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Human Rights in Myanmar Under Scrutiny Ahead of ASEAN Summit

FILE - A Myanmar Muslim family, who identify themselves as long-persecuted “Rohingya” Muslims, look out from their tents at Da Paing camp for Muslim refugees in north of Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar.
FILE - A Myanmar Muslim family, who identify themselves as long-persecuted “Rohingya” Muslims, look out from their tents at Da Paing camp for Muslim refugees in north of Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar.

Just days before Myanmar will host major regional summits, the country - where the military still holds considerable sway -- is facing renewed scrutiny about its human rights record.

Non-governmental organizations are alleging Myanmar’s military has been and continues to be involved in serious violations of human rights.

An independent organization based in Southeast Asia, Fortify Rights, said it has documented how Myanmar’s navy, army, police and other security forces have made conditions for the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority so intolerable they have to flee.

And some uniformed personnel, it alleges, are profiting from the exodus.

“In some cases the navy is cooperating with trans-national organized criminal networks that are participating in these human trafficking rings,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.

A separate briefing note by the same organization (released Thursday) accuses the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, of committing war crimes in Kachin and Northern Shan states, since 2011, by deliberately firing on civilians and non-military structures, forcing 100,000 people to flee

Myanmar’s army is also accused of war crimes in the eastern part of the country in a just-released “legal memorandum.”

The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, over a four-year period, interviewed villagers and former soldiers who detailed attacks on ethnic Karen communities.

The document singles out three commanders still active in the military allegedly responsibility for the offensive, including one who is currently the country’s home affairs minister, major general Ko Ko.

The findings were presented this week to Myanmar’s government and the defense ministry which, according to one of the investigators, called the report inaccurate and biased.

Matthew Bugher, a global justice fellow at the law school of Harvard University, who is in Myanmar, is encouraged that the authorities were at least willing to discuss the findings. “There is concern within some parts of the government about human rights abuses and about military conduct. But we’re fundamentally at odds about how to deal with that,” he said.

The International Human Rights Clinic is not calling for prosecution of those named - said that is up to the people of Myanmar. But Bugher said the group wants to “spark a conversation about these issues.” “Without addressing military reform you’re going to stunt the ongoing transition in the country and accountability has to be a fundamental part of any reform process,” he noted.

Smith of Fortify Rights said it would be “a profound mistake” if these issues are not addressed by leaders next week in Nay Pyi Taw when Myanmar hosts the ASEAN and East Asia summits.

Smith terms the plight of the Rohingya a regional matter because those fleeing end up on Thailand’s shores, a stop on their quest to reach Malaysia.

“It would be very appropriate and I would argue morally imperative that this issue is addressed at the ASEAN regional summit,” Smith said.

U.S. President Barack Obama is to attend the meetings before heading to Yangon where he is to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and meet with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders' Initiative.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s army is also under scrutiny for the suspicious death of a journalist in its custody.

The wife of Ko Par Gyi said his exhumed body had a broken skull and jaw and two penetration marks on his chest.

The reporter was taken into military custody in September as he covered fighting between the army and ethnic Karen rebels in Mon state.