UPDATED at 11 A.M. EST on 2016-09-01
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday threw his support behind a Myanmar commission to address human rights issues in troubled Rakhine state, chaired by his predecessor Kofi Annan, despite objections from ethnic Rakhine lawmakers.
“We are happy to see the encouraging steps you [the Myanmar government] have taken, including the establishment of a commission chaired by my distinguished predecessor, Mr. Kofi Annan, to look at the overall issues in Rakhine,” Ban said during a speech after he met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw.
Ban is in Myanmar to attend the government’s Panglong Conference peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups, which begin on Wednesday.
“He [Annan] telephoned me in fact before he assumed his post and I assured him that the United Nations will provide full support, and I strongly advised him to work very closely with the State Counselor and also meet as many stakeholders as possible,” Ban said.
Last week, the Myanmar government selected Annan to head its advisory commission to help resolve human rights issues in troubled Rakhine state, where the majority of the country’s Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority group lives, facing persecution in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
The nine-member commission includes three international representatives, four Buddhist and Muslim members from Myanmar, and two Myanmar government representatives, who will try to find a lasting solution to the Rakhine issue.
The Myanmar government and Buddhist nationalists consider the stateless Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations, and deny them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
The advisory commission will hold meetings with all relevant stakeholders, international experts, and foreign dignitaries, submit its findings and recommendations to the Myanmar government, and publish a report next year.
A ‘complex’ situation
Ban Ki-moon went on to say that he and Aung San Suu Kyi had discussed the latest developments in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, calling the situation “complex.”
“I conveyed the concern of the international community about the tens of thousands of people who have been living in very poor conditions in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps for over four years,” he said. “Like all people everywhere, they need and deserve a future of hope and dignity.”
“This is not just a question of the Rohingya community’s right to self-identify,” he said. “The broader issue is that all of Myanmar’s people, of every ethnicity and background, should be able to live in equality and harmony, side by side with their neighbors.”
“People who have been living for generations in this country should enjoy the same legal status and citizenship as everyone else,” he said.
Some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced after communal violence erupted four years ago between them and Rakhine Buddhists, leaving more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless after their houses were destroyed. The Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the attacks, were later forced to live in refugee camps.
About 120,000 Rohingya currently remain in the camps, while thousands of others have fled persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country on rickety boats to other Southeast Asian countries in recent years.
No need for commission
Meanwhile, an ethnic Rakhine lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) in parliament’s lower house proposed an emergency motion on Tuesday to reform the Annan-led commission by reconsidering the appointments of the three foreigners.
“They appointed foreigners to resolve a difficult issue that local and domestic leaders can’t even resolve,” said ANP lawmaker Aung Kyaw Zan in an address to his fellow members of parliament. “This will turn a domestic issue into an international one.”
He said there is no need for a new commission, but that the government should instead implement the recommendations of a previous commission formed under the former military-backed government, the online Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reported.
The ANP sent a letter to the Myanmar government on Aug. 25, objecting to the appointment of three foreigners to the advisory commission and calling for it to be disbanded.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) also issued a statement last Thursday raising concern that the commission’s work “could harm security and national matters.”
Lawmakers will debate the proposal on Thursday, the DVB report said.
Ma Ba Tha criticism
Also on Tuesday, Myanmar’s ultranationalist Buddhist monk group Ma Ba Tha criticized Annan’s involvement in the advisory commission on social media, calling him a “kalar,” a slur used in Myanmar against Muslims and Indians, according to an Associated Press report.
“A funny-looking and disrespectful person cannot talk about our own issues in the country," the posting said.
Furthermore, the group posted a photo of American actor Morgan Freeman, who is sometimes confused with Annan, marked with a red X next to the words “We no need Coffee [sic] Annan he go away,” the AP report said.
Ma Ba Tha is believed to be one of the forces behind the deadly 2012 communal violence in Rakhine state and has often participated in demonstrations against the Rohingya.
Two days later, however, AP issued a corrected version of the story, saying that the Buddhist group’s post insulting Annan was fake. It noted that Ashin Wirathu, one of Ma Ba Tha's leaders, said on his Facebook page that the post was from a phony account.
Amid the criticism of Annan’s appointment, Zaw Htay, deputy-director general of the State Counselor’s Office, said on Aug. 26 that the diplomat was selected to be the commission chairman in response to international pressure, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
He told a press conference in Naypyidaw that the decision to include international representatives had resulted from outside pressure after previous local commissions failed to resolve the Rakhine state issue, the report said.
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.