RANGOON — 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 on Tuesday.
All military appointees to the legislature and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs, as well as many of the ethnic political parties’ representatives—totalling 174 parliamentarians—voted in support of the ANP’s proposal, but 250 lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) objected to it. One MP abstained from the vote.
The nine-member Arakan State Advisory Commission—whose formation was announced on Aug. 24—aims to explore the roots of Buddhist-Muslim tension in Arakan State, and to make recommendations toward “lasting solutions” to conflict. Since the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in 2012, leading to the displacement of 140,000, the region has received international attention.
Formed by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the commission has three representatives from the international community, including chair and former UN chief Kofi Annan, two government representatives, two Buddhist Arakanese members, and two Muslim members.
In the Lower House debate over the ANP proposal moving to expel Kofi Annan and two former UN advisors, 34 lawmakers participated in the discussion. Four army appointees, four ANP MPs, and five Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmakers spoke in support of the proposal, but the debate session was dominated by the objection of 21 legislators from the NLD.
ANP parliamentarian Pe Than said in the debate session that the State Counselor’s Office was under international pressure to select non-Burmese experts to serve on the Arakan State Advisory Commission alongside local appointees.
ANP concerns about the commission’s work and findings centered on a fear of a future mass repatriation of self-identifying Rohingya refugees back to Burma. Pe Than referred to the group as “Bengalis,” a suggestion that the individuals in question are not from Arakan State—which they claim as their homeland—but are migrants originally from Bangladesh.
“[Burma] could be faced with many consequences in the coming future,” Pe Than said, adding that the commission could not be trusted to deliver a “fair” assessment for Arakan—also known as Rakhine—State. He alleged that the international delegates, who he referred to as “so-called human rights activists,” would judge the situation in the region from a “one-sided perspective.”
NLD legislators responded by calling the comments “inappropriate” and “emotional” and threatening to the dignity of the Parliament. The lawmakers reminded the legislature of Mr. Annan’s record as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and referred to the other international representatives as “respected” individuals in the global community.
When Pe Than argued that the government was allowing foreign interference in internal Arakan State affairs, NLD MPs said that the conflict in Arakan State had grown from being a domestic issue to one of international importance.
The commission to review the controversial Myitsone dam at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State had only local experts, Pe Than pointed out—not international representatives.
“What is the main reason?” he asked.
NLD lawmaker Pyone Kaythi Naing said she “empathized with the ethnic Arakanese,” a reference to Arakanese Buddhists, and traced communal tension with the region’s Muslim community to British colonialism—during which, she said, migrants from South Asia came to fill labor needs in Burma and settled there.
However, the Rohingya community maintain that their roots in Arakan State date back to the ancient kingdom of Arakan, which predates colonialism and the borders drawn thereafter.
She said that previous governments in Burma had exacerbated what she saw as the problem, and that, with the formation of the advisory commission, the current civilian-led government had provided a fresh platform to search for a “neutral path” for both Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Pyone Kaythi Naing described the population in question simply as “the laborers” and their descendants, and avoided using either “Rohingya” or “Bengali.”
NLD MP Myint Wai speculated that if the new government had formed the commission solely with local experts, the international community would accuse them of bias, and reminded Parliament of the “negative image” Arakanese society had earned abroad.
“This is not the right time to oppose the commission. This is the right time to prove our good image to them,” he said.
USDP MP Tin Aye questioned Mr. Annan’s qualifications, presenting what are considered professional failures during his tenure as a UN peacekeeping envoy in the early 1990s—to prevent the genocide of the ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda, and the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica.
Yet Tin Aye also criticized Annan’s later call for international interventions in cases of systematic human rights violations, such as those carried out in Rwanda and Bosnia. Classified under the “responsibility to protect,” the statute provides justification for the international community to intervene when a domestic government is “unable or unwilling” to prevent mass killings, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
“What if he demands that the UN act on the responsibility to protect?” he said. If the commission were to recommend an intervention based on the “responsibility to protect” in Arakan State, Tin Aye argued, it would be a threat to Burma’s sovereignty.
“Even Indra can’t solve the problem if they oppose the ethnic Arakanese,” said USDP lawmaker Sai Tun Thein, referencing a powerful Hindu god also worshipped as a deity in Buddhism.
Kofi Annan led eight members of the advisory commission to the Arakan State capital of Sittwe on Tuesday to conduct meetings with local civil society organizations. His arrival was met by hundreds of protesters calling for the international community to stay out of local affairs.