As Rakhine body chair, Kofi Annan takes on Myanmar politics' third rail
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.
A young girl carries a toddler at a camp for internally displaced persons in Rakhine State in 2015.
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (left) addresses a press conference with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon yesterday.