More than 2,000 Buddhist hardliners demonstrated in the capital of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state on Tuesday against a government advisory commission headed by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan that will examine the restive area’s religious conflict and human rights situation.
Rakhine is home to more than 1.1 million stateless Rohingya Muslims whom many Burmese call “Bengalis” because they consider them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Buddhist majority have long subjected the Rohingya to persecution and attacks and denied them basic rights, including citizenship.
The Arakan National Party (ANP), an ethno-centric political party in Rakhine state, led two protests in Sittwe—one in which about 2,000 residents and monks protested near the city’s airport and another in which 200 people protested near state government offices, said Aung Than Wai, ANP secretary in Sittwe.
The ANP and local Buddhists object to the inclusion of Annan and two other foreigners on the nine-member commission created by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Aug. 24, saying that Rakhine’s situation should be handled domestically.
The commission, whose other six members are from Myanmar, is on an initial two-day visit to meet local communities in Rakhine.
“The world might not know [ethnic] Rakhine people’s feelings,” protester Thein Kyaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Foreigners can’t know our feelings. We don’t want foreigners to interfere in our problems.”
Protester Kyawt May said: “Whenever they [foreigners] come to the state, they only work for Bengalis, and they tell the world that the Rakhine people have discriminated against the Muslims. That’s why we have suffered.”
Aung Than Wai also noted that a previous investigative committee had been formed in 2012 just after communal violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya left more than 200 dead and tens of thousands displaced.
“That commission submitted a report with suggestions for the township and state levels, but these suggestions have not been implemented yet,” he said. “The current government must continue working on the implementation of these suggestions, because they have to be transferred from the previous government’s responsibility.”
Meetings go on
Despite the protests, Annan and the other members of the commission met with 32 people, including community leaders and officials from civil society organizations, who could see the members of the commission but were not allowed to address them, local residents said.
But when Annan and Kyaw Tint Swe, minister of the State Counselor’s Office, said they wanted to hear what locals had to say, the meeting was abruptly ended, they said.
“We were told previously that we could express our feelings, opinions, and suggestions, but the meeting was stopped a short time before we were supposed to speak,” said Maung Than Sein, a community leader in Sittwe. “We don’t know why that is.”
Maung Than Sein said his group had planned to talk about why the Rohingya do not qualify as an ethnic group in Myanmar, according to the country’s history and its previous military-backed government.
Sittwe community leader Than Tun said he expected to speak directly with Annan, but felt insulted when he wasn’t given the opportunity to do so.
“It means they didn’t want to listen to ethnic Rakhine people’s voices,” he said. “We had just a little trust in this commission before and now we’ve lost it because of what happened today. Although we don’t know who is responsible for this event, the commission made a bad impression because of it.”
Commission member Saw Khin Tint, chairwoman of the Rakhine Literature and Culture Association in Yangon and vice chairwoman of the Rakhine Women’s Association, expressed surprise that locals could not address them.
“We were happy when we saw Rakhine representatives so that we could listen to what they had to say, but we were not able to listen to them,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
The commission also held a closed-door meeting with Rakhine state government officials, Rakhine chief minister Nyi Pu and other ministers, and local Muslim leaders.
The commission will meet with Buddhist monks, Muslim leaders, and coordinators from refugee camps on Wednesday. They will also visit the camps where about 120,000 Rohingya, who were part of a larger group displaced by the communal violence four years ago, currently live.
Lawmakers reject proposal
Meanwhile in the administrative capital Naypyidaw, lawmakers in the lower house rejected a proposal on Tuesday 250-140 to reform the Rakhine commission after ANP senior leader and lawmaker Oo Hla Saw questioned Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s mandate on the body.
Last Tuesday, ANP lawmaker Aung Kyaw Zan submitted the proposal to reconsider the appointments of the three foreigners to the commission. Two days later, the ANP sent a letter to the government demanding that the commission be disbanded, arguing that the foreigners would not be able to grasp the history and current situation in ethnically diverse Rakhine.
Thirty-four members of parliament (MPs) from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, ANP, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and military deputies discussed the proposal to exclude foreigners from the commission.
The 22 NLD lawmakers rejected it, saying that they believe the Rakhine problem will be resolved because Annan, one of the most respected people in the world, was leading the commission.
“The NLD doesn’t consider us dialogue partners,” said Oo Hla Saw. “Kofi Annan suggested to the NLD before the commission was formed that it should hold talks with Rakhine parties, but the NLD didn’t listen to him.”
Furthermore, he said, the state counselor does not have the right to form commissions.
“That’s why this commission is not legitimate,” he said. “Even when a commission must be formed, it shouldn’t include any foreigners.”
The remaining MPs who discussed the proposal had been in favor of further discussions about the proposal, pointing out that the issue would not be resolved because ethnic Rakhine people won’t accept any foreigners on the commission.
They contended that the three should be replaced by local experts and academics.
“We should think about whether we should trust the commission’s report because a foreigner has been appointed as commission chairman, and there are no members on the commission that people trust,” Lieutenant Colonel Mya Oo, a military MP.
“We should be very careful because a local problem may become an international issue, and it is like we are welcoming international interference so that the country’s sovereignty could be harmed,” he said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.