In Person

With Departure from Rakhine Advisory Panel, Kobsak Sends a ‘Warning Signal’

By The Irrawaddy 24 July 2018

YANGON — Kobsak Chutikul recently told news media he had quit Surakiart Sathirathai’s advisory panel on Rakhine State earlier this month, citing a lack of progress and expressing frustration at the lack of any independent mechanism by which to monitor implementation of the panel’s recommendations.

In an exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy, Kobsak, a longtime Thai diplomat and former member of Parliament, discusses his decision to resign, his views on the panel’s progress — or lack thereof — and his longtime involvement with Myanmar.

What are the main reasons for your resignation?

The main reason is age. At 68, I am one of the oldest persons in the group, and the field trips and the daily need to keep up with developments on what is a constantly moving chessboard were taking a toll. I decided to step aside and ask a younger colleague, a recently retired ambassador, to take my place.

But as a long-time friend of the Burmese people, when asked to elaborate [on the decision to quit], I tried to leave a small positive contribution, which was, to send out a small warning signal, a distress call. This has been somewhat overblown in some news coverage as an indictment of the board itself and of Myanmar officials.  My intention had merely been to stress the message from many diplomatic and international quarters that the coming three months could be critical and game-changing in terms of Burma’s standing in the world. A Burma that I sincerely love and respect.  And so it was a genuine concern for me.

We are coming to the end of the annual budget and reporting cycle of many countries and organizations, and a huge number of reports and assessments will be coming out, such as by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, the US State Department, US congressional committees, the EU Parliament, the ICC. Some, like Canada, have already announced targeted sanctions. Then we’ll have the human rights reports from committees in Geneva winding their way to the [UN] General Assembly in New York, which starts its session at the end of September. Before that, of course, on Aug. 24, will be the one-year anniversary of the Kofi Annan Report and there’ll surely be numerous reports and analyses questioning how much has been implemented. Then, on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of the ARSA attacks and a worldwide rehashing of what happened can be expected. In addition to that, natural phenomena such as the monsoons have to be borne in mind. If the monsoons were to result in images of women and children at Cox’s Bazar being washed to sea, it would grip the world’s attention and unleash torrents of condemnation to the detriment of Burma.

Time is of the essence, and we should not be complacent or lulled into thinking that enough has been done or is being done. I thought by resigning, I could in some small way help to draw attention to the need for concrete and timely actions, and to prod for things to be done a little differently.

A new ray of hope is the presence of the UN Special Envoy. Ambassador Christine Burgener seems to be well received and trusted by all stakeholders both within Burma and the international community. The time is auspicious to get seriously into the implementation stage. I feel we need to coalesce behind this mechanism.

As Kofi Annan himself has noted, when too many bodies are set up — committees, commissions, boards — it takes focus away from implementation and time is consumed in coordination, logistics and report writing.

What were your responsibilities as the secretary of the panel? Who appointed you?

I was just a consultant to the board, not the secretary as reported in some news items. I did not wish to be tied down with administrative paperwork, and chose to do consultancy rather than be board secretary. The chairman of the board [Surakiart Sathirathai] appointed me, presumably in prior consultation with the relevant Myanmar officials, and the board members were then informed. I helped the secretariat prepare substantive background papers and talking points, coordinating with board members and setting up board meetings. The most satisfying part was taking field trips to Rakhine State and listening to the communities there as well as UN agencies and CSO workers. The visit to Cox’s Bazar, which I undertook alone and not related directly to the board, was both eye-opening and emotionally wrenching.

You spent six months with the panel. Could you share with us your overall analysis of its progress? You told Reuters, “The group had been kept on a short leash and achieved little.”

It’s difficult to pass judgment at this time on “progress.”  Much of it is in the eye of the beholder. As Ambassador Laetitia van den Assum, a member of the Kofi Annan Commission, has noted at several conferences, there is no independent mechanism in place monitoring implementation, and no independent reporting process of the situation on the ground, on the basis of which credible judgments can be formed about progress. We may need to have such mechanisms in place before pronouncing or concluding credibly about what progress has been achieved.

My own observations were made in terms of what the board could and could not do compared to the Kofi Annan Commission. Naypyitaw may well have had valid reasons in wanting to do things differently from their experience with the Kofi Annan Commission, such as wanting to be in control of such things as number of meetings, itinerary, financing. But from my working-level perspective, it has constrained the ability of the board to do more, affecting how much we could achieve relative to the level of ambition of many board members and those who worked for them and the expectations of stakeholders. I could be wrong in my perception, of course. It’s just my personal opinion. Only time will tell.

Most importantly, the best judges of whether “progress” has or has not been made are the actual people whose lives are impacted on a daily basis. They deserve to have a voice, they deserve to be asked whether things have changed for the better for them, what they see being done, whether they have more hope now for themselves, for their children and grandchildren. These people are the different communities of Rakhine, and the human beings huddled at Cox’s Bazar.

In contrast to your views, Chairman Surakiart Sathirathai said the board is effective and the government has acted on its recommendations. Do you have any response?

There can be many different and equally valid perspectives. As you know, when it comes to Myanmar there are so many different and often competing narratives. And as the saying goes, where you stand often depends on where you sit.

As for recommendations, all I can add is that all pertinent recommendations are already contained in the Kofi Annan Report. In fact, 88 recommendations which, taken together, address all aspects of the Rakhine situation at root cause and in a comprehensive manner. When I drafted background notes for the board, I drew on the 88 recommendations, since we had no mechanism of our own on the ground, and it was pointless to reinvent the wheel. All the recommendations are there in the report, whether it be citizenship, inter-communal harmony, media access, cooperation with UN agencies, repatriation, enquiry commission, security, IDPs, health-education-agriculture in model townships; the studies have been made, the solutions are available. What is required now is will power and practical implementation. And it is for the purpose of implementation that the current Advisory Board was set up; to work with the Implementation Committee of Dr. Win Myat Aye.

I do not know what factors go into influencing a particular decision of the government in Naypyitaw. I only know that according to an ancient Burmese saying, all of us must be careful not to be like the rooster that crows every morning and thinks it is responsible for the sun coming up.

You said the panel tried to reach out to the military but in vain. How many times did you try, and to whom? What were their reasons for avoiding the meetings?

Before each board meeting, the secretariat would request our counterparts in Naypyitaw to put a courtesy call to Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing on the program. Even when the senior general visited Thailand twice over the past six months, requests were made to call on him. There was no response. I do not know the reason why, or even whether our requests were passed on to the senior-general.

As a consultant, I naturally came to the conclusion that the inability, for whatever reason, to have access to the supreme head of the military — which is in direct control of the ministries and services absolutely essential for implementation of measures and policies in Rakhine State — seriously constrains the ability of the board to fulfill its mandate. I can only hope the situation will change in future.                       

Were there any disagreements among the panel members that contributed to your resignation?

I don’t believe so. Only at the beginning, with the Governor Bill Richardson incident. Most board members have proven records of integrity and commitment. The three international members, for example, had ideas about pursuing their own areas of expertise such as on citizenship, inter-communal dialogue, and access to public health. Those are complementary and not competing areas. As for my relationship with the chairman, it was formal and correct. With hindsight, I should have raised some of my concerns in a more straightforward manner, and not erred on the side of Asian deference.

Overall, I think one abiding lesson is that decision-makers at all levels must be given frank views and factual advice at all times. We all must be able to look ourselves in the mirror without cringing. We must all abide by our principles. Otherwise, we could become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

You have a longtime connection with Myanmar. Does your resignation mean the end of your involvement in Burmese affairs?

My involvement with Burma has spanned 50 years.  My first friend in university, in Australia, was a lady from Burma. I was in my first year, she was doing her Ph.D. She became my mentor, cooked Burmese food for me over the weekends when the student canteen was closed, bought sweaters for me when it got cold. It is a debt of gratitude to her and the people of Burma that I will never be able to fully repay.

At some personal risk to myself, I have consistently championed over many decades, like many colleagues, in many capacities and many cities around the world the restoration of democracy in Burma, and the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, at times being blacklisted for doing so. I was ambassador in Prague when President Vaclav Havel decided to nominate the Lady for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I have stepped aside, but will not walk away. In my small capacity as a friend and neighbor, I will try to do whatever I can, health willing, perhaps through civil society and NGO forums, to continue to stand beside the people of Burma. I have every confidence that the proud people of Burma will one day emerge from the complex challenges, stronger, more united and widely admired, as they deserve to be.