RANGOON — Kofi Annan, chair of the Arakan State Advisory Commission, told media in a Thursday press conference in Rangoon that the commission’s purpose is not to investigate rights abuses, but to write an “impartial report.”
“We are not here to do a human rights investigation or to write a human rights report…I hope our recommendations will be helpful as we intend to reduce tension and support development,” said Mr. Annan.
The former UN general secretary explained that the objective of the advisory commission is to provide recommendations for the Burmese government in accordance with international standards, to facilitate a lasting solution to conflict in Arakan State.
The commission will work “rigorously” and “impartially” to create these recommendations. The focus will be on conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, reconciliation and development, Mr. Annan added. Since the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in 2012, which led to the displacement of 140,000, the region has received international attention.
Questions at Thursday’s press conference were limited, with only ten questions accepted from among hundreds of reporters from both local and international media houses.
A reporter asked Mr. Annan how he planned to work successfully without the support and collaboration of many local Buddhist Arakanese; his arrival and departure in Arakan State were both met with protests, and an Arakanese political party—the Arakan National Party—proposed in Parliament that Kofi Annan and other international representatives be removed from the commission, a move which was voted down on Tuesday.
Mr. Annan replied that demonstrations represented a type of communication and he was not surprised by it, as protests are not a strange occurrence in a democratic society.
On Thursday, Kofi Annan also met with both Burma’s President U Htin Kyaw and the Burma Army commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Both figures, along with the Union Parliament, gave a green light to the commission to pursue their work.
“I can assure you the commission is independent,” he said, adding that the group would “consider the interests” of all groups in Arakan State.
On his first trip to the state, from Sept. 6-7, Mr. Annan met with the speaker of the regional parliament, the chief minister, community leaders, civil society organizations and religious leaders. He visited both Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya Muslim displaced people’s camps. The trip, he said, was “productive.”
Annan recalled being asked by locals for improved access to education and employment, and greater freedom of movement. Understanding the history of the region, he said, will be useful for the commission to understand the situation on the ground.
One participant in the press conference questioned Mr. Annan about whether he had witnessed any oppression of the Muslim community during his time in Arakan State.
“Personally, I did not see it there,” he said.
The Arakan State government had planned the busy agenda for the visit, commission member Al Haj Aye Lwin explained, and more time was needed in order to accurately comment on whether such anti-Muslim repression was taking place.
In his opening speech, Mr. Annan used the term “Rohingya” to refer one of the Muslim communities in Arakan State. While it is the name with which the group self-identifies, local Arakanese and large sections of the wider Burmese public, reject the term “Rohingya” and instead call the group “Bengali,” suggesting that they are migrants from Bangladesh; in addition, the Rohingya are not included among the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Burmese government.
Earlier this year, Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked her international counterparts to avoid using the term “Rohingya,” saying that it contributes to instability in the state. A reporter asked Mr. Annan if there had been any further pledge from the State Counselor to avoid using the term; he replied that she had not instructed him on which terminology to use.
“The words ‘Rohingya’ and ‘Bengali’ are both emotive,” he said.
Issues regarding the Arakan State-Bangladesh border will need to be looked into by the commission in order to make recommendations, Annan also said. Both Burma and Bangladesh will need to collaboarate, he added, suggesting that he hoped that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would likely be involved in the process.