Myanmar’s human rights body said it will not investigate the case of 17 villagers allegedly abducted by the government military nine months ago in war-torn Rakhine state, angering family members of the men who say they were lied to and given the runaround by authorities.
Hla Myint, chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), said his office has declined a request by concerned lawmakers from the area where the villagers were abducted because he and other members of the body accept as truthful a Ministry of Defense statement on Oct. 22, denying that the military had arrested and detained the civilians.
“So far, we have trusted what the military has said,” he told RFA. “If we get any change, and if it is necessary, we will visit the places on the ground. For these kinds of cases, it is best to find out the truth by inspecting the situation on the ground.”
Hla Myint also said that the commission could not conduct an investigation at present due to official restrictions on travel and gatherings to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic still raging through Myanmar.
The captives — residents of strife-torn Kyauktaw township — were arrested in March when Myanmar soldiers entered their community amid fighting with the rebel Arakan Army and burned down dozens of homes in the 500-home ethnic Rakhine village tract.
The two-year-long armed conflict has left roughly 300 civilians dead and displaced an estimated 230,000 others.
Eight of the original group of 18 villagers were abducted from Tin Ma New village on March 13, while the other 10 from Tin Ma Gyi village were arrested by troops on March 16 — all on suspicions of having ties to the AA. The body of one of them, Maung Win, was discovered two months later in the Kaladan River, riddled with bullet holes.
Relatives of the missing men tried to file missing persons cases with local police on March 23 and Dec. 8, but authorities rejected their requests.
Some family members held a press conference in mid-June in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to call attention to their plight, saying that 10 of the captives from Tin Ma village tract were being forced to perform hard labor in a military battalion.
‘They hit a dead end’
Four local lawmakers stepped in and sent a complaint to the MNHRC and to state officials requesting that an investigation be conducted and action be taken against the soldiers responsible for abducting the villagers.
Lawmaker Oo Tun Win from Kyauktaw township, one of the legislators who sent the letter, said the MNHRC failed to provide a valid response and merely accepted what the Defense Ministry said.
“The commission didn’t take action such as contacting the citizens who have been affected, inquiring about the matter, or investigating it,” he said. “They hit a dead end with the statement from the Defense Ministry. By no means is this a credible answer. They left the citizens in a neglected state. ”
Family members of the missing villagers said they have evidence that the military arrested their relatives and that the soldiers involved wore uniforms with the insignia of Army Division No. 55.
Khin May Win, wife of 42-year- old Tun Maung Win, one of the abducted villagers, accused the military of lying.
“They are blatantly lying,” she said, adding that troops from Division No. 55 arrested 10 of the villagers.
“They had been stationed at the Taung Shay mountain area,” she said. “They came to the village from there. They threatened the villagers, beat them, and took them away. Now they are lying about it. The arrests were real.”
When asked about the issue at a news conference in Naypyidaw on Nov. 27, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said that the family members of the missing villagers should file cases with evidence at their local police station.
At the June news conference, the mother of one of the missing, Nay Lin Oo, said she had spotted her son, who has hearing and speech impairments, being forced to work at the military camp in the Taung Shay mountain area near Tin Ma Gyi village, with some of the other missing residents.
‘We are totally lost’
Tun Thein, whose brother-in-law Aung Nyunt and brother Aung Tha Pan are among the missing villagers, said he and others are concerned that soldiers may have killed the men.
“We want to know if they are still alive or not,” he said. “That’s why we tried to file the case at the Kyauktaw Myoma Police Station.”
But a police official there told Tun Thein that the relatives would have to file a complaint with the military, not the police.
“The police should have accepted the missing persons cases,” Tun Thein said. “We have evidence.”
Maung Kyaw Win, whose 26-year-old son is among the missing villagers, said that police informed the family members that they could not take on a case involving military arrests of villagers.
“We are totally lost now,” he said. “We have filed several complaint letters, which have been rejected. It’s hard to know what to do next.”
RFA tried to reach Police Colonel Kyaw Thiha, spokesman of the Myanmar Police Force, for more than a week seeking comment, but he did not respond.
MNHRC chairman Hla Myint suggested that local police dodged their duties in failing to accept the case.
“It depends on their attitude regarding human rights,” he said. “If they have the will, they could have done it. Instead of dodging, they should have assisted them.”
Myanmar attorney and lawmaker Aung Thein said the family members of the missing men have recourse because they can press charges against the police commander for not accepting the case.
“If the police don’t accept the case, then they can prosecute the police commander for negligence of duty [and] he can be prosecuted under the Law to Protect the Privacy and Security of Citizens.”
“Police stations stay away from cases in which the military is involved though they have to accept them according to the law,” he said.
RFA could not reach military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun for a response to Aung Thein’s comments.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.