RANGOON — Burma’s armed forces chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing warned the Kofi Annan-led Arakan State Advisory Commission that proposed solutions to the communal conflict in the state must win the “approval” of the Buddhist Arakanese community.
Ascribing the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in large part to labor migration during the colonial era, and illegal migration thereafter, the senior general conveyed a hard line on the issue—consistent with previous governments—reiterating that “Bengalis,” as the Rohingya are routinely termed, do not belong to Burma, falling outside of the 135 recognized ethnicities.
At the meeting on Thursday in Naypyidaw, he said, “the wishes of ethnic people are pivotal,” under a definition that excludes the Rohingya. “We have to consider ethnic unity and democracy […] not only citizenship,” he said—a likely reference to the widespread rejection among the Burmese public of the Rohingya’s claim to being rightful citizens of the country.
He also recommended that the commission take into account the “historical context and background of the communal conflict in Arakan State.”
The senior general went on at length about agricultural labor migration from Bengal in India to the Arakan coast from the late 1880s—when Burma was merged with India under the colonial British administration—and violent confrontation between Buddhist and Muslim communities dating back to 1942 during World War II, as well as the Burmese government’s failure to control migration in the 1970s while “cracking down on communists” in the north-east of the country.
“We have 135 ethnicities, including eight national races, in the country. But there is no Bengali ethnicity,” said Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
The senior general stated that the Rohingya—the large majority of whom remain stateless—would be assessed for citizenship under the 1982 law. The law places considerable barriers to citizenship for those, like the Rohingya, whose ethnicity is not officially recognized, and establishes different tiers of citizenship with diminishing rights.
“If they consider themselves [fit for the citizenship], they should feel free to be verified,” he said, in reference to a continued citizenship verification drive in Arakan State.
The senior general also claimed that the Arakan State conflict was “not based on religion,” instead being attributable to “people instigating riots using religion as a pretext.”
He claimed that Burma scored well on religious freedom, having “accepted” Muslim communities in Burma for a long time, and that Muslims currently occupy “senior levels” in the civil service.
Kofi Annan—the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general and peace envoy appointed by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the new advisory commission—stressed during the meeting that the commission would only make “recommendations” to the government, and would “take a holistic approach, not only on citizenship but also regional development.”
The former UN secretary-general arrived in Burma on Sunday. First meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, he traveled to Arakan State earlier this week with the new commission, meeting with Buddhist and Muslim community representatives—and facing protests from several hundred Buddhist Arakanese on their arrival and departure—before meeting with President U Htin Kyaw and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw.
The formation of the advisory commission was announced by the State Counselor’s Office in late August. The commission is comprised of three international members, including the chairman Kofi Annan, and six from Burma—two Buddhist Arakanese, two Muslims (from Rangoon) and three representing the government.
According to the state counselor, the commission will “investigate the root causes of the conflict in Arakan State and develop a reconciliation process between the two religious communities in the region.”
Communal violence, mostly directed against the Rohingya, took place across Arakan State in 2012 and 2013, displacing up to 140,000 people, the vast majority Muslim. Buddhist and Muslim communities remain segregated across most parts of the state, with restrictions placed on displaced Muslims’ movements and access to public services.
The advisory commission drew criticism soon after its formation. The Arakan National Party and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) objected to the inclusion of the international members, because it would “interfere with Burma’s sovereignty.” Their fears chiefly revolve around the likelihood of the international members siding with the Rohingya. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has attempted to allay concerns, stating that “no one can interfere with our sovereignty—sovereignty is owned by all people, not only by the government.’
This week, a heated debate took place in the Lower House of Parliament, with 148 lawmakers—including military representatives and members of ethnic parties and the USDP—calling for international members of the commission to be replaced with local academics. However, 250 lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy defeated the proposal.
After the eruption of violence in 2012, former President U Thein Sein formed the 27-member Arakan Investigation Commission. Given the continued displacement and religious segregation across Arakan State, the panel’s mission of “conflict resolution and reconciliation between the two groups” could not be said to have made much headway over four years.
Zaganar, a former member of the investigation commission, told The Irrawaddy that the previous government failed to act on the commission’s findings.
“I think less than 20 percent of our [recommendations] were carried out. I don’t know why they failed to do so,” he said.
The former political prisoner said he is hopeful for the new Kofi Annan-led commission, believing that the inclusion of the international members would help the international community understand the root causes of the conflict.
“It would be good if the government could properly implement their recommendations, provided they are beneficial for the country. But it’s too early to say […] we still don’t know what the recommendations will be,” he said.