Myanmar Military Chief, President Meet With Kofi Annan Over Rakhine Commission

Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, head of the nine-member advisory commission on Myanmar's Rakhine state, delivers an address at a press conference in Yangon, Sept. 8, 2016.

Myanmar’s commander-in-chief of the armed services said Thursday that the newly appointed advisory commission on Rakhine state must take into account the history and desire of the ethnic Buddhist Rakhine majority in the restive region while it carries out its work.

During a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who chairs the nine-member commission, that the consent of the Rakhine people is very crucial in the body’s work because of the sensitivity of issues in the troubled state.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also Myanmar’s de facto leader, created the independent commission in late August to review conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, development issues, and strengthening local institutions in the western state. The commission must submit a report on its findings within 12 months.

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 has long subjected the Rohingya to persecution and attacks and denied them basic rights, including citizenship.

The minority group which bore the brunt of anti-Muslim communal violence in 2012 that left more than 200 dead and displaced tens of thousands were later forced to live in camps where they remain today.

“Regarding the citizenship issue, we also have to think about national solidarity and democracy,” Min Aung Hlaing wrote on his Facebook page. “The commission should look at the background of Rakhine state while doing its work.”

Annan told him that the commission will not make any decisions on issues in Rakhine state.

“We will give our advice after meetings with the two communities,” he said, in a reference to ethnic Rakhine people and the Rohingya.

Following his meeting with the military chief, Annan met with President Htin Kyaw who said he believed that the diplomat’s skillful leadership could solve problems in Rakhine state, according to a statement issued by the President’s Office.

Sittwe visit

Annan met with Htin Kyaw just after wrapping up an initial two-day trip to the Rakhine capital Sittwe where Buddhist protesters greeted him and the other members of the advisory commission.

The advisory commission members held meetings with senior monks, members of the Rakhine state parliament, representatives of political parties, and local cabinet members, and visited the Rohingya living in displaced persons camps.

Protesters and the state’s dominant Arakan National Party (ANP) have objected to the inclusion of three foreign members on the commission, arguing that they will side with the Rohingya and will turn the issue into an international one. The commission’s six other members are Myanmar citizens.

But Annan said during his meeting with Htin Kyaw that he understands why the Buddhists are objecting to the commission and stressed that the body wants to know what the people’s desires are.

At a press conference in the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday, a reporter asked the members of the advisory commission if they had seen anything in the camps that indicated oppression.

Annan said he had not, but commission member Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader and founder of the interfaith group Religions for Peace Myanmar, said: “It was a two-day visit and everything was stage-managed, so we need more time to find out whether there is oppression or not.”

Another reporter asked about the use of the divisive terms “Rohingya” and “Bengali” to refer to the Muslim minority group in Rakhine. The government and many Buddhists object to “Rohingya,” saying that the people do not constitute an ethnic group in Myanmar.

“’Rohingya’ and ‘Bengali’ are both emotive,” Annan said. “We will hope that the work of the commission and the results that we will hopefully produce will help reduce tensions and make this issue less prominent.”

Muslim Rohingya gather during a meeting with former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan at the Thet Kal Pyin displacement camp in Sittwe, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Sept. 7, 2016.
Muslim Rohingya gather during a meeting with former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan at the Thet Kal Pyin displacement camp in Sittwe, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Sept. 7, 2016.
‘Rigorously impartial’

Annan also assured those who attended the conference that the body’s mandate was to provide recommendations to the government on measures for finding solutions to the state’s complex problems in accordance with international standards, and that it would remain “rigorously impartial.”

“[W]e are not here to do a human rights investigation and write a human rights report,” he said.

“The mandate is for us to make recommendations that will reduce tensions [and] support development in Rakhine state,” he said.

“We are not here as inspectors, as policemen,” he said. “We are here to help at the request of the government, and we see this as a commission that we are participating in, bringing some international dimension, and you will get an honest report from us.”

When another reporter asked the commission what it will do differently from a previous one that failed to implement long-term solutions to Rakhine’s problems, Annan responded that the main difference is that the new body has both Myanmar and foreign members.

“It is a Myanmar commission but with international involvement [and] participation,” he said. “And we were appointed by the [state] counselor, and we are here to advise, not to impose.”

“And we will not only look at what can be done locally, we will also try and reach out and talk to some of the neighbors of Myanmar to see how they can help, particularly when it comes to dealing with their own border situations and cooperating on the movements of people, and how that can be better handled,” he said.

“We are going to do our best, and we think we can offer a report and recommendations that as I said will be helpful to all communities—and I mean all communities,” Annan said. “You don’t reconcile people, you don’t prevent conflict by focusing on one side of the issue.”

A previous investigative committee had been formed just after the outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya in 2012, but the suggestions it provided in a subsequent report were not implemented at the township and state levels.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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