This month’s statement is the first time the military has admitted any systematic wrongdoing in Rakhine.
ONLY TIME will decide the significance of the admission that Tatmadaw troops were involved in the killing of 10 Muslims at Inn Din village.
The January 10 statement, from the office of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said that security forces and local villagers were involved in the killing of the men. It added that action would be taken against villagers involved, and against security forces who “broke the Rules of Engagement”.
Until this point, both the military and the civilian-headed government have emphatically denied accusations of the use of disproportionate force in their security clearance operations in northern Rakhine.
In the past year, the Tatmadaw has twice conducted investigations into its own conduct in the Rakhine operations, and both times exonerated its personnel from any wrongdoing. In an investigation completed in May – before the latest round of violence started in late August – the military said a soldier had been sentenced to a year in jail and fined for illegally taking a motorbike, and a second investigation completed in November said “there was no death of innocent people” in the crackdown.
This statement is the first time the military has admitted any systematic wrongdoing in Rakhine.
After the statement was released, Muslim refugees in Bangladesh dismissed the Tatmadaw’s findings, saying those killed had not been militants, but innocent civilians. One villager from Inn Din told AFP that those killed had been “fishermen, farmers, lumberjacks and clerics”.
It was likely no coincidence that the statement was released just hours after two Reuters journalists appeared in a Yangon court, where they heard that charges would proceed against them under the Official Secrets Act. They face a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who had both been reporting extensively on the Rakhine crisis, were arrested on December 12 after meeting with police officers in Yangon. According to reports, the arrests took place immediately after they were handed documents by the police, the contents of which remain unknown.
The case grew even murkier after the pair’s lawyer, U Than Zaw Aung, told Frontier about the different version of events presented by the prosecution and defense in the lead up to the arrest. Than Zaw Aung said that the plaintiff in the case, a police lieutenant, had said he found the documents after conducting a routine patrol. Disputing this, Wa Lone said the pair had been invited to a meeting with police officers, handed the documents, and arrested immediately afterwards. Frontier continues to call for the pair’s release.
Reuters has not confirmed whether the duo were investigating the incident at Inn Din, but if there is found to be a link between their arrest and the Tatmadaw’s statement, then it proves the importance of independent media access to northern Rakhine. Only through independent monitoring and investigation – not the Tatmadaw investigating itself – will the truth about what really happened emerge.
Frontier travelled to Maungdaw Township once again this month, but just like on previous trips since the October 9, 2016 attacks, access was severely limited. Due to the heavy restrictions put in place by authorities there, almost no journalists or humanitarian workers have been able to travel freely and get a true grasp of the situation on the ground.
Frontier continues to call on the government to adhere to the recommendations put forward by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and allow full and regular access for the media and humanitarian workers in Rakhine State, as well as granting access to the country for members of the United Nations fact-finding mission.
Given the scale of the exodus, and the report last month by Medecins Sans Frontiere that at least 6,700 people were killed in the first month of the violence in northern Rakhine, the Tatmadaw’s admission of killing 10 people may seem like a small one. But after months of denial, it is a glaring crack in the narrative. Human rights groups and the media must ensure that the truth will eventually prevail.
This editorial first appeared in the January 18 issue of Frontier.