As the new United Nations envoy to Myanmar began her first visit to the Southeast Asian nation and neighboring Bangladesh on Tuesday, Myanmar politicians and lawmakers cautioned that the diplomat should refrain from a “one-sided” approach to the crisis in Rakhine state.
Christine Schraner Burgener, a former Swiss ambassador to Germany and Thailand, who was appointed to her new role by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on April 26, will speak with Myanmar authorities, ethnic armed organizations, civil society organizations, religious leaders, and diplomats primarily about troubled Rakhine state, Myanmar’s peace process and democratization, and human rights issues.
Burgener will also meet with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the Central Information Committee of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
“I hope they can talk openly,” he said. “I think we will have a good result from her visit. The previous U.N. envoys did their work with a one-sided perspective, so I hope this one can begin her work by drawing lessons from the previous envoys’ experiences.”
Myanmar has accused U.N. officials of being biased in their assessments of a crackdown by security forces that targeted Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group in August 2017.
The U.N. and the United States have said that the violent campaign that left more than 1,000 dead and forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to safety in Bangladesh amounted to ethnic cleansing. The Myanmar government has denied that soldiers committed most of the violence and defended the operation as a counterinsurgency against terrorists.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in December asking Guterres to appoint an envoy and calling on the Myanmar government to allow access for aid workers, ensure the return of all refugees, and grant full citizenship to the stateless Rohingya, whom Myanmar considers illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Change in attitude
Khin Maung Swe, chairman of the National Democracy Force, a political party formed in 2010 as a breakaway faction of the NLD, noted a change in attitude by the government, which previously refused to allow a U.N.-mandated commission into the country to investigate the situation in Rakhine.
The government also barred Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s human rights rapporteur for Myanmar, from visiting the country because of her criticism of its handling of the crackdown, which she said bore the “hallmarks of genocide.”
A group of U.N. Security Council diplomats who visited northern Rakhine state in late April to assess the situation on the ground amid a program to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh called for a “proper” investigation into atrocities committed during the crackdown.
Just six days ago, Myanmar signed an agreement with the U.N.'s refugee and development agencies to assist with the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in overcrowded displacement camps in Bangladesh.
The same day, the government announced that it was setting up a three-person independent inquiry commission, including one international expert, to examine human rights violations in Rakhine state.
“It means Myanmar is working together with U.N. agencies and that the U.N. agencies should change their perspective on Myanmar because they are working together,” Khin Maung Swe said.
“They have seen Myanmar as a country that violates human rights and discriminates against Bengali Muslims, and they should change this one-sided point of view,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya.
Khin Maung Swe went on to say that the U.N. agencies have pressured only Myanmar, but not Bangladesh, where more than one million Rohingya refugees live in sprawling settlement camps.
“If they do something like apply this one-sided pressure, no matter which organization or whoever comes from the U.N., we won’t have fair and impartial results,” he said. “If they observe what both countries are doing and treat them equally, they will find a correct way [to resolve the Rakhine crisis].”
Bangladesh, in contrast to Myanmar, has not been accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya and has been praised for taking in and caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees for months despite being a densely populated and poor country.
Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine state’s Myebon township constituency, said that Burgener should keep an open mind when evaluating the situation.
“Many international organizations, including U.N. agencies, have visited Myanmar, and most of their visits are about the Bengali issue,” he said. “We have almost no international organization that stands up for Myanmar.”
“We are even threatened about being sent to the ICC and having R2P [Responsibility to Protect] provisions implemented,” he said.
Rights groups and U.N. human rights officials have recommended that those who have committed atrocities against the Rohingya be prosecuted for crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands.
They also have called on the international community to establish mechanisms to respond to ethnic cleansing and potential genocide in Myanmar under the R2P guidelines that address atrocity crimes.
“We welcome her [Burgener], but we hope she won’t also say something that hurts our country’s image just like other U.N. officials did,” he said.
‘We will reject it’
Nandar Hla Myint, spokesman of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said the Rakhine crisis is a domestic problem that many want the Myanmar government to resolve by appointing domestic experts and applying domestic laws.
“If this problem is solved as an international issue by having a one-sided point of view by the international community, our country’s sovereignty will be compromised,” he said. “We will lose our territory and our people’s rights.”
“We will not accept this, and we will reject it if her [Burgener’s] visit puts more pressure on Myanmar’s government,” he said.
But Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said Burgener’s visit is important for the country, especially as it faces many challenges and pressure from the international community.
He recommended that Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and the speakers of parliament speak extensively and wisely with Burgener and present concrete documents to her.
The government should also permit her to travel freely wherever she wants, especially in Rakhine state given the strong concerns of the international community about the violence-wracked region, Yan Myo Thein said.
“It is very important to have the support of Western countries, including that of the U.S., for our country’s democratic transition and for the challenges and crisis we now have,” he said. “We must resolve this problem and crisis through discussions, negotiations, and collaboration with others.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.