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.
Annan is head of the nine member State Advisory Commission formed by the Myanmar government on August 24. Annan, who was the UN secretary general from 1997-2006, 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 advisor to Kofi Annan, and Laetitia van den Assum, a diplomat from the Netherlands and a former advisor to the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS. The other six members are Myanmar nationals, with two Rakhine Buddhist members, two Muslim members, and two government representatives.
The Commission has been tasked with finding conflict-prevention measures, ensuring humanitarian assistance, rights and reconciliation, establishing basic infrastructure, and promoting long-term development plans in the restive state. And the commission has been given a year to conduct research and submit a report on its findings.
The formation of the commission was necessitated by a number of factors, but most importantly due to the protracted and lingering tensions between the Buddhists and Muslims (mostly Rohingyas) in the wake of the 2012 violence in Rakhine state that killed more than 100 people and has resulted in some 125,000 Rohingya Muslims living in designated camps where their movements are restricted.
Importance of Timing
The timing of Annan’s visit is important for the Myanmar government as it happens at a time when the attention of the international community, including the media, is relatively focused on the Southeast Asian nation.
First, Annan’s visit comes right after the highly vaunted 21st century Panglong conference where the Myanmar government is seeking to secure peace and reconciliation with the country’s ethnic minorities. Several dignitaries, including Ban Ki-moon, the incumbent UN secretary general and successor of Annan himself, attended the conference.
Second, the commission’s first visit also comes days before 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 the country’s ethnic armed groups, as well as by taking certain initiatives with regard to the Rohingya issue, Suu Kyi would have a strong case to present during her meeting with Obama and also while addressing the UN General Assembly. Suu Kyi is expected to make efforts to convince the international community about her NLD government’s positive initiatives and urge patience and continued support for its success.
Despite some positive developments, there are certain challenges. The first is domestic opposition to the commission’s composition. Since its formation on August 24, two political parties — the Arakan National Party and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — have called for its cancellation or the removal of the international members on the grounds that they could not 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 gradually accept and recognize 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 the strategy it pursues.
The issue of identity or nomenclature will perhaps be the greatest challenge of the commission. Although the Muslims in Rakhine call themselves Rohingya, the Buddhists in Rakhine and many across Myanmar call them illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
In an attempt to pacify both sides, the NLD government uses neither of the two sensitive terms — Rohingya and Bengali — and instead refers to them as the Muslims of Rakhine. The previous USDP government used the term Bengali, and at one point President Thein Sein suggested that they should be resettled to a third country under the initiative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a proposal which was rejected outright by the UN.
During his recent visit to Myanmar, Ban Ki-moon chose to use the controversial term “Rohingya” in his speech. While the Muslims in Rakhine want to be identified as “Rohingya,” given the strong opposition from the ultra or nationalist Buddhists to the term’s usage, it is still unclear as to what name the commission would use to address these people or when submitting its report to the Myanmar government.
Another major challenge will be the question of citizenship for the Rohingyas. 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 would have made many of the Rohingyas ineligible for Myanmar citizenship.
According to the 1982 citizenship law, there are three categories of citizenship: citizen, associate citizen, and naturalized citizen. Citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were both citizens. Associate citizens are those who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Act. Naturalized citizens are people who lived in Burma before January 4, 1948 and applied for citizenship after 1982.
Because of the continued allegation of the Muslims in Rakhine being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, whether the advisory commission would talk to the Dhaka government in the course of its mission remains to be seen. A compounding complicated issue is that Bangladesh, which already hosts about 300,000 Rohingyas, has rejected the Rohingyas as its citizens.
The NLD government’s appointment of the commission is not the first of its kind. In February 2014, President Thein Sein appointed a 10-member commission to probe the death of a policeman, which had sparked what was described as revenge killings of at least 40 Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist mobs in western Rakhine state.
Prior to the appointment of the commission, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin also announced a separate inquiry by three government-appointed groups into the circumstances that led to the violence in Rakhine state. The Central Committee for Rakhine State Peace, Stability, and Development Implementation; the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission; and the Rakhine Conflict Investigation Commission conducted separate investigations into the killings.
Neither the commission nor the separate investigations brought a lasting solution to the simmering tensions between the Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state. Among others, the initiatives partly failed because the government had lacked substantive plans to address the core issues of identity and citizenship of the Rohingyas.
In light of these failures of the commission and investigations led by people of Myanmar and the continued pressure from the international community, the participation of foreign experts may help bring some new thinking and fresh ideas, which may pave the way for a possible solution to the protracted problem.
In any case, the task of Kofi Annan-led commission is to conduct research and give its recommendation to the Myanmar government. The commission has no power to enforce those recommendations. Since there are Myanmar nationals as well as foreign nationals in the commission, it may engender a neutral idea that could be mutually acceptable.
However, regardless of the appointment of the commission and its anticipated recommendation, reconciliation will have a chance to succeed when Rohingyas and Rakhines 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 Rohingyas if any genuine reconciliation is to be achieved.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents: Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.