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A Brief Assessment Of The Official Report Of Myanmar’s Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing Inquiry Commission

Written By: Maung Zarni

I have followed this Inquiry Commission since its inception on 17 August.  I have done so not simply because it was presided over by my old history teacher at Mandalay University in 1982 or that its secretary was my beer-buddy when he was a fresh arrival at Cornell in the fall of 1994, but because my life-long professional interest is strategic symbioses between home-grown dodgy regimes and the Establishment intellectuals.

(Of course, how President Thein Sein et al are using the inquiry commissions – Aung San Suu Kyi-led Letpadaung Mountain Copper Mine Inquiry Commission, now the Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing Inquiry Commission, etc. ought to be studied for what they are:  strategic decoys, distractions and public relations exercises in whitewashing dodgy regimes and their crimes against humanity.  This is a story for later.)

As a product of such unholy alliance, the Commission’s report is as un-professional, non-independent and un-principled as you get.

Devoid of crucial truths, it is a document utterly un-informed by any well-established analytical concepts  (such as ‘ethnic formation’, ‘identity formation’, ‘state’s mobilization’ in genocide studies, ‘discourse’, ‘nationalism’, ‘history’, etc.) through which all scholars and researchers of the social world attempt to make sense of even ordinary human affairs, including genocides.

The total absence of any relevant concepts and analyses pertaining to nation-states and formation of ethnic groups is all the more shocking.   For both the Commission’s Chair and Secretary, Myo Myint and Kyaw Yin Hlaing, were both students of Benedict O’ G’ Anderson at Cornell whose claim to scholarly fame is his elegant construction of nations and nationalism as crucially the outcome of elite and popular imagination.

Evidently, neither student of Anderson proved themselves able to entertain the possibility that 60-years is long enough for any ethnic group to forge a new identity.

The report that bear their approving signatures merely pointed out that the first ever use of the ethnic self-reference ‘Rohingya’ dated no earlier than 1951.  They should know better.

Both the ethnic labels, the founding members of the modern nation-state, the Chin and the Kachin were externally imposed by the British colonial administrators and American Baptist missionaries on the ‘natives’.  These were disparate native groups who originally identified themselves tribally, as clans and along geographic lines, the new ethnic labels were less than 50 years old upon independence in 1948.  Mal-informed by the prevailing pseudo-scientific knowledge about race and ethnicity in Europe, the British colonials and the American missionaries grouped these ‘tribal peoples’ in Burma’s borderlands together out of administrative expediency.

As Amartya Sen correctly pointed out during a public seminar on Burma at Columbia University last September, the geographical areas, which now form Northern Arakan or Rakhine state of present-day Burma, changed hands among neighboring feudal rulers.  And boundaries were always elastic and un-defined in the old pre-colonial days.

The Rohingya EthnicCleansing Inquiry report officially stressed how the Rakhine feudal lords expanded their reach over territories in what was then Bengal while making light of the fact that there were Bengali kings who ruled what was then the Kingdom of Arakan.  Indeed, historians, especially Establishment ethno-nationalist historians, have long proven capable of recounting the past only from a victor’s perspective.  The two leading scholars on the Presidential Inquiry Commission are no exception.

Ethno-religiously, the commission is a good mix, that is, except that there was no Rohingya — nay, “Bangali”  — representation on the commssion. Dr Myo Myint (Bama or Bama-identified), Khun Tun Oo (Shan), Jana Lahtaw (Kachin), Dr Salai Andrew (Chin),  U Soe Thein (a Bama), Dr Yin Yin Nwe (Shan-Bama), Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing (Shan-Bama), Zarganar (Bama), Aung Naing Oo (Bama), Ko Ko Gyi (a national security race?), Tin Aung Moe (Bama), Daw Than Than Nu (Bama), (Vet) Dr Aye Maung (Rakhine with neo-Nazi views), Aye Thar Aung (ultra-nationalist Rakhine), Rev. Margay Gyi (Karen), U Tun Aung Chain (Karen), etc.  There are also Myanmar Muslims (ethnically Indians) and Myanmar Hindu.

With the exception of the Muslim commissioners, none of these ethno-religious diverse commissioners fought against the State-sponsored ethnocide of the Rohingya in the form of the commission’s vehement opposition to the word “Rohingya”.  The commission was certainly a key accomplice in the State-sponsored ethnocide.

The two Muslim leaders who challenged this ethnocide and stood up for the Rohingya’s own ‘imagined identity’ were kicked out.  Their crime?  The frivolous charges of speaking to the press about the inquiry while other pliant ones who also spoke the media were left un-touched.  As to expected, the report made no mention of how politics got in the way of establishing truths about the mass violence in the new Rakhine, or more accurately, glossing over ugly realities.

In fact, the commission sought to confirm the popular anti-Muslim racism without problematizing the recent growth of this increasingly virulent strain of Islamophobia and anti-Bengali sentiment across all ‘indigenous national races’ of Burma.

The Commission did raise concerns about the 969, a neo-Nazi movement ostensibly led by Buddhist monks from Burma’s leading teaching monasteries, and its divisive impact on ethnic and social relations in society as well as a potential stain on Burma’s national image; but, it fell far short of pointing out the need to take seriously the new neo-Fascist turn in the country’s well-known anti-Muslim “Buddhist” racism.  The report’s authors chose to describe ‘now world-infamous 969 rather mildly: ‘a campaign among the Buddhist to defend their own faith and to encourage intra-Buddhist commerce and trade’.

All this is troubling, but not un-expected.  For it was under the Religious Affairs Director-Generalship of Commission Chair Dr Myo Myint the proliferation of anti-Muslim quasi-religious publications, long before the previous crop of ruling Burmese generals allowed the ‘greater  freedom of press, assembly and speech’.  The leading voice of 969, Wirathu recently told the Associated Press that his views were formed as early as 2001.

Sadly, nearly half of the commissioners are my old, and now former, friends.    Their collective document is unmistakably Bama racist/Orientalist in orientation, treating both communities in conflict with a typical popular Bama contempt and dislike.

This is adding insult to injury for both parties in conflict, namely the Rakhines and the Rohingya.

the Rakhines are portrayed, essentially as “Lazy Natives”, who couldn’t compete with the thrifty, business savvy, hard-working “Bangali”, without the intervention of the State and its blood-based neo-fascist 1982 Citizenship Act.

The Rohingyas didn’t fare any better:  

they were described as ‘elementary school children-like people who, having obtained commission members’ hand phone numbers from their Muslim contacts in Rangoon, kept on calling the Commission members in Rangoon to blabber on about their sufferings and whine abuot their grievances’.

It repeats a crucial racially-charged popular narrative which turns out to be factually incorrect.  That the  three Bengali raped and brutally murdered a 28-year old Rakhine Buddhist woman.  This was pointed out to me personally by a more honest member, Burma’s most famous political comedian Zarganar.

This rape case is vitally important because the commission identified it as a key trigger for anti-‘Bengali’ mobilization by the Rakhine nationalists, politicians and Rakhine parties, led by even the Rakhine members of the Inquiry Commission (for instance, Aye Maung, a vet-cum-MP in Naypyidaw from Rakhine National Development Party, an ultra-nationalist group claiming for the “purification of Rakhine state”.  

But these arrested and alleged rapists were officially registered as 2 Kaman Muslim and a Rakhine adopted by a Rohingya Muslim family, in Pauk-taw Township.

Zarganar, one of the 5 members who was one of the leading spokespersons for the Commission at the press conference on 29 Api where the report was launched, told me in no uncertain terms that he interviewed the doctor in Rakhine state who performed the post mortem of her corpse.  According to this vieotaped interview, the alleged Rakhine rape victim bore no sign of her having been raped.  Yes, she was brutally murdered and her jewelry were gone. But she was certainly not raped, recounted Zargana based on his one-on-one recorded interview with the doctor.  The doctor was eventually forced by the authorities to sign the official post mortem report which established the rape that did not take place.  

Then there was no mention of the ‘suicide in police custody’ of one of the alleged rapists – Mr Htet Htet, a non-Bangali adopted son of a Bengali family. Nor was there any mention of the fact that his freshly windowed wife was also found dead, ‘having drowned’ in a local well.

Was there a foul play here?

It appears that my esteemed friend Zarganar, the well-respected political comedian and dissident who went to jail for 4 times since 1988 uprisings, was compelled to put his name to the official commission report which contained statements and misinformation which he himself knew are patently and  verifiably false.

The entire report has too many inter-contradictions and inconsistencies which are explained nowhere.

The report raised the issue of the lack of or weak inter-agency coordination among the army, intelligence, civil admin, immigration, attorney general’s office, Rakhine chief/prime minister’s office.  And it discussed how and why the security forces and constitutive agencies only listened to direct orders from Naypyidaw.

But the commission chose not to ask why Naypyidaw failed to issue order to provide adequate measures to protect the targeted Rohingya communities.  Instead Thein Sein’s National Defense and Intelligence Council (or Kar-lon in Burmese) did nothing to mobilize security forces to protect the Rohingya, the troops which President Thein Sein and his men knew will obey only direct orders from ministerial headquarters under the nose of the peace-pursuing President.

Perhaps one silver living in the dark episode in Burma’s modern political history is the report accurately states that local authorities in Rakhine State have absolutely no power to order security forces including army, police, border-control interagency troops, etc. to do anything to quell the mass violence.  This was, and still is, something only central government of Thein Sein can do.

It then begs the question: Why did the union level leadership of President Thein Sein and his deputies on the Council in Naypyidaw choose not to mobilize the troops while the security troops were called in to firebomb sleeping anti-Chinese mine Buddhist monks at 2 am in central Dry Zone, using canisters containing white phosphorous?

Alas, this is the question that fell outside the purview of the Presidential Commission.

Further, the statistics are thrown around throughout the 186-page document often with  no accompanying narrative or explanation, or a convincing or cogent one.

It didn’t even bother to account for its own official statistics from the government.

The greatest number of deaths and destruction were borne by the Rohingyas.   And yet a highly disproportionate number of the Rohingya vis-a-vis the Rakhine have been tried.

In the first wave of Rohingya-Rakhine violence June last year 4,188 Rohingya homes were destroyed while the Rakhine suffered the loss of 1,150 homes.  In the second wave of violence in October, 2,371 Rohingya homes were destroyed as opposed to only 42 homes that belonged to the Rakhine.  

And again, out of a total of 1.835 arrested in connection with the mass violence, 1,589 are Rohingya and only 246 are Rakhine.

Perhaps the scholarly presidential investigators on the Rakhine Sectarian Violence Inquiry Commission could advance and test a hypothesis that the economic productivity of Rakhine Buddhists – all Buddhists in Burma?  – must be inversely correlated with the destructive capacity of the group.  For the report orientalized the Rakhine as ‘low productivity’ group, or more crudely ‘Lazy Natives’.

The commission’s official statistic implies the awesome power of a small group of Rakhine – 246 to be exact, to destroy thousands of homes and dozens of mosques in about 12 different towns and cities and turn over 120,000 Rohingya refugees homeless, shelter-less internally displaced persons in a span of 5 months.

After all, the Rakhine ultra-nationalists are reportedly hell-bent on ‘driving out the non-Rakhine, most particularly, the Rohingya Hoax, or those (Bengali) “Influx Viruses”, as the leading Rakhine intellectual Dr Aye Chan of Kanda University in Japan put it.

If this number of Rakhine terrorizers, arsonists and slaughters doesn’t seem quite convincing, given the magnitude of death and devastation they had wrought throughout northern and southern Rakhine State, then who else was there, aiding and abetting the principal terrorisers among the Rakhine who wanted “Rakhine State only for the Rakhine”?

There is no mention of a single case wherein any official, security or civil, was held accountable for his or her leadership failure, or worse, participation in the pogroms.

Again according to Zarganar, his official request that the investigators be allowed to unfettered access to all the important officials alive, past and present, who have ever served in Western Burma over the past 25 years was never been granted.   He told me that many of the officials were transferred to remote places after the Commission was formed on 17 August.

What was Naypyidaw trying to hide?.

That too, of course, lied outside the mandated scope of the Presidential Inquiry Commission.  

The spread of rumors and hate-speech on the social media was touched on as an important issue, and yet no attempt was made to point out that President Thein Sein’s spokespersons – Major Zaw Htay – and Deputy Minister of Information Mr Ye Htut – are internationally known figures who use social media to disseminate deliberately false news and engage in hate and fear-mongering.  For instance, Zaw Htay was spreading knowingly inaccurate news, for instance, ‘a group of armed radical Muslims have entered Rakhine from Bangladesh side’ while Ye Htutwas spreading official lies ‘no need for further provision of shelter for the Bengali IDPs because the government has provided them with everything for the coming rainy season’.  

The report itself recommends urgent provision of adequate shelter and other humanitarian assistance because of the dire, overcrowded IDP camps for 100,000-plus “Bengali’.  

Echoing the International Crisis Group’s monocausal explanation – communal violence often accompanies democratic openings! – the presidential commission report saw the greater freedom of speech as a causal explanation for the spread of the hate speech.   

Obviously, Presidential spokespersons are officially exercising their new found freedoms to spread hate-filled rumors and fabricated Facebook entries!

Some facts are apparently inconvenient for the Commission made up of the nation’s distinguished members.

The commission decided it was worth noting that  it purged Haji U Nyunt Maung Shein and U Tin Maung Than, the two prominent and non-pliant Muslim members of the Commission: pushing for the truths about the ‘communal violence’.  The push for truths obviously go down well with neither Chairman Dr Myo Myint nor the then Border Control Minister Lt-General Thein Htay.  According to U Tin Maung Than, two days after his 15-minutes heated phone conversation last fall over the subject of what should be reported to the commission’s patron, namely President Thein Sein, and how frequently the reporting should be done,  Tin Maung Than was expelled from the commission in the same manner he was appointed – with no prior knowledge nor explanation nor consent.  

The Chairman Myo Myint was on record saying to U Tin Maung Than that ‘the welfare and security of these people are not the commission’s responsibility, nor do you need to send President Thein Sein  important updates’.  Although another truthful commissioner Zarganar who was pushing to get access to crucial heads of security forces in Rakhine to conduct a proper inquiry didn’t fell on the Chairman’s sword he bitterly complained that ‘both Chairman Dr Myo Myint and Secretary Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing were trying their best to derail the inquiry”.

Presidential inquiry commissions are not about seeking or finding incriminating evidence which will lead Presidents to gallows.  Thein Sein may be a liar with a straight face, but he ain’t dumb.  Preemptively, the 8-mandates by President Thein Sein  in fact did not include any study of the role of the State, its institutions, or the responsibilities of the national leadership (see the Appendix B).

The Commission claimed to have done its archival works at the National Archives, browsed private provision of documents from both the Rakhine and the “Bengali”, and “researched in some big university libraries abroad”.

But its report skipped or blatantly ignored most directly relevant official documents – such as the Burmese Encyclopedia, official transcripts of the speeches made by the senior most military leaders General Ne Win’s 2nd in command Brigadier Aung Gyi, treating officially and reportedly the Rohinga as  one of the ethnic groups of Burma, not simply fully fledged Burmese citizens.  Anything that would challenge the commission’s selective reading of the past in sync with the official, highly distorted history of Western Burma.

Above all this official Inquiry Commission report simply reinforced the State-sponsored Rohingya ethnocide and chose to overlook the elephant in the room – the military state and its crucial role in the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Instead of shedding light on the utter inaction of the characteristically trigger-happy Burmese security forces – both the police, riot police and the army, the Commissioners focused on highlighting the need to modernize   these already heavily and happily armed troops.   

The fist one-dozen recommendations which opened the section of ‘recommendations’ in the 4-page English language Executive Summary are all about security sector modernization, not security reform as such while lip service is paid to the need to act in line with human rights and Burma’s international treaty obligations.

The report recommends that the international community (Washington?) helps equip Burmese security forces with sorts of toys including CCTV, assault speedboats, new weapons,  etc. to deal with the cardinal cross-border problem of Bangladesh’s ‘population explosion’.   I am sure the Pentagon would love to help bring the  Tatmadaw (the army) and other auxiliary units such as Lon-htein to the human rights standards of Abu Ghraib, and so would Canberra.

For a report that bore the signatures of 24-technocrats, Establishment historians and academics, wealthy local merchants and traders, socialites and religious leaders out of a total of 27 – two had already been expelled and one is hospitalized in Singapore – recommendations about security sector modernization are rather impressive, so much so that one wonders if the report were the Commission’s gift to the Ministry of Defense and its next generation generals.  

In the last section on the bibliography, for the commission which littered the words ‘human rights’ in numerous places and international legal norms, its report shows no sign that it even bothered to glance either at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UN Conventions on the Prevention and Punishment of the Genocide. The commission didn’t deem it worth its while to consult with either the research findings and reports from the Arakan Project or the National University of Galway’s authoritative “Crimes Against Humanity in Western Burma”.

In fact, the commission considered the use of ‘ethnic cleansing’ part of an attempt to unduly internationalize local issues and an act of INGO exaggeration.  Or perhaps the commissioners felt human rights documentation was out of their professional depth, having no serious training or official political mandate.  The Commission must have known someone else or some other non-native organizations such as Human Rights Watch was going to do an independent and more professional job!

Meanwhile, the commissioners seemed very much at ease when advocating ‘voluntary’ population control of the Rohingya who are “too destitute to entertain themselves in any way other than having a great deal of marital sex and procreating (like rabbits)”.  The commissioners were of the view that this rapid procreation or ‘population explosion’ among the people they insisted on calling ‘Bengalis’ made worse the already acute sense of collective existential insecurity among the Rakhine.

The detectable patriotic sentiment of the commissioners here was this:  Shouldn’t we the “indigenous”, pure blooded Myanmar should be concerned about the fact that 80% of fertile agricultural acreage in certain locations are now in the hands of the hard-working and thrifty “Bengali” agricultural workers and land-owners while our ‘lazy Rakhine brethen’ have fallen deeper into destitution?  

The commission’s report must indeed be music to the allied ears of President Thein Sein and the emerging ‘axis of evil’, namely the Burmese-military capitalists and Western commercial and strategic interests, pursuing new markets and a new China Containment strategy.  

Even Burma’s civil society, manufactured by EU and international ‘donors’, which is taking a rather neo-Nazi Buddhist turn, must be very pleased at the commission’s emphatic framing of the genocide as simply ‘communal violence.  Alas, this is the civil society that refuses to call ‘ethnic cleansing in their midst’ by its name.  In the words of Mr Aung Myo Min, a Myanmar human rights educator from the Human Rights Education Institute (HREIB): “In such a sensitive situation, the use of the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ is unacceptable. Ethnic Cleansing means eliminating other ethnic groups. This is not the case [in Rakhine State].”

The inventor of Double-Speak worked in Burma during the colonial period in the 1920s. Orwell’s ghost continues to roam in ‘democratic’ Myanmar, possessing the dissidents, technocratic and intellectual whores, ethnic nationalities leaders, ‘moderate and pliant’ religious figures, ‘human rights educators’ and civil society leaders.

Allah bad, Buddha Gotama good!  

This must be a new Myanma, with a “clean government” pursuing “good governance” and “transparency”, words that litter the Commission’s report.

The new policy of this soon-to-be clean government is going to approach the issue of ‘communal violence’ holistically, preventatively and through the use of ‘weapons for conflict resolution’ (white phosphorous as was fired on sleeping monks at 2 am by the Burmese security forces last year?).

There will be established an ‘early warning system’ – warning of new genocidal waves?.  More empirical research and survey is advocated.  A new inquiry commission that will look at even deeper causes of the ‘communal violence’ in Western Burma is recommended.  A newer peace and conflict resolution research center is to be located in the region — near the Rohingya mass graves which Human Rights Watch uncovered? – is also advisable.

Scholars in the field of genocide studies have already established that that extraordinary and rare mass violence, ethnic cleansings are not simply domestic or internal events in nation-states. They have an international dimension. These dark events generally take place in an international environment where external players are more concerned about their own strategic and commercial gains than large scale human sufferings, be they the Khmer, the Tutsi, the Bosnians, the Tamils, and now the Rohingya.

Burma’s donor governments of the pro-human rights West, of all the countries on earth, are said to be hostile to the Human Rights Watch’s characterization of their new found business and strategic partners in Burma as ‘ethnic cleansers’ and ‘criminals against humanity’.

The Thein Sein’s government’s report sprinkled with the liberal discourses of conflict resolution, humanitarian management, reconciliation, and so on are more palatable than Human Rights Watch’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya.

The donors, I am sure, can’t wait to fund the great new initiatives to do further research into the causes of, well, Burma’s emerging neo-Nazi Buddhism.

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