Myanmar’s cultural diversity and pluralism deserve to be celebrated. A sense of identity, pride and belonging is important in all societies, particularly in times of rapid change. Yet, identity and ethnicity remain sensitive issues in Myanmar. The issue of citizenship rights remains a broad concern, and a major impediment to peace and prosperity in Rakhine.… Myanmar harbours the largest community of stateless people in the world….
Advisory Commission on Rakhine State Final Report (p. 26)
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (ACRS) chaired by former United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi A. Annan, issued its Final Report, appropriately subtitled, Towards a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine. To anyone interested in the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the plight of the Rohingya, the radicalization of some on all sides, and the danger this poses not just to Myanmar but to its neighbors and beyond, I highly recommend reading it. The ACRS Final Report has much to offer.
Last year I posted on some of Mr. Annan’s comments made shortly before the release of the ACRS’s Interim Report. I was critical of both Mr. Annan and State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi. I have also posted on the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar, who according to credible sources and proof, have been on the receiving end of crimes against humanity committed, acquiesced, or tolerated by the Myanmar government (see here, here, and here). Indeed, like others, I have warned that these mass atrocities display the characteristics of a slow burning genocide in the making.
My take then was bleak. The international community seemed indifferent, Mr. Annan seemed to minimize the deplorable condition of the Rohingya, and Madam Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to be more concerned about her political future and holding on to her position as the de facto head of state. The plight of a segment of Myanmar’s population who are persecuted, stripped of some of the most basic of human rights, and physically attacked, raped, and killed with virtual impunity seemed to be ignored, unappreciated, or denied.
Frankly, I was not expecting much from the ACRS, especially given Mr. Annan’s comments that “there are tensions, there has been fighting, but I wouldn’t put the way some have done.…” (See here). I was not alone in being sceptical. The ACRS has been criticized (with a whiff of conspiracy) in the Bangladeshi media:
Indeed, given the nature of Commission’s terms of reference that are quite limiting and that its recommendations are also non-binding and furthermore, that its composition that included on the one hand friends of Aung San Suu Kyi (Kofi Annan, for example) and on the other, the Rohingya tormentor himself (the chair of the Commission) it looked a non-starter from the start.
While the full report of the Commission is awaited (not sure whether this would be published at all, untampered that is) reading of Kofi Annan’s recent responses in the press, of his findings that he is only “deeply concerned” – a diplomatic cliché meaning irritation; saw few ‘burned houses’ and that “We went to the region but we didn’t walk into a live conflict” and also that it was not possible to “witness rape” and that Rohingya persecution is not ‘a genocide’, leaves no doubt as to which side he is on.
Since the ACRS was commissioned, the situation in Myanmar has not changed for the better. In fact, it is probably worse and going to become even worse – into a tinderbox. Political will to make hard choices seems lacking. With the Rohingya question being exceptionally complex (and one must factor in that there are serious issues with other minorities in Myanmar), finding a quick, sustainable, and acceptable answer seems out of reach. This would seem to be so even if good will among all was plentiful. But when has there ever been a quick fix to complex problems?
The ACRS Final Report is measured, pragmatic, and instructive. It may not satisfy all, and no doubt some will take exception with some of the historical facts and proposed recommendations, but overall, this 66-page report is a solid step forward. How much of it will be accepted and how fast its recommendations will be implemented remains to be seen.
Established by the Myanmar government and the Kofi Annan Foundation in September 2016, the ACRS was mandated “to examine the complex challenges facing Rakhine State and to propose responses to those challenges” within five thematic areas: conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, reconciliation, institution building, and development. (p. 6). The ACRS was not requested to investigate any specific cases of human rights violations, but rather, “to address institutional and structural issues” undermining the prospects of peace, justice, and development in Rakhine State. (p. 13).
Chaired by Mr. Annan, the ACRS was composed of three international members and six national members. Apart from Mr. Annan, the internationals included Ghassan Salamé – who is currently the Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya – and former Dutch Ambassador Laetitia van den Assum. The national members included U Win Mra (Head of the National Human Rights Commission in Myanmar), Dr. Tha Hla Shwe (former President of the Myanmar Red Cross Society), U Aye Lwin (Chief Convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar), Dr. Mya Thida (President of the Obstetrical and Gynecological Society of the Myanmar Medical Association), U Khin Maung Lay (Member of the Human Rights Commission in Myanmar), and Daw Saw Khin Tint (Chairperson of the Rakhine Literature and Cultural Association). (p. 12).
During their visit to Rakhine State, the ACRS met with a broad spectrum of local stakeholders including Rakhine State Government officials, religious and civil society organizations, village elders and local residents, residents of Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, private sector representatives, and representatives of smaller ethnic and religious communities. The ACRS also consulted with regional State officials from Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, India, China, and Malaysia, and other “international actors” such as UN officials, Myanmar diplomats, NGOs, regional organizations, and independent analysts. (p. 14).
Aside from providing a fairly neutral historical/political narrative (or at least one that is less likely to offend to the point of alienation), the Final Report also examines issues of concern and relevance to the overall situation in Rakhine State, producing a list of recommendations in the following thematic areas:
- The Economic and Social Development of Rakhine State (pp. 20-25)
- Citizenship (pp. 26-32)
- Freedom of Movement (pp. 33-34)
- Internally Displaced Persons (pp. 35-37)
- Humanitarian Access (p. 38)
- Media Access (p. 39)
- Education (pp. 40-41)
- Health (pp. 42-44)
- Drugs (p. 45)
- Communal Participation and Representation (pp. 46-49)
- Inter-communal Cohesion (pp. 50-52)
- The Security Sector (p. 53-55)
- Access to Justice (pp. 56-57)
- Cultural Development (p. 58)
- Border Issues and the Bilateral Relationship with Bangladesh (pp. 59-60)
- Regional Relations (p. 61)
- Implementation of the Commission’s Recommendations (pp. 62-63)
This holistic approach in identifying systemic and endemic problems, and offering reasonable and concrete recommendations, is the strength of the Final Report. Many of the recommendations are confidence-building measures that could, over time, lead to sustainable peace, economic growth, improvement in health and social conditions, etc., for the population in Rakhine State, and particularly in northern Rakhine. Seen differently, the ACRS recognized that the problems in Rakhine State are not solely related to ethnic tensions, religious intolerance, radicalization, and violence. There are a host of security, social, educational, financial, drug trafficking, access to justice, etc. issues that impact everyone who resides in Rakhine State. With these issues being interconnected and relevant to the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, all must be tackled simultaneously if there is to be any sustainable peace.
Appropriately, the Final Report zeros in on the Gordian knot that must be resolved if the crimes against humanity are to subside and the looming genocide is to be averted: the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya. It offers recommendations that seem measured and incremental. Whether they are implementable, and whether they lead to full citizenship recognition and rights for the Rohingya, is a question for more authoritative voices to ponder. From what I can glean, what is recommended deserves serious consideration for implementation – the sooner the better.
Also, many of the recommendations are immediate steps designed to foster confidence-building, with bolder steps to follow. Maybe too slow or too little for some, and perhaps so, but a dose of realism is in order: the status quo is not an option. That said, it would be a mistake not to move with all deliberate speed on resolving the citizenship issue until a comprehensive strategy plan can be agreed upon to fulfill the recommendations for all other areas identified in the Final Report. Priority must be given to dealing with the citizenship issue, while simultaneously designing a comprehensive step-by-step implementation plan for many, if not all, the other recommendations.
My fear is that now that there is a workable foundation for designing a holistic approach to sustainable development in Rakhine State, analysis-paralysis is likely to follow: setting up working groups, holding discussions ad nauseam, and engaging experts for more fact-finding missions, more reports, and endless finger-pointing on who is to blame for the situation in northern Rakhine.
Such fact-finding missions are already underway, and any follow-up on the ACRS Final Report should be careful to avoid mission overlap. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution in March 2017 to dispatch an international fact-finding mission to establish human rights violations by Myanmar military and security forces in Rakhine State, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights previously finding that the situation in Rakhine State “would suggest a widespread or systematic attack against the Rohingya, in turn suggesting the possible commission of crimes against humanity, if established by a court of law….”
The recommendations of the Final Report are by no means perfect, but they are good. No longer can Madam Aung San Suu Kyi hide behind vague explanations and empty excuses about the complexity of the situation or the elusiveness of practical solutions concerning the Rohingya.
Assuming there is genuine commitment to resolving the Rohingya plight and all that it entails in Myanmar, Madam Aung San Suu Kyi needs to stand up and lead the charge. Moving beyond the establishment of a commission to effectively find what should have already been obvious to her and her circle of advisers, technocrats, and party stalwarts, Madam Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be decisive and resolute.