Burma

Rakhine Commission Stands By Work, With Some Regrets, in New Report

By San Yamin Aung 30 June 2018

YANGON — The final recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have become an important framework for Myanmar and its international partners in addressing the state’s crisis, the commission said in a new report.

The report on lessons learned, released June 8, said that “While the relationship between Myanmar and its international partners has deteriorated sharply, the implementation of the commission’s recommendations remains a unique platform for cooperation and mutual agreement.”

Despite efforts to solve the Rakhine crisis, the situation on the ground worsened sharply during and immediately after the commission’s one-year mandate with the outbreaks of violence in the state in October 2016 and August 2017 — both triggered by deadly attacks on security forces by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The attacks and the subsequent military clearance operations have led to mass destruction, an exodus to Bangladesh and the deaths of thousands of civilians, mostly Rohingya Muslims.

The crisis has drawn heavy international criticism of the Myanmar government and its de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The UN and US have both accused Myanmar’s army of ethnic cleansing, which it denies.

In its new report, the advisory commission acknowledged that the situation in northern Rakhine went from bad to worse despite its advice and recommendations, but added that the deterioration has highlighted the importance of the commission’s work and that the situation could have been even worse without the report it released at the end of its mandate on Aug. 24.

That report included 88 recommendations, all endorsed by the Myanmar government.

In a meeting at the UN Security Council in mid-October during which Annan presented the final report, all fifteen member states also welcomed the findings, the commission said.

As per the recommendations, Myanmar formed a ministry-level committee to follow through, signed a refugee repatriation deal with Bangladesh, and agreed to have UN agencies assist with the safe and voluntary return of the refugees.

The UN’s recently appointed special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who conducted her first official visit earlier this month, welcomed the government’s initiatives as positive steps, in particular the signing on June 6 of a memorandum of understanding between Myanmar, the UN Development Agency and the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, on refugee repatriation assistance.

The envoy also expressed hope that current efforts would address the root causes of the crisis, including through implementation of the advisory commission’s recommendations.

Political obstacles

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the advisory commission in Yangon in September 2016. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Since the outbreak of violence in Rakhine in 2012 — when some 130,000 Muslims were forced into squalid displacement camps — the situation has been under intense scrutiny from the international media, the advisory commission’s new report said.

From mid-2012 onwards, it added, U Thein Sein’s cabinet was forced to spend a great amount of time and effort on Rakhine yet rarely managed to steer events and had to resort instead to a series of reactive measures.

“His main initiatives — including the Rakhine Commission of 2013 and the Rakhine State Action Plan of 2014 — managed neither to solve the problem nor stem international criticism,” it said.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was aware that Rakhine was likely to be a major political obstacle when she took over Myanmar’s civilian government in April 2016, it added, and so decided to seek help to address the issue.

During her second month in office she approached Annan, a fellow Nobel laureate, to ask him to lead a commission that would analyze the situation in Rakhine and make recommendations.

After the Kofi Annan Foundation carried out an exploratory visit to Myanmar in June 2016, Annan accepted the request.

The report said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi originally envisioned that, aside from Annan, the commission would be composed entirely of experts from Myanmar.

But Annan and the foundation insisted that the commission needed to include two additional foreigners to create a better balance between national and international members. They eventually agreed on six national members and three international members.

The international commissioners were from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The local commissioners included two ethnic Rakhines and two Muslims, but no Rohingyas.

It was the first time the country’s efforts to tackle the Rakhine crisis included foreign experts.

The commission said the mix of national and international members was its greatest strength for providing both national and international interpretations of the conflict.

Resistance

People protest against the advisory commission during Kofi Annan’s visit to Sittwe, Rakhine State, in September 2016. / Maung Kyaw Hein / The Irrawaddy

Since its formation, the commission faced stiff resistance from opposition parties, mainly the former ruling and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Arakan National Party (ANP) based in Rakhine. Strong objections also came from the nationwide ultranationalist group Ma Ba Tha. They all called for the commission to be disbanded, claiming it amounted to “foreign interference” that “could harm security and national matters.”

Similar comments also came from the Myanmar Army, though the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, assured Annan that he would assist with the commission’s work, the new report said.

On Sept. 6, 2016, a motion in the Union Parliament sought to abolish the commission. Though the motion failed, it was supported by the ANP, USDP and all military-appointed lawmakers.

The conflict evolves

Gawdu Zara, a Muslim village in southern Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State, is seen burning in early September. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

In October 2016, just one month after the commission started work, ARSA launched a coordinated attack on three Border Guard Police posts in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township, killing nine officers.

The army responded by launching a months-long clearance operation that forced nearly 70,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The UN estimates that about 1,000 Rohingya were killed.

The commission said the violence represented a transformation of the conflict. For the first time in nearly a generation, elements within the Muslim community in Rakhine were able to launch well-organized armed attacks against the army and police.

It said the new dynamics triggered by the developments in northern Rakhine seriously complicated the commission’s work.

First, the military and civilian branches of government increasingly came to view the conflict in Rakhine through the lens of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Second, relations between the two main communities worsened significantly across Rakhine even though violence did not spread to other parts of the state. And third, the government’s relationships with various international partners including the UN worsened considerably.

Believing urgent action was needed in the wake of the violence, the commission decided to release an interim report in May 2017 with initial recommendations. But up until its final report came out that August, only a handful of those recommendations had been implemented.

Mixed reactions

Kofi Annan shakes hands with Myanmar Army chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing before the launch of the advisory commission’s final report in August 2017. / Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing / Facebook

The commission released its final report at a press conference in Yangon on Aug. 24.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi immediately endorsed its 88 recommendations and vowed to implement them in the shortest timeframe possible given conditions on the ground.

But the reaction from the army was mixed, the commission said. In a statement on Aug. 25, the commander-in-chief said the report contained “some flaws and shortcomings.”

The commission said the criticism was expected. It said that 10 days prior to the report’s launch, it met several times with representatives of the armed forces — including once with Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing — to discuss the draft.

In the meetings, the army raised several concerns with the report, mostly related to the narrative, and criticized it for insufficiently recognizing the complexity of the security situation and the threat posed by ARSA.

Only eight hours after the advisory commission’s final report came out, ARSA launched a coordinated attack on 30 police posts in Maungdaw, which many analysts and observers believe delayed the implementation of the recommendations.

In the wake of the attacks, the Myanmar army launched a clearance operation in the region that has driven some 700,000 mostly Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The commission’s mandate

The commission was not mandated to investigate specific human rights allegations. In its new report, the commission said that was for the best, as such investigations were better left to others.

It said some international actors urged the creation of a formal monitoring mechanism to follow the government’s implementation of the recommendations in detail. The report said Annan opted for a less ambitious approach, however, by following progress through regular dialogue with the government.

The commission said that was the right decision as it was not sufficiently staffed to carry out proper monitoring and the alternative might unnecessarily have undermined trust between the commission and government.

The commission also said it was important that its mandate stipulated that it report to the state counselor, ensuring direct and regular access to the head of the government.

Consultation meetings     

Members of the advisory commission meet with the Thandwe General Administrative Department in Rakhine State. / Advisory Commission on Rakhine State / Facebook

 The commission said it had managed to meet an equal number of Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim stakeholders despite a boycott by some Rakhine actors.

It said maintaining that balance was not only important to demonstrate its impartiality but also to shield the national commissioners, some of whom were under pressure from local constituencies to provide access to the commission.

It said the commission’s decision to deliberately exclude armed groups such as ARSA and the Arakan Army while reaching out to a broad range of stakeholders was questioned by some international players.

“In reality, this was never a realistic course of action. If a communication channel had been established, and ARSA — for some reason — had decided to publicly expose it, this would have represented a deathblow to the commission,” it said.

“The government would most probably have perceived it as betrayal, and public opinion in Myanmar would surely have turned against the commission.”

But the commission added that, in retrospect, it should have sought at least one additional visit to Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships because important developments had taken place there during its mandate.

Still relevant

In the end, commission determined that “Although political realities in Rakhine changed dramatically and tragically after the ARSA attack on August 25, 2017, the commission’s final report has remained relevant.”

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