UPDATED at 10:27 A.M. EDT on 2017-08-25
An advisory commission on western Myanmar’s divided Rakhine state led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan on Thursday called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the beleaguered region.
The final report of the nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State lists recommendations that focus on the country’s citizenship verification process for Muslims, their rights and equality before the law, their freedom of movement, and the situation of those who are confined to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
The commission, appointed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in August 2016, advised the government to take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, allow unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine, address the statelessness of the Rohingya, hold accountable those who violate human rights, and end restrictions on the Rohingya’s freedom of movement.
“[T]he commission has chosen to squarely face these sensitive issues because we believe that if they are left to fester, the future of Rakhine State — and indeed Myanmar as a whole — will be irretrievably jeopardized,” Annan said at a press conference on the report on Thursday in the commercial capital Yangon.
“This is a critical step for Rakhines and Muslims alike,” he said. “Only in this way can they break out of the hostility that leads to the violence and despair that has blighted their lives for so long.”
The report also addressed socioeconomic development in the impoverished state, the rule of law, humanitarian aid, bilateral relations with neighboring Bangladesh, drug trafficking, and cooperation between local communities, Rakhine state, and the central government.
The commission proposed a ministerial-level appointment to coordinate policy on Rakhine state and ensure the implementation of its recommendations.
The commission based its findings and recommendations on more than 150 consultations and meetings it held with Rakhine communities, political and religious leaders, civil society organizations, central government ministers, Rakhine state officials, and nongovernmental organizations.
“We will give the report our full consideration with a view to carrying out the recommendations to the fullest extent, and within the shortest timeframe possible, in line with the situation on the ground,” said a statement issued by Aung San Suu Kyi’s office in response to the report.
“We hope to set out a full roadmap for implementation in the coming weeks,” it said
The statement also said that the government will set up a new ministerial-led committee responsible for implementing the commission’s recommendations as an intermediate step.
Though the commission proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in its final report as well as its interim report issued in March, it did not evaluate possible human rights violations against the Rohingya, especially during a four-month crackdown by security forces following deadly attacks on local border guard stations in northern Rakhine state last October.
Some Rohingya have accused security personnel of indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson, though the Myanmar government has denied most of the allegations and has so far prevented a U.N. commission from entering the country to investigate reports of atrocities.
The Annan commission did, however, touch on the lack of accountability for violations that occurred during the crackdown and said an independent and impartial investigation is necessary.
At the press conference on Thursday, Annan said the October 2016 attacks “reinforced our determination to find durable solutions to the instability and insecurity that continue to blight the prospects of the Rakhine state.”
“Tensions remain high, and the status quo cannot continue,” he said. “Violence will not bring lasting solutions to the acute problems that afflict Rakhine state.”
Before the press conference in Yangon, Annan presented the commission’s final report to Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, in the administrative capital Naypyidaw.
The commission also presented the report to members of the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development in Rakhine state and met with Rakhine members of Myanmar’s parliament.
Annan delivered the report to President Htin Kyaw on Wednesday.
Rights groups have their say
International rights groups praised the commission’s recommendations and called on the Myanmar government to swiftly adopt them, especially those pertaining to addressing discrimination against the Rohingya.
The 1.1 million Rohingya who live in Rakhine are denied Myanmar citizenship though many have lived in the nation for generations. They do not have access to health care or jobs and face restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, and childbirth.
About 120,000 Rohingya live in nearly 40 IDP camps where they were confined following deadly communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012.
“People in Rakhine state, in particular the Muslim Rohingya minority, have suffered a horrific catalogue of rights abuses for decades,” said James Gomez, director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific at London-based Amnesty International.
“This comprehensive report released by the commission today clearly outlines many of the steps Myanmar’s authorities must take to end discrimination and segregation in the region,” he said in a statement.
Gomez urged the government to “swiftly move to implement the report’s recommendations for improving the human rights situation and ending discrimination” by removing restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement, allowing full access in Rakhine state for humanitarian workers and media, and changing the country’s “discriminatory" citizenship laws.
“Without concrete action by the authorities to address long-standing grievances and redress decades of violations, people in the region will continue to be trapped in a cycle of deprivation and abuse,” he said.
East Asia-based Fortify Rights also called for an end to restrictions on the movement of the Rohingya per the report’s recommendations.
“Restrictions on freedom of movement are not only unlawful, they’re also bad for the economy and create deadly security risks,” said Matthew Smith, the group’s chief executive officer. “These apartheid-like restrictions erode security for communities and heighten the risk of mass killings. It’s a tinderbox.”
Smith also accused the Myanmar government of hiding behind the commission rather than deal with ongoing atrocities in Rakhine.
“The commission responded with concrete recommendations to end violations, and the government should act on them without delay,” he said in a statement. “The government needs to urgently address the realities on the ground.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, to hit back at ethnic Rakhine extremists who perpetuate racial and religious discrimination and to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the stateless Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens.
“The Myanmar government must face down Rakhine extremists and their supporters in so-called ‘race and religion’ movements throughout the country and firmly commit to reform of the 1982 Citizenship Act,” he said in emailed remarks.
“The commission has done Myanmar an important service by setting out the case for the urgency of that reform, and in reality, that commitment is probably the only thing that will convince Rohingya to fully participate in the long-stalled nationality verification process.”
Lawmakers vote down motion
Also on Thursday, lawmakers in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament rejected a motion to enact further security measures in Rakhine state by a vote of 232 to 150.
Khin Saw Wai, an Arakan National Party lawmaker who represents Rakhine's Rathedaung township, submitted the proposal for additional security measures on Wednesday, arguing that crime in northern Rakhine state has threatened stability, the rule of law, and public safety.
Those who supported the measure, including some military parliamentarians, held that an antiterrorist law should be enacted to combat violence and attacks by Muslim “terrorists” because the problems are damaging the state’s sovereignty.
“Because the Rakhine issue is a matter for the state and the Myanmar people, all MPs’ [members of parliament] attitudes and actions must be the same,” said Lieutenant Colonel Zaw Tun Oo, a military lawmaker.
“If the issue is only acknowledged in parliament, then parliament must take responsible for what happens in the future,” he said. “Local [ethnic] Rakhine people and others in the country will not be pleased about what parliament has done.”
Several disappearances, murders, attacks on security forces, and periodic killings by troops have occurred in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships since the end of the crackdown in February.
In early August, the Myanmar government dispatched an army battalion to provide additional security for ethnic Rakhine people following a spate of deadly attacks blamed on Muslim “terrorists.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.