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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Annan's commission faces Rohingya conundrum

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi
talk during their meeting in Yangon on Monday

Nehginpao Kipgen

In an attempt to find a sustainable solution to the complicated issues between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar's Rakhine state, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is visiting the Southeast Asian country this week.

Mr Annan, who is scheduled to visit Rakhine state today and tomorrow, is head of the nine-member State Advisory Commission formed last month by the Myanmar government. Mr Annan was the UN secretary-general from 1997-2001.

The other international members of the commission are Ghassan Salame, a scholar from Lebanon and former adviser to Mr Annan, and Laetitia van den Assum, a diplomat from the Netherlands and a former adviser to the UN Programme 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 development long-term plans in the restive state. It has been given a year to conduct research and submit its findings.

The commission was formed due to the protracted and lingering tensions between the Buddhists and Muslims (mostly Rohingya) in the wake of the 2012 violence in Rakhine state that left over 100 dead and has resulted in some 125,000 Rohingya Muslims living in designated camps where their movements are restricted.

The timing of Mr Annan's visit is important for the Myanmar government as it happens when the attention of the international community is relatively high on the Southeast Asian nation.

First, Mr 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 current UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, attended the conference.

Second, the commission's first visit comes days before Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's planned visit to the US where she will meet President Barack Obama and 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, Ms Suu Kyi has a strong case to present during her meeting with Mr Obama and her address to the UN. She is expected to make efforts to convince the international community about her government's positive initiatives and urge for patience and continued support.

Despite some positive developments, there are challenges. The first is the opposition of the commission's composition. Since its formation on Aug 24, two political parties -- the Arakan National Party and the Union Solidarity and Development Party -- 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 internal affairs.

Whether these political parties will gradually 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 the strategy it pursues.

The issue of identity 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 Bangladesh. In an attempt to pacify both sides, the government chooses to refer to them as the Muslims of Rakhine.

During his recent visit to Myanmar, Mr Ban chose to use the controversial term "Rohingya" in his speech. While the Muslims in Rakhine want to be identified as Rohingya, and the strong opposition from the ultra or nationalist Buddhists of its usage, it is still unclear as to what name the commission would use to address these people in its report.

Another major challenge will be the question of citizenship for the Rohingya. As of now, the 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 Rohingya ineligible for citizenship.

According to the 1982 citizenship law, there are three categories of citizenship: citizen, associate citizen and naturalised citizen. Citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Myanmar 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 Jan 4, 1948, and applied for citizenship after 1982.

Because of the continued allegation of 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 Rohingya, has rejected them as its citizens.

The Myanmar government's appointment of the commission is not the first of its kind. In February 2014, the 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 Rakhine state.

Prior to the appointment of the commission, former Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin also announced a separate inquiry by three government-appointed groups into the circumstances that led to the 2014 violence. 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 found a lasting solution. The initiatives partly failed because the government lacked substantive plans to address the core issues of identity and citizenship of the Rohingya.

In light of these failures and the continued pressure from the international community, the participation of foreign experts may help bring new ideas which may pave the way for a possible solution.

In any case, the task of the Annan-led commission, is to conduct research and give its recommendations to the government. With foreign nationals in the commission, it may engender a neutral idea that could be mutually acceptable.

Reconciliation will have a chance to succeed if Rakhine state Muslims and Buddhists are willing to compromise and respect each other's identity and culture. The government and the public must be ready to embrace the Rohingya if any genuine reconciliation is to be achieved.

Sumber - Bangkok Post

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