Now Is the Time to Act in Arakan State

By Lawi Weng 10 September 2016

As the chairman of the new nine-member Arakan State Advisory Commission, Kofi Annan might have had a powerful message after visiting displaced people’s camps in Sittwe, where he met many individuals who, after five years, have yet to return to their homes in the region.

But, upon his return to Rangoon, he did not speak about what he saw there, reminding members of the press and the public that the commission would not be investigating human rights abuses, and instead promised to write an “impartial report” on the situation.

Since riots broke out in 2012 between the majority Buddhist Arakanese and the minority Muslim Rohingya, the two groups have lived separated in the region’s cities, with the Arakanese laying claim to the more developed urban areas, and the Rohingya relegated to the outskirts.

Reportedly, during his two-day trip, Annan could not meet with local Arakanese community leaders, who are upset by his reaching out to figures from within the self-identifying Rohingya community—a group which most Arakanese Buddhists, and the Burmese public, recognize as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from Bangladesh.

Annan visted Thae Chaung IDP camp on Wednesday—which houses some of the estimated 140,000 people displaced by the violence of 2012—and also visited the Rohingya community of Aung Mingalar ward in the state capital.

He may at some point speak about the conditions he witnessed at the camps. But, if and when Annan reveals what he has seen on the ground, he risks the condemnation of Buddhist Arakanese, who will accuse him of taking the side of the Rohingya. They will likely say that he does not understand the history of the region’s conflict and communities.

Hundreds of locals protested the former UN chief’s arrival and departure from Sittwe, stating that they resented international interference in what they consider to be an internal problem.

The fact that the same local Buddhist Arakanese have never agreed to return displaced Muslims to their homes is one reason why the conflict remains unsolved. The international community criticized the current government for an insufficient response to the conflict and for allowing the displaced to continue languishing in camps. On this issue, they are being designated the same negative image earned by the previous military-backed government for their handling of the situation.

In response to the criticism, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed the new commission in search of a solution. It was a smart move—her government could potentially receive practical advice about what needs to be done to address the problems in Arakan State.

But she is not immune to backlash in the region: the Arakanese public largely turned against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), during the 2015 election—choosing the Arakan National Party (ANP) for the majority of seats in their state legislature instead of the NLD, which otherwise won nationally by a landslide.

Even if the widely popular State Counselor herself were in Kofi Annan’s position and visited the region—speaking openly about what she saw—it is likely that she would receive the same criticism he is facing.

Some ANP lawmakers have accused the State Counselor of violating Burma’s sovereignty by inviting international players to examine what they maintain is an internal issue. But in fact, by inviting Kofi Annan to take part in the Arakan State Advisory Commission, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not compromising the country’s integrity—she is demonstrating how she believes that now is the time is to act in solving this conflict.