As Rakhine body chair, Kofi An­nan takes on Myan­mar pol­i­tics' third rail

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NEHGINPAO KIPGEN news­room@mm­

IN an at­tempt to find a sus­tain­able so­lu­tion to the com­pli­cated is­sues be­tween Mus­lims and Bud­dhists in Rakhine State, former UN sec­re­tary gen­eral Kofi An­nan is vis­it­ing Myan­mar this week. Mr An­nan is chair of the nine­mem­ber Rakhine State Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion formed by the govern­ment on Au­gust 23. Mr An­nan, who was the UN chief from 1997 to 2006, shared the No­bel Peace Prize with the United Na­tions in 2001.

The other international mem­bers of the com­mis­sion are Ghas­san Salamé, a scholar from Le­banon and former ad­viser to Mr An­nan, and Laeti­tia van den As­sum, a Dutch diplo­mat and former ad­viser to the United Na­tions Pro­gramme on HIV/AIDS. The com­mis­sion’s six other mem­bers are Myan­mar na­tion­als, with two Rakhine Bud­dhists, two Mus­lims and two govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The com­mis­sion has been tasked with find­ing con­flict-pre­ven­tion mea­sures; en­sur­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, rights and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion; es­tab­lish­ing ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture; and putting for­ward long-term de­vel­op­ment plans for the restive state. It has been given one year to con­duct re­search and sub­mit a re­port on its find­ings.

For­ma­tion of the com­mis­sion was prompted by a num­ber of fac­tors, but most im­por­tantly due to the pro­tracted and lin­ger­ing ten­sions be­tween Bud­dhists and Mus­lims (mostly self-iden­ti­fy­ing Ro­hingya) in the wake of 2012 vi­o­lence in Rakhine State that killed more than 100 peo­ple and has re­sulted in more than 100,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims liv­ing in dis­place­ment camps where their move­ments are re­stricted.

Cru­cial tim­ing The tim­ing of Mr An­nan’s visit is im­por­tant for the Myan­mar govern­ment be­cause it hap­pens as the at­ten­tion of the international com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing the me­dia fra­ter­nity, is rel­a­tively high vis-à-vis the South­east Asian na­tion.

First, Mr An­nan’s trav­els come right after the highly an­tic­i­pated 21st-cen­tury Pan­g­long Con­fer­ence, at which the govern­ment sought to make ini­tial strides to­ward se­cur­ing peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the coun­try’s eth­nic mi­nori­ties. Sev­eral dig­ni­taries, in­clud­ing Ban Ki-moon, Mr An­nan’s suc­ces­sor as UN sec­re­tary gen­eral, at­tended the con­fer­ence.

Sec­ond, the com­mis­sion chair’s first visit also comes ahead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s planned visit to the United States, where she will meet Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and also ad­dress the 71st ses­sion of the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly.

By mak­ing some progress in the peace process with Myan­mar’s eth­nic armed groups, as well as by tak­ing con­crete steps to tackle the Ro­hingya is­sue, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have a strong case to present dur­ing her meet­ing with Mr Obama and also while ad­dress­ing the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. Myan­mar’s state coun­sel­lor is ex­pected to make ef­forts to con­vince the international com­mu­nity of her NLD govern­ment’s pos­i­tive ini­tia­tives while urg­ing pa­tience and con­tin­ued sup­port for its success.

Chal­lenges ahead De­spite these pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments, there are cer­tain chal­lenges. The first is op­po­si­tion to the com­mis­sion’s com­po­si­tion. Since its for­ma­tion last month, two po­lit­i­cal par­ties – the Arakan Na­tional Party and the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party – have called for its abo­li­tion or the re­moval of its three for­eign mem­bers on the grounds that they can­not be ex­pected to un­der­stand the lo­cal con­text or that their in­volve­ment would amount to in­ter­fer­ence in Myan­mar’s in­ter­nal af­fairs.

Whether these po­lit­i­cal par­ties will even­tu­ally ac­cept and recog­nise the role of the com­mis­sion or con­tinue with their op­po­si­tion re­mains to be seen. The ac­cep­tance or non-ac­cep­tance of the com­mis­sion may also de­pend on how its work pro­gresses and or the strat­egy it pur­sues.

The is­sue of iden­tity or nomen­cla­ture will per­haps be the great­est chal­lenge for the com­mis­sion. Al­though most Mus­lims in Rakhine State call them­selves Ro­hingya, Bud­dhists there and many across Myan­mar call them “Ben­gali”, im­ply­ing that they are il­le­gal im­mi­grants from neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh.

In an at­tempt to pacify both sides, the NLD govern­ment uses nei­ther of the two sen­si­tive terms and in­stead refers to them as “the Mus­lims of Rakhine”. The pre­vi­ous USDP govern­ment used the term “Ben­gali”, and at one point then-pres­i­dent U Thein Sein sug­gested that they should be re­set­tled to a third coun­try un­der an ini­tia­tive of the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, a propo­si­tion that was re­jected out­right by the UN.

Dur­ing his re­cent visit to Myan­mar, Mr Ban, the UN chief, chose to use the con­tro­ver­sial term “Ro­hingya”. While most Mus­lims in Rakhine State want to be iden­ti­fied as Ro­hingya, and amid strong op­po­si­tion to the term from Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists, it is still un­clear what name the com­mis­sion might use to re­fer to these peo­ple.

Another ma­jor chal­lenge will be the ques­tion of cit­i­zen­ship for the Ro­hingya. As of now, the NLD govern­ment’s po­si­tion on the is­sue is not much dif­fer­ent from its pre­de­ces­sor. The govern­ment wants to ad­dress this sen­si­tive ques­tion in ac­cor­dance with the 1982 Cit­i­zen­ship Law, which will make many Ro­hingya in­el­i­gi­ble for Myan­mar cit­i­zen­ship.

Ac­cord­ing to the con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion, there are three cat­e­gories of cit­i­zen­ship: full, as­so­ciate and nat­u­ralised. Full cit­i­zens are de­scen­dants of res­i­dents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to par­ents both of whom were cit­i­zens. As­so­ciate cit­i­zens are those who ac­quired cit­i­zen­ship through the 1948 Union Cit­i­zen­ship Act. Nat­u­ralised cit­i­zens are peo­ple who lived in Burma be­fore Jan­uary 4, 1948, and ap­plied for cit­i­zen­ship after 1982.

Be­cause of the per­sis­tent claim that Ro­hingya are il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh, whether the ad­vi­sory com­mis­sion will talk to the Dhaka govern­ment in the course of its mis­sion re­mains to be seen. A com­pound­ing com­pli­ca­tion is that Bangladesh, which al­ready hosts a Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion of about 300,000, has re­jected the group as its cit­i­zens.

New think­ing The NLD govern­ment’s for­ma­tion of a com­mis­sion on Rakhine State is not the first of its kind. A com­mis­sion was formed fol­low­ing the first out­break of in­ter-com­mu­nal vi­o­lence in 2012, and also in Fe­bru­ary 2014, when U Thein Sein ap­pointed a 10-mem­ber com­mis­sion to probe the death of a po­lice­man that sparked the al­leged killings of at least 40 Ro­hingya Mus­lims by Bud­dhist mobs in west­ern Rakhine State’s Maung­daw town­ship.

Nei­ther com­mis­sion brought a last­ing so­lu­tion to the sim­mer­ing ten­sions be­tween Mus­lims and Bud­dhists in Rakhine State. Among other rea­sons, they partly failed be­cause the govern­ment had lacked sub­stan­tive plans to ad­dress the core is­sues of iden­tity and cit­i­zen­ship for the Ro­hingya.

In light of these fail­ures – both com­mis­sions were led solely by peo­ple of Myan­mar – and con­tin­ued pres­sure from the international com­mu­nity, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of for­eign ex­perts may help bring some new think­ing and fresh ideas that pave the way for a possible so­lu­tion to the pro­tracted prob­lem.

In any case, the task of the An­nan­led com­mis­sion is to con­duct re­search and give its rec­om­men­da­tions to the Myan­mar govern­ment. Fear­ful na­tion­al­ists may take com­fort in know­ing that the com­mis­sion has no en­force­ment power. Since there are Myan­mar na­tion­als as well as for­eign­ers on the com­mis­sion, it may fos­ter a neu­tral ap­proach that is mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able to all.

How­ever, re­gard­less of the ap­point­ment of the com­mis­sion and its an­tic­i­pated rec­om­men­da­tions, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will have a chance to suc­ceed only when Ro­hingya and Rakhine com­mu­ni­ties are will­ing to com­pro­mise on their dif­fer­ences by re­spect­ing each other’s iden­tity and cul­ture. More im­por­tantly, the Myan­mar govern­ment and the gen­eral pub­lic must be ready to em­brace the Ro­hingya as le­git­i­mate claimants to cit­i­zen­ship if any gen­uine rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is to be achieved.

Nehginpao Kipgen is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for South­east Asian Stud­ies, Jin­dal School of International Af­fairs, OP Jin­dal Global Univer­sity. His writ­ings have been pub­lished in more than 30 coun­tries on five con­ti­nents – Asia, Africa, Aus­tralia, Europe and North Amer­ica.

Photo: Staff

A young girl car­ries a tod­dler at a camp for in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons in Rakhine State in 2015.

Photo: Nyan Zay Htet

Former UN sec­re­tary gen­eral Kofi An­nan (left) ad­dresses a press con­fer­ence with State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon yes­ter­day.

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