YANGON – The mandate of the nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will expire at the end of August, after being established by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government one year ago.
Kofi Annan will come to Myanmar next week and is scheduled to conduct several meetings in Naypyitaw, including with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in preparation to publish the commission’s final report, according to member Al-Haj U Aye Lwin.
The commission has been tasked with uncovering lasting solutions for conflict-torn Rakhine State and addressing deep wounds felt by Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region.
It is comprised of three members from the international community, including Mr. Annan, and six from Burma—two Buddhist Arakanese members, two Yangon-based Muslim members and two government representatives. A memorandum of understanding between the State Counselor’s Office and the Kofi Annan Foundation was agreed upon regarding the work of the commission, but details of that arrangement were not made public.
The Commission’s Burdens
Since its formation, the commission was subjected to several objections from political parties, mainly the Rakhine State-based Arakan National Party, as well as the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Protests against the commission, largely by members of the Arakanese public, called for its dissolution, claiming that “outsiders” were interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
In Oct. 2016, just over one month after the establishment of the commission, Muslim militants carried out coordinated attacks on three border outposts in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township, looting firearms and leaving nine policemen dead.
The army responded by launching a months-long clearance operation in northern Rakhine State, hunting for suspects in Muslim villages throughout the township.
The mission forced nearly 70,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, and the UN estimates that around 1,000 were killed. International rights groups have accused soldiers of abuses ranging from arson to rape to extrajudicial killings and torture.
Myanmar authorities have rejected the allegations and blamed crimes on militants. During the clearance operations, they said in June that eight soldiers had been killed, along with 80 suspected militants. An additional 485 people were detained.
The October attacks targeted armed policemen but escalated the mistrust between the Muslim and Buddhist communities, especially in Rakhine State. This reporter visited several Muslim villages in northern Maungdaw Township last year, and saw that many had been emptied and abandoned, and others had been completely turned to ash.
Occasionally, women and children were present in the villages, but fled when encountering a stranger, even when shown a journalist’s identification card.
The Buddhist Arakanese, the majority in the state but a minority in its northern region, said they were terrified of future attacks. Village administrative officials deployed lookouts at night, and avoided passing through Muslim villages alone as they traveled toward towns like Maungdaw.
This was the context presented to the Rakhine State Advisory Commission.
The Kofi Annan-led delegates paid visits to several Rakhine State townships in late November 2016, including some villages in Maungdaw, where rights abuses were reported during clearance operations.
After conducting meetings with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and several heads of Union ministries, Mr. Annan received questions from the press in Yangon’s Shangri-la Hotel on Dec. 6, 2016.
Reporters asked whether he witnessed evidence of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the self-identifying Rohingya minority, as members of the international and Rohingya communities have accused Myanmar of perpetrating.
“Genocide is a very serious charge that requires legal review and judicial determination. It is not a charge that should be thrown around loosely,” Mr. Annan said.
His response proved helpful to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, who is confronted with the issue of Rohingya persecution whenever she travels abroad. In a rare interview with the BBC during an official visit to the UK in April 2017, journalist Fergal Keane raised questions concerning security forces’ crackdown in Maungdaw.
She replied, “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” adding that she saw “a lot of hostility.”
“It is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are co-operating with the authorities,” the State Counselor said.
During an interview with The Irrawaddy in July, Myanmar President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay admitted the advantage of appointing high-profile peace envoy Mr. Annan to the commission.
“Whenever there is an accusation from the international community, we say we are taking action in line with the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission. The commission is serving as a shield for us,” U Zaw Htay said.
After seven months, the commission released its interim report in March 2017, recommending that the government lift restrictions on access for media and relief organizations in northern Rakhine State.
Mr. Annan acknowledged that the crisis facing the region had changed since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had founded the advisory commission, but promised to continue the delegation’s objective—to find “peace and development” for Rakhine State.
Three commission members went to neighboring Bangladesh and visited Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf district, where thousands of displaced Rohingya were living in dire conditions.
The commission urged the government to form a joint committee with the Bangladeshi authorities to oversee the return of refugees and to prevent human trafficking.
The interim report also recommended the closure of all internally displaced people’s (IDPs) camps in Rakhine State, and a specific timeframe for the completion of the citizenship verification process for eligible and stateless Muslims.
Moreover, the commission specifically urged the authorities to grant freedom of movement and provide access to education for citizens. Yet according to the commission, only 2,000 local Muslims—out of more than one million, regionally—have been granted recognition as citizens.
Authorities’ Actions, Continued Challenges
Selected media houses have since been sent to the conflict areas twice under the supervision of government officials and border police. The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government has closed IDP camps in Ramree and Kyaukphyu townships in accordance with the recommendations.
However, the government’s implementation process has lacked transparency. Authorities moved nearly 130 ethnic Kaman Muslims from Ramree camp to Yangon by providing air tickets, cash assistance of 500,000 kyats for each family and an additional 100,000 kyat per family member, without arranging housing or employment.
In early April 2017, Myanmar’s National Security Advisor U Thaung Tun said that the government planned to invest US$140 million in health and education facilities in northern Rakhine State and would also employ more Muslim staff members in these sectors.
He did not elaborate on the timeframe for implementation of the move, but said it would occur in line with the recommendations of the advisory commission.
Meanwhile, challenges in Rakhine State continue to multiply. On August 3, seven ethnic Mro farmers—a sub-group of the Buddhist Arakanese—were found dead of gunshot and machete wounds, suspected of being killed by Muslim militants. The army responded by deploying several hundred soldiers to the Mayu mountain range in search of insurgents along the border.
International organizations are asking the Myanmar government to collaborate with a fact-finding mission mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, formed with three international experts to investigate allegations of rights abuses by security forces during clearance operations in Rakhine State. Thus far, the government has refused to allow the delegation in to the country.
The Final Report
Al-Haj U Aye Lwin, a Myanmar Muslim representative on the advisory commission, told The Irrawaddy that the government needs to invest in developing a greater harmony between the two communities in order to have peace and stability in Rakhine State.
To combat fears, stereotypes or misjudgments about different religious communities, the commission has also urged the government to educate the public on the basic tenets of Myanmar’s various religions. U Aye Lwin added that the commission members found some people were unfamiliar with the teachings of their own religions.
Moreover, the commission encourages the simultaneous implementation of both peace and development initiatives, and decentralized resource sharing between the Union government and Rakhine State.
U Aye Lwin pointed out that one of the main challenges for the Arakanese community are the high numbers of young people leaving the state in search of job opportunities elsewhere, including countries abroad; implementing peace and development projects in the area could also serve to address internal migration issues.
Arakanese commission member Daw Saw Khin Tint said that during its tenure, the delegation has documented every incident they were able to in Rakhine State to create an overall picture of the context.
She acknowledged that a “lack of collaboration from the Rakhine [Arakanese] side is one of the weaknesses in our report.”
The commission’s final recommendations, U Aye Lwin said, promise to be “fair.”