Guest Column

Myanmar Launches Diplomatic Offensive

By Larry Jagan 11 December 2017

Myanmar has launched a diplomatic offensive as international criticism mounts over their treatment of the Muslim Rohingya. It is a three-pronged assault, aimed at the UN, combatting calls for renewed sanctions and an effort to engage the international community in plans for the reconstruction and reconciliation of Rakhine.

This charm offensive is largely aimed at the countries in the Middle East and Muslim nations in Asia, which it sees as the main movers behind attempts to get the UN Security Council to renew sanctions. In the past week diplomats have been instructed to reach out to members of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to clarify the government’s position.

They have been instructed to explain that the Myanmar government plans to accept back all the refugees in a “phased return,” according to diplomats in Yangon.

But at the same time the country’s civilian leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has announced the formation of an international advisory body to help implement the government’s plans for Rakhine, to be chaired by the former Thai foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai.

Violence in Myanmar’s western region of Rakhine has spiraled out of control since late August, causing an exodus of some three-quarters of a million Muslim Rohingya refugees across the border to Bangladesh, in the wake of the military’s counter-insurgency operations.

The UN and the US have both labeled it as “ethnic cleansing,” while the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has been more forthright, hinting he believed there was evidence of “genocide” and calling for those responsible — the country’s top military commanders — to be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Last week international concern was again raised, when the UN’s human rights council adopted a motion — at a special session of the body in Geneva to consider the situation of the Muslim Rohingyas and other minorities in Myanmar — which “strongly condemned the alleged systematic and gross violations of human rights and abuses committed in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State.”

The Myanmar ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Htin Lynn, rejected these allegations during the session. He said the international community had failed to recognize the complexity of the situation in Rakhine.

The Myanmar government has continuously rebuffed allegations of the use of excessive force and human rights abuses –forced relocation, razing of homes, rape and killing villagers — committed by the military. But this has not deterred most of the Muslim countries, the US and European nations from demanding the Myanmar government take immediate action against the perpetrators. But the country’s civilian leader has steadfastly refused to condemn the military.

At the center of this new strategy is a clear response to the mounting international pressure on the government to be more transparent and to allow human rights investigators access to Rakhine State. The government believes it is now on top of the problems: the violence in Rakhine has subsided and the enormous task of repatriating the refugees, resettling them in Rakhine and reconstructing their homes, hospitals and schools, needs to be urgently carried out. This is the main task of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine established two months ago, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

This body is to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan advisory commission on Rakhine. These were readily accepted by the Myanmar government and actively endorsed by most of the international community.

During her discussions with Kofi Annan, when he submitted the commission’s report and recommendations in August — before they were made public — he suggested a ministerial appointment to oversee their implementation and an international advisory group to monitor the progress and help coordinate international participation in the whole process.

Mr. Surakiart met Suu Kyi two weeks ago in Naypyitaw on an unpublicized, fleeting visit. They discussed the scope and details of the mission, according to diplomatic sources.

The terms of reference are very broad, from research and analysis to aid delivery, Kobsak Chutikul — a veteran Thai diplomat, former adviser to the UN and currently secretary-general of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, told the Bangkok Post. The international advisory board for the implementation of the Kofi Annan recommendations will consist of five international representatives and five Myanmar members.

Among the international members of the group are: Bill Richardson, a leading member of the Democrat Party, who was involved in numerous diplomatic initiatives. He has been a US senator, governor of New Mexico, US secretary for energy, and was also US ambassador to the UN.

In February 1994, he was one of the few people to be allowed to visit Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. Mr. Richardson has also been involved in negotiating the release of hostages, American servicemen, and political prisoners in North Korea, Iraq, and Cuba.

The other international members include Urban Ahlin, currently the speaker of the Rigsdag — the Swedish parliament — and a long-time Social Democrat politician, active in foreign affairs and was at one time being the party’s spokesman on foreign policy.

In the past, he has been involved in many international negotiations and mediation efforts — including the release of Swedish construction workers from Iran and the imprisoned Belarus presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin.

Another member is “Roelf” Meyer, a South African politician and businessman, who played a prominent role in the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa, and Lord Ara Darzi, a labor politician and doctor, who is also one of the world’s leading surgeons and internationally recognized as an advocate for applying innovative reforms to health systems globally.

Their main task is overseeing the implementation of the Kofi Annan recommendations through the government’s initiative and coordinating these efforts with international community, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest advisers told the Bangkok Post.

“The aim is to build a democratic framework and secure the widest possible engagement of the international stakeholders,” the adviser said. What is needed is a wide range of new voices. They may, with their international experience, also provide a sounding board for more radical ideas, including how to combat hate speech. “The key is infrastructure for all communities,” he added.

“The State Counselor specifically asked the board to focus on an effective response to address the challenges: of rights and protection of communities; poverty; insecurity and fear within communities; and the need to strengthen communal bonds, which would engender lasting peace, stability and development in Rakhine State,” Kobsak Chutikul, who expects to act as secretary to the group, told the Bangkok Post.

Sources in Naypyitaw say the value of the group is already paying dividends, as Mr. Surakiart suggested the current diplomatic charm offensive during his recent meetings with Myanmar’s leaders.

He advised them to target some of the more receptive members of the 58-member OIC — moderates like Bahrain, Jordan and Brunei — as the OIC needs a consensus before it can act.

That was Thailand’s strategy in relation to the problems in southern Thailand.

Republished from the Bangkok Post with permission of the author.