Surakiart's Rakhine mission no easy task
After a dramatically shaky start, Surakiart Sathirathai's international advisory group is getting down to tackle the Herculean task of trying to find practical solutions to Myanmar's tragic inter-communal violence. As the Myanmar government comes under increased criticism and international scrutiny, Mr Surakiart believes he and his team must help Myanmar look forward and produce a comprehensive and sustainable plan to restore peace, harmony and development to the country.
"We must look to the future, identify where we can be useful," he told the Bangkok Post in an exclusive interview. "We would like to make sure the advisory board is not just a talk shop … we would hope our advise can produce tangible results, but of course we only have an advisory role, the Myanmar government is responsible for the implementation."
The former Thai foreign minister -- who spearheaded Bangkok's attempts to improve bilateral relations with Myanmar some 15 years ago -- is leading an expert advisory board of international and local participants.
Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.
The other international members of the team include the former South African Defence Minister Roelof Petrus Meyer, the speaker of the Swedish parliament Urban Ahlin and Professor Lord Ara Darzi, a British labour politician and medical doctor. There are also five prominent Myanmar nationals, with substantial international experience, including the chairman of Myanmar's Human Rights Commission, and a retired UN assistant secretary general.
Myanmar's civilian leader, the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, set up the committee late last year, to advise her government on how to proceed with measures needed to restore peace to the country's strife-torn western region, wracked with violence over the last six months, that resulted in an exodus of over a million Myanmar Muslim refugees -- who call themselves Rohingya -- who fled to Bangladesh to escape the violence.
It was one of the suggestions put to her by the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who led a year-long independent inquiry into the situation in Rakhine. His commission made their recommendations public last August, just before the insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army or Arsa launched their devastating attacks on several border police posts leaving more than 20 dead.
The subsequent ruthless military crackdown has left Rakhine state devastated: villages denuded, houses destroyed and thousands dead. Survivors accuse the military of systematic abuse: forced starvation, abductions, looting of property and rape. The UN has accused the Myanmar military of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and the UN human rights rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recently suggested the plight of the Rohingya "bears the hallmarks of genocide".
The US politician and former New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson was originally part of the team, when they visited Myanmar last month for the first time and met their hosts, including Ms Suu Kyi. But after an acrimonious exchange between him and the state counsellor, over the continued detention of two local Reuters reporters -- arrested and accused of treason for their work on uncovering evidence of a mass grave in Rakhine -- he left the group. But as a parting shot, he launched an unfair tirade against the Lady, according to the Thai chairman of the advisory board.
This issue was beyond the scope of the advisory committee and instead it should have been raised privately and not so publicly, he said. "This was not the place for megaphone diplomacy," he told the Bangkok Post. It is not a case that the group has been gagged, he insisted, but "we are speaking with one voice at all times, and giving our advice to the Myanmar government confidentially".
Surakiart Sathirathai, third from left, pays a courtesy call on Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, in Nay Pyi Taw, in September last year. Currently, he is leading an advisory board tasked with finding solutions to Myanmar's inter-communal violence in Rakhine state.
Mr Surakiart also raised the issue of the two journalists privately. Ms Suu Kyi's position was, as she has continued to tell diplomats and other international visitors who raise the same question, that the courts have to be allowed to make their own deliberations and deliver their verdict.
"Allow the law to take its course," she has repeatedly said, according to diplomats based in Yangon. Many members of her party -- the National League for Democracy -- are also concerned, but as many have told the Bangkok Post, let the court decide first, and then they can be given a presidential pardon if found guilty. The irony is that Bill Richardson's pantomime may now have actually endangered this possible outcome.
But the advisory group is adamant, according to Mr Surakiart, unfettered media access to Rakhine is an essential part of the reconciliation and trust building. "But achieving practical solutions in Rakhine can never be complete, unless there is sufficient media access … media access has to be improved," he said.
"We strongly urge the government to continue to improve media access -- both the local and international media," he said. Only then can trust be built and transparency guaranteed, he concluded. It was indeed also one of Kofi Annan's recommendations.
In the Bangkok Post interview, the Thai diplomat readily conceded that the task ahead of them was daunting. Though he dismissed suggestions that the Bill Richardson episode reduced the credibility of the group's work. Nor did his sudden departure affect their first visit or its logistics: "There was good cooperation with ministers and the committee," he insisted. "We don't intend to be the mouthpiece of anyone ... we don't intend to white wash anyone, we don't intend to be the mouthpiece of the Myanmar government or the mouthpiece of the international community," he said.
But we can be a bridge between the international community and Myanmar -- the national government, the regional government and the communities on the ground, he said. "The UN agencies and the UN system has to be engaged at the earliest possible stage," he insisted.
But it's important for the international community and the UN to understand the local constraints, the conditions on the ground and the constraints on the government, he said. "So it has to be a mutual consultation between the government -- national and local -- and the United Nations [and the international community generally]," he added.
While Mr Surakiart remains sanguine, he understands Myanmar desperately needs international support to cope, but insists that any strategy or vision has to be driven by the national players. The advisory committee now has to consider how the recommendations in the Kofi Annan report can be implemented for the betterment of the people in Rakhine state: how peace and development can be brought back to the area that has been racked by the violence.
"The board members are completely committed to bringing international advice and expertise to the implementation of the [Kofi Annan] report's recommendations," said Mr Surakiart.
"It's also a matter of identifying the priorities, seeing what sequencing there can be, and to make the process more sustainable," he said. But of course the issue of repatriation is most crucial, he said. And security is key: The authorities have to ensure that the places the refugee left are now safe and secure.
"Repatriation and the provision of security are currently the most important priorities," said Mr Surakiart. The UN has a critical role to play in repatriation process, and the implementation of some of the development and health-related recommendations, according to the Thai diplomat.
Though Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed an agreement for the return of the refugees, and the first batch were due to arrive more than three weeks ago, not a single refugee has arrived back. Aid workers in the Bangladesh camps say they are not surprised, the traumatised refugees just do not trust the Myanmar authorities or the local communities.
Providing reception centres is not enough, according to diplomats and aid workers, the refugees have to be convinced that it is really safe to return, while the UN appears convinced that the conditions for the return of refugees are not yet in place.
While the perpetrators of atrocities like the massacre at Inn Din in northern Rakhine, where a mass grave was discovered in December, go unpunished, reconciliation remains a vain hope. For any confidence to be restored, there needs to be a thorough and reliable investigation into the events in Rakhine since August last year, this credibility gap will continue to grow and prevent any attempt to restore harmony, peace and development in Rakhine. Only an independent international inquiry will suffice.
In the meantime, Mr Surakiart and his team will be fighting an uphill battle in the war to win the "hearts and minds" of the international community and may find their position increasingly untenable.
Former BBC World Service News Editor
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.