Analysis: Conflict at Home Leads to Criticism Abroad for Burma’s State Counselor

By Nyein Nyein 4 May 2017

During State Counselor and Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s European tour this week, she has highlighted her government’s peace efforts, and defended her approach to addressing conflict in Arakan State.

The State Counselor was in Belgium on Tuesday, where she met EU leadership before proceeding to Italy on Wednesday. She will then travel to the UK, where she will receive the freedom of the city of London award on Monday, May 8, before concluding her trip.

The visit to Europe comes as she faces criticism for being unable to bring all ethnic armed groups together for peace negotiations in Burma. She is also under fire from international rights activists for what they have described as her failure to confront reports of abuses by state security forces in Arakan State, after she publicly announced she would not “take sides” in the conflict.

The EU and Burma’s Path to Peace

While peace talks are ongoing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has kept to the path laid out in the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) by the former government, and will convene the second round of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference on May 24. She invited all the non-signatory ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA before this summit, a move that many of the organizations critical of the ceasefire see as an obstacle in moving forward.

Stakeholders from among Burma’s many ethnic nationalities have stated that country’s peace process must be all-inclusive, involving armed groups, civil society and women’s organizations. Only this approach, they say, can bring genuine peace and democratic federalism to the country.

“It is good that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is prioritizing the peace process,” said Nant Zoya Phan, campaign manager for the London-based Burma Campaign UK, “but it was a mistake to just carry on with [former president] Thein Sein’s process, which is not designed for genuine peace—just to get ceasefires and exploit our natural resources.”

The EU has been supportive of Burma’s peace process since the country’s transition from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government six years ago, and has allotted some 103 million euros to support the government’s peace initiatives until 2020.

The EU’s funds are now channeled through the international peace funding body known as the Joint Peace Fund. EU ambassador to Burma Roland Kobia was also present at the signing ceremony of the NCA in October 2015.

However, longtime ethnic Karen activist Nant Zoya Phan would like to see a shift in the EU’s role in the process.

“Europe needs to change the way it has been supporting the peace process, as it is very one-sided, working mainly with the government and following their agenda,” she explained.

The EU has also supported police reform in Burma by providing crowd management training to the police since 2014. The move has been welcomed by some, seen as a step toward prioritizing the protection of civilians, following a brutal crackdown by the police force on students marching to demand reform of the education law under the previous government in March 2015.

“The police force reform should have been done long ago,” said U Aung Myo Min, director of rights group Equality Myanmar.

Analysts have questioned whether the support for the police force came from an agreement between the State Counselor and Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who controls three ministries—defense, border and home affairs. Burma’s police fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“We don’t know what agreements they have had,” said Khuensai Jaiyen, an adviser for the Committee for Shan State Unity.

The Tatmadaw’s hold on these three key ministries—in accordance with the 2008 Constitution—has arguably delayed the success of any peace building process in the country. Yet the State Counselor continues to proclaim 2017 as a “year of peace.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the Defensive

Although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit this week aimed to strengthen bilateral relations and collaboration between EU countries and Burma, the trip has placed her on the defensive in response to international allegations that she has not sufficiently confronted rising conflict in Arakan State.

The State Counselor knew she could be asked questions about reports of security forces’ atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya in the region, as other Burmese activists have experienced on their own trips to the West.

After she met with EU leadership, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reaffirmed that her government would not accept the United Nations’ March resolution calling for an international fact-finding mission to investigate UN reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya in western Burma.

“We are disassociating ourselves from the resolution because we don’t think the resolution is in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground,” the State Counselor said in response to a reporter’s question at the press conference at the EU office on Tuesday.

She has said her government would “totally” accept the recommendations of the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan-led advisory commission on Arakan State, which was formed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to explore the current crisis and identify factors that have contributed to violence, displacement and underdevelopment. This commission, she said, reflects “the real needs of the region.”

“Those recommendations which will divide further the two communities [Buddhist and Muslim] in Rakhine [State] we will not accept, because it would not help us to resolve the problems that are arising all the time,” she said.

In her response as to whether the government would allow full media access to the conflict area—one of the Kofi Annan commission’s 12 recommendations—she stressed how local interviewees were reportedly beheaded by extremist groups after they spoke to journalists in December 2016 and March 2017.

After attacks on border police outposts in Maungdaw Township in October 2016, Burmese security forces carried out clearance operations in northern Arakan State, during which, multiple reports of rape, torture, and murder of the Rohingya were published. The Muslim minority are locally referred to as “Bengali,” and characterized as migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

In response to an international outcry concerning reports of widespread abuse, the government formed the Arakan State Investigation Committee—headed by military-appointed Vice President U Myint Swe—to look into allegations against the military and border police involved in the clearance operations. However, there has been no independent inquiry led by internal actors or by international experts.

“We have allegations and denials on the rights abuses on both sides, recorded by NGO groups. We need those with expertise, who are unbiased, fair and independent to inquire about the situation,” said rights advocate U Aung Myo Min. He said that although the UN could carry out their own investigation, it may not result in a “win-win” outcome.

“More comprehensive findings could be done with the collaboration of the [Burmese] government,” he said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized that her government is implementing the recommendations made in the Kofi Annan commission’s interim report submitted in March “as quickly as possible” and reporting progress to the group regularly.

“You have to be aware of the difficulties that we face, the danger that we face in coping with a situation where two communities have been distrustful of each other for decades and decades,” she said at the press conference.

The deep-rooted problems in Arakan State cannot be resolved overnight, the State Counselor said at the press conference, adding, “All we ask for is time.”