And human rights should still be on top of the reform agenda."

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