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Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Andrew Nachemson and Lun Min Mang

Here's what you need to know today.
1. ICOE finds no genocidal intent
2. USDP attacks NLD's nationalist credentials
3. US Senators urge support of Myanmar election
4. Constitutional amendments finalised
5. More reports of injury and torture from Rakhine
6. Briefer, still

Report submitted, independence debated
Rosario Manalo, chairperson of the Independent Commission of Enquiry, was all smiles as she handed over her report to President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday. The report itself has not been made publicly available (and the president's office said only a summary will be), but an accompanying statement made it clear that the ICOE does not believe genocide was committed against the Rohingya.

The ICOE was set up by the government to investigate possible human rights abuses in Rakhine State in the aftermath of the 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which led to the mass exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya and accusations of genocide. Most observers, however, dismissed the body’s objectivity from the get-go. Manalo didn’t inspire much confidence when she said there would be “no blaming of anybody”, despite the fact that the ICOE website claims it is “seeking accountability”.

In the end there was blame, but it was largely reserved for ARSA. The statement said the report covered the background to the crisis, including the “cycle of violence” in Rakhine State. When it lists the principal topics covered, the first is "wide gaps in the narratives", followed secondly by “human rights violations”. The apparent order of the ICOE’s priorities may support the widespread belief that the purpose of the ICOE was not to investigate - but to exonerate. 

The statement, which toes the government line, emphasises the scale of the ARSA attacks and says that war crimes and "serious" human rights violations were "committed by multiple actors", including the Myanmar military, which was "provoked" by ARSA. The powers that be may have realised the emphasis on ARSA wasn’t a good look, as the initial release included a map showing the 30 outposts that were attacked by ARSA on August 25, 2017, but the map was later removed, along with a sentence that referred to it. 

"The killing of innocent villagers and destruction of their homes were committed by some members of Myanmar's security forces through disproportionate use of force during the internal armed conflict," the ICOE wrote, adding that there was no evidence for one to “reasonably conclude” that these acts were committed with genocidal intent.

The President’s Office released its own statement this morning, offering some more detail but not the entire 450-page report. The press release mentioned “particularly serious loss of life” in three villages where massacres of Rohingya were previously reported - Min Gyi (aka Tula Toli), Chut Pyin, and Maung Nu. The President’s Office said the massacres must be investigated further and those responsible prosecuted. There was no mention in the statement of the high-profile, well-documented attacks in Inn Din and Gu Dar Pyin villages.

In an emailed statement, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division Phil Robertson said the ICOE’s conclusion was "unsurprising" and called the body "politically skewed". He called for the release of the full report and for more transparency on the ICOE’s methodology and operations.

There are multiple potential conflicts of interest within the ICOE. Panel member Aung Tun Thet, for example, is also a member of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, which the UN has accused of consolidating the consequences of war crimes by building on land abandoned by the Rohingya. 

Aung San Suu Kyi staked a large part of her argument against genocide allegations at the International Court of Justice on Myanmar’s right and ability to investigate and administer its own justice. The ICOE findings come just days before the ICJ is expected to deliver its judgment on provisional measures, but leaves many questions unanswered. How can this report be part of a system of accountability if it isn’t available to the public? 

The statement also seems to suggest that those Tatmadaw soldiers who used excessive force did so of their own volition, not because of a central military policy. Whether the crackdown on the Rohingya ends up fitting the strict legal definition of genocide, most observers believe there was an organised nature to the attacks. 

Nationalism fervour
Even as the government tries to portray Myanmar as capable of administering justice, the Union Solidarity and Development Party is kicking up a fuss over the Yangon chief minister’s use of the term “Rohingya” last week. In a video uploaded to Facebook, minister Phyo Min Thein said the Yangon Regional Transport Authority was not responsible for a recent incident where “Rohingya” used the Yangon Bus Service to try to enter Ayeyarwady Region.

The joint statement, published in Burmese, was signed by the USDP and its smaller political allies, and slams the NLD for harming “the nationalist spirit, nationalism and social affairs”. The statement claims “Bengalis are trying to massively enter Myanmar by all means (using land, water, and aerial transportation),” adding that Rohingya are using the ruling party’s “logos” but did not elaborate. The statement also accuses Phyo Min Thein of attacking the nation while it’s facing judgment at the ICJ and demanded action be taken against him.

The statement is filled with rhetoric portraying the nation as being on the brink of Islamisation and warning that the NLD cannot be relied on to protect the country. The USDP’s rhetoric against the Rohingya has increased in recent weeks, and so has its effort to implicate the NLD. Last week, a USDP party leader criticised the NLD for internationalising the Rakhine crisis, rather than keeping it a domestic issue. 

It’s an indicator of the USDP’s election strategy, which was embarrassingly routed in the 2015 election, as it tries to harness fierce nationalism as a way back into power.

Senators urge US engagement
A group of US Senators including Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and USAID Administrator Mark Green, urging them to ensure support for Myanmar's upcoming elections. In the letter, the bipartisan group of senators encouraged “continued robust U.S. engagement” and said “preparations must begin well in advance” to ensure the elections are free and fair.

The letter said this election is important in “institutionalizing democracy”, a perspective shared by many Myanmar observers. The senators also stress the importance of strengthening democracy to counter growing Chinese influence - although the democratically elected government was still happy to meet with President Xi Jinping over the weekend.

The letter asks that America provide infrastructure for free and fair elections, strengthen the Union Election Commission, support independent journalism, support media literacy and voter education, and build the capacity of political parties (especially new ethnic parties). While none of these are controversial on paper, the military-aligned USDP has been wary of US interference in the elections and might push back against this statement.

In brief

Amendments finalised
The 45-member charter change committee finished drawing up its first two constitutional amendment bills on January 20, according to a post on the Facebook page of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Absent from the meeting were the military MPs who in December objected to the committee’s proceedings as “bullying”. Five MPs -  two from the military-aligned USDP, two from the Arakan National Party and an independent lawmaker - resigned from the committee last year claiming that they were unfairly treated. The two bills are scheduled to be submitted when parliament resumes on January 27. The public disagreements are not a good sign, as you have to imagine the two parties are negotiating behind the scenes, and these spats are likely a reflection of their failure to agree on a way forward. 

More trouble in Rakhine
A seven-year-old girl from Buthidaung Township in Rakhine was the latest civilian to be injured in a shelling incident early yesterday morning. Her father told RFA Burmese that there was a Tatmadaw column in the area, but soldiers denied responsibility. Recent fighting has displaced more than 300 villagers, who have sought refuge in Ann Township. MP Daw Htoot May said the refugees are having trouble finding shelters and asked for government assistance to build temporary camps. Ann Township itself may not even be safe, as the Chin Human Rights Organization reported on Friday that a woman there was tortured by the Tatmadaw during an interrogation earlier this month. The soldiers allegedly poured boiling water on her, hit her knees with a hammer, and cut her legs because they suspected her husband of having ties to the AA.

Briefer, still

  • The Restoration Council of Shan State handed over a seized trove of narcotics to the Tatmadaw, according to an RCSS statement. The group confiscated 78,141 stimulant tablets (likely methamphetamine) and 10.28 kilogrammes of heroin. The RCSS claimed this shows its commitment to fighting narcotics, but there was no mention of who was transporting the drugs or what happened to them.

  •  Shareholders are threatening the Yangon Region government with a lawsuit if they are not allowed to withdraw money invested into the Yangon Urban Public Transportation Company. Shareholders were outraged after learning in October that they would not be given dividends on their investments. Online news outlet O Media is reporting that some shareholders are considering holding a protest, sending a complaint to the Anti-Corruption Commission, and filing a lawsuit.

  • The Myanmar Center for Disease Control issued protocols for protecting against the new Novel Coronavirus, originating from China’s Wuhan city. Advice includes avoiding people with fever and avoiding public places. Myanmar is concerned about Chinese tourists bringing the virus into the country - which has now been observed to transmit from person-to-person.

  • The controversial and monsoon-vulnerable island of Bhasan Char is ready to receive Rohingya refugees, according to Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder. Bangladesh has built housing and the island has been reinforced with protective embankments to prevent flooding, but the UN has not yet endorsed the safety of the move. Transfers are expected to begin in April.

  • A police officer is under investigation after he accidentally set of his gun while showing off to a group of ladies at a KTV in Tachileik Township in Shan State. Local outlet, Mekong News, reported that the out of control officer had also crashed into a motorcycle earlier that day, but did not stop. 

  • The Kachin State People's Party dismissed the NLD's new ethnic affairs committee as a gimmick to win ethnic votes. The NLD body, which includes a Kachin representative, won't "represent all ethnic people," according to party vice-chair Duwa Gumgrawng Awng Hkam.

  • A crowd gathered on Sunday in Myitkyina to observe the fifth anniversary of the rape and murder of two young Kachin teachers in Shan State, pledging to find justice. The Tatmadaw has blamed the Kachin Independence Army, but Tatmadaw soldiers were stationed nearby at the time.

  • Myanmar's naval commander, Admiral Tin Aung San met with officials from the Philippine Navy to boost defence ties between the two countries.

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