Rakhine stages hostile welcome for ex-UN chief
Hundreds of Buddhist nationalists lined the road from the Sittwe airport yesterday, protesting the arrival of the newly formed Rakhine advisory commission headed by Kofi Annan.
AS hundreds of protestors gave Kofi Annan a hostile welcome to Sittwe yesterday, the chair of the newly formed Rakhine advisory commission vowed to work with all sections of the community to end the conflict that has blighted the state, and to help build economic prosperity.
Illustrating the challenges lying ahead for the commission, hundreds of people lined the airport road to voice their objections over “foreign interference” in the state’s troubles. “No Kofi Annan,” they shouted.
The government-backed commission, which consists of six Myanmar nationals and three foreign citizens, is on a two-day visit to the state to meet with local political, religious and community leaders, including those from the mainly stateless Muslim Rohingya community.
Addressing commission members and around 100 delegates, commission chair Mr Annan said the body was “aware of the great history and culture of Rakhine State” and vowed “impartiality”.
But that was not enough to reassure some local ethnic Rakhine present, who afterward expressed anger they had not been allowed to address Mr Annan directly in the opening session.
“They invited us to the meeting and asked us to leave without a chance to have a discussion. It means they have no respect for the Rakhine people,” said local resident U Than Tun.
Over 120,000 people, mainly Muslims, remain displaced in Rakhine after communal violence broke out in 2012 between Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim minority who selfidentify as Rohingya but who are referred to as illegal “Bengali” immigrants by the majority in Myanmar.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international condemnation for her failure to address the ongoing human rights abuses inflicted on the Rohingya, who are widely denied freedom of movement and face severely restricted access to medical care.
The commission has been recognised as an attempt by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to address some of those concerns, but the inclusion of foreigners has provoked anger in Rakhine where Buddhist nationalists have accused foreign agencies, including the UN and major INGOs, of preferential treatment of the Muslim population.
“If the Union government needed to form an advisory commission on Rakhine State affairs, it should have done so with local ethnic experts,” said Daw May Phyu, a resident from Mingan ward. “I demonstrated because this is an internal affair and not an international issue.”
Mr Annan arrived at the government at around 10am to explain the objectives of the commission. But with speakers set at low levels his words were barely audible at times, as around 100 protesters outside chanted protest slogans.
In his opening remarks, Mr Annan commented on the “active and hectic reception” he had received upon arrival at Sittwe airport that morning.
At least 400 protesters, including a small number of monks, lined the road from the airport shouting that Mr Annan was not welcome and waving banners objecting to his presence as a kind of foreign intervention.
“We do not believe the commission is fair,” said Ko Aung Ko Moe, who was assisting protest organisers at the airport.
U Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine State government, claimed protesters had been paid to attend, given K5000 each by a political organisation.
“They are not from Sittwe,” he said, an allegation apparently backed by some protesters themselves who said they had come from surrounding villages after being rallied by local leaders the night before.
However Sittwe local residents also expressed unhappiness about the inclusion of foreigners in the commission.
“The most important person in the commission is the chair, and if that is Kofi Annan the problem is that he doesn’t know well the feelings of the people of Rakhine State. We are worried that if he makes the wrong decision it will inflict more pain on the people here,” said lawyer U Myint Soe Win, as he sat with friends in a local tea shop.
Opening the meeting of about 100 delegates, U Kyaw Tint Swe, minister for the State Counsellor’s Office and former ambassador to the UN under the military regime, said the commission had been formed “in the interest of the entire nation”. He also pressed home the message that “stability and development go hand in hand”.
His address was followed by remarks from the chief minister of Rakhine State, U Nyi Pu, who urged “friendly and frank discussions” and said, “This is not the kind of work that can be completed in one day, or one visit, so I hope this effort will be continued if a solution is to be found.”
Mr Annan, a former UN secretary general, also stressed a link between peace and economic development.
He said as chair of the commission he is aware of the “great suffering” of people in Rakhine, and the challenges ahead.
“My experience has shown me that peaceful democracy and peaceful society can be built on three things: sustainable development; peace and security; and respect for rule of law and human rights.”
He added, “No nation can long remain prosperous without respect for rule of law and human rights.”
The former UN chief also called on Myanmar’s neighbours to “play a constructive and positive role”.
After the event, Dutch commission member Laetitia van den Assum, a former diplomat and UN adviser, reiterated Mr Annan’s promise that the body would focus on community consultation
“We are here to listen and to learn,” she said.
The commission members are today due to visit camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and villages around Sittwe before Mr Annan flies to Nay Pyi Taw.
A permanent office for the commission is currently being established in Sittwe and will operate with around five to 10 staff members, a representative of Mr Annan’s delegation confirmed.
‘We are worried that if he makes the wrong decision it will inflict more pain on the people here.’ U Myint Soe Win Lawyer
Demonstrators in Sittwe protest former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s arrival to the Rakhine State capital yesterday.