RANGOON – Tha Hla Shwe, a member of the Kofi Annan-led Arakan State Advisory Commission, told The Irrawaddy that during their two-day trip to Sittwe, the commission heard perspectives on trust building from the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim communities in the state capital.
The trip—the commission’s first, lasting from Sept. 6-7—focused on improving the relationship between the two groups as the first step in addressing the wounds of the state’s 2012 riots.
Dr. Tha Hla Shwe said that the commission met with Muslim religious leaders, influential Buddhist monks, civil society organizations, internally displaced persons (IDPs), parliamentarians, and the administrative body of Arakan—also known as Rakhine—State.
“We just listened to their opinions and assumptions,” said Tha Hla Shwe. “We asked them what we could do for them. They also unveiled their own perspectives on how to solve the problem on the ground.”
Internally displaced populations’ concerns centered largely on their lack of freedom of movement and difficulties in obtaining permits to travel to hospitals for medical treatment. When asked about points raised by IDPs, Tha Hla Shwe said: “Nothing special there. Everything they told us is the same as in previous conversations.’’
Aung Mingalar resident Zaw Zaw, who identifies as Rohingya, said that the Kofi Annan-led team visited his quarter on Wednesday and had a conversation with him for about half an hour beside a Muslim prayer hall.
The term Rohingya, the name with which many Muslims in the region ethnically identify, is rejected by many Arakanese Buddhists and members of the Burmese public, who describe the group as “Bengali,” implying they are interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.
According to Zaw Zaw, Annan introduced himself and the reason for his visit. Zaw Zaw said he emphasized three urgent needs to the former UN chief: access to medical travel permits, access to education for his children, and citizenship documents for IDPs; the Rohingya are not recognized as one of Burma’s 135 ethnic groups, contributing to widespread statelessness in a country where citizenship is defined along ethnic lines.
Together with Annan, eight advisors from the commission and a team of government officials including Arakan State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, later visited IDP camps. There was no surveillance by military special branch officials or police unlike on previous visits from dignitaries in the last four years, said Zaw Zaw.
“We talked openly and he told us they will be here [in Sittwe] and he urged us to contact them in case of an emergency,” Zaw Zaw said.
The speaker of the Arakan State parliament, U San Kyaw Hla confirmed that he and Annan met at the government office on Tuesday. He asked Annan for a fair and acceptable assessment and Annan pledged to deliver an impartial report to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Narinjara, a local weekly journal, reported that the Arakan State parliament speaker openly voiced his dissatisfaction with the formation of the commission.
However, he declined to verify or provide further information of the discussion. “I don’t want to talk much more. It’s not good to say here,” said U San Kyaw Hla over the phone to The Irrawaddy.
The delegation returned to Rangoon Wednesday evening. About 100 people protested against the commission at their departure from Sittwe airport, said Tha Hla Shwe. Hundreds of local residents and Buddhist monks also rallied on Tuesday at Sittwe airport against the arrival of the advisory commission.
On Tuesday an urgent proposal put forward by Arakanese National Party (ANP) lawmaker Aung Kyaw San—calling for international members of the Arakan State Advisory Commission to be replaced with local academics—failed to earn parliamentary approval.
A memorandum of understanding between the State Counselor’s Office and the Kofi Annan Foundation regarding the commission will be signed. It is currently being processed by the Union Attorney General’s Office, according to representatives from the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the debate session regarding the proposal on Tuesday.
The President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay disclosed to the media on Tuesday that the State Counselor’s Office would be allocating its own funds toward the Arakan State Advisory Commission project but did not mention the size of the budget.