Myanmar struggles with its Rakhine conundrum

Myanmar struggles with its Rakhine conundrum

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, shakes hands with her appointed chairman of the Advisory Board on Rakhine State, Thai former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai at a meeting in Nay Pyi Taw in January. (AP file photo)
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, shakes hands with her appointed chairman of the Advisory Board on Rakhine State, Thai former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai at a meeting in Nay Pyi Taw in January. (AP file photo)

In the face of relentless international criticism, Myanmar is struggling to develop a new strategy to cope with the problems of Rakhine, and the need for a reconciliation process. This week the government has been discussing their new approach with the UN secretary-general's newly appointed special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener -- a Swiss career diplomat, who also recently served as ambassador to Thailand.

The recommendations of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, which were made public last August, after a year of investigation and research, have formed the basis of both the Myanmar government's approach and the demands of the international community. There are 88 recommendations in all. Shortly afterwards the UN Security Council unanimously adopted them as providing a necessary roadmap to solve the problems of Rakhine.

Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

Western donors and diplomats insist that they remain the beacon for the future: "They are the only game in town", according to a senior European diplomat. But the Myanmar government is more cautious, and senior government officials insist that at this point in time some eight recommendations are not immediately feasible. And more critically the landscape has changed radically since the report was launched.

Events in Rakhine immediately after the report's recommendations were publicised effectively made them redundant. The terrorist attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (Arsa), which left scores of security forces dead, and the human tragedy that unfolded in their wake -- the mass exodus of nearly a million Muslim refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh to escape the violence -- added a new dimension to the problems of Rakhine. One involving both scale and security concerns.

"The operation was good, except the patient died -- less than eight hours afterwards," reflected one of the diplomats at a recent assessment of the Advisory Commission's work. This is indeed the crux of the matter, that terrorist attack and the aftermath means that a more comprehensive approach is needed.

The central question that needs to be addressed is what now: and there is very little help or support coming from the international community, the West at least. It is not a solution to demand the "full implementation" of the commission's recommendations.

The Myanmar government is currently struggling to develop a new strategy to accommodate the return of the refugees, resettle them in secure environments, and to initiate comprehensive measures to bring reconciliation and development to Rakhine. Much of this has either gone unnoticed by the international community or is overlooked. But what they also want to develop is a model that could be applicable to all post-conflict areas in Myanmar, particularly if the peace process -- Panglong -- gains traction.

Of course there has been a change in attitude on the part of the country's civilian government since last year. In the months after the Arsa attacks -- and myriad UN reports condemning the alleged atrocities committed by the country's security forces -- Aung San Suu Kyi and her ministers refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation, condemn the conduct of the military and even denied it happened. They persistently resisted all efforts by the international community to investigate the events in Rakhine, calls to cooperate with the UN and allow them access. And instead turned to their Asian friends -- especially China -- to shield them from international pressure, as many Western countries introduced "targeted" sanctions against the military.

"It's a new era for our government," said a Myanmar diplomat. "There is a strategy being put into place," he said. "A more responsive approach, as the enormity of the Rakhine tragedy has dawned on us."

Last year senior government insiders candidly admitted that events unfolding in Rakhine had left them "shell shocked". The government, the bureaucracy and even the country's top leaders have been traumatised by the events of Rakhine and the international reaction. But now there is a realisation something drastic needs to be done, and that the government desperately needs international assistance.

The first signs of the volte-face came when the government unexpectedly agreed to the UN Security Council visit, which took place in early May. This was a recognition that the government had to deal with the UN, especially in the light of a possible International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation -- that may yet go ahead, as the court is expected to announce the results of its legal deliberations imminently.

The government readily accepted the appointment of the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Myanmar, and expressed its commitment to cooperate closely with her. She in fact arrived in Yangon on Tuesday at the start of her inaugural visit as the envoy. She has a tough job ahead. According to the UN spokesman, she will cover Rakhine state, the peace process, democratisation and human right issues. Afterwards she will visit countries in the region, including Bangladesh, according to the UN official.

And then there was the signing of the much-stalled memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UN last week. So far details of the agreement have not been made public, at the government's request, according to diplomats and UN sources. The MoU will "establish a framework for cooperation aimed at creating the conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their places of origin or of their choosing", according to a UN statement released after the signing. Diplomats believe the bilateral agreement in fact enshrines the Kofi Annan recommendations in its text, which makes it controversial at least as far as the army is concerned.

And finally the government has announced it plans to form a national independent inquiry into human rights in Rakhine, on which there will be one foreign expert and two Myanmar representatives. At present the selection team are sifting through possible candidates, to be announced very soon, according to a government insider. It is unclear if the international representative will chair the investigation or whether this will fall to one of the Myanmar representatives. This move has been warmly welcomed by the international community, which also insists that it be independent and credible. Anything short of that would rebound on the Myanmar government's efforts to re-engage with the international community.

The other unheralded initiative taken by Ms Suu Kyi, and separate from the Annan Commission, was the establishment of the Advisory Board, led by the Thai former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Surakiart Sathirathai. Set up last December, it is also a mix of international and national representatives. It works behind the scenes giving advice, acting as a sounding board for creative ideas from the government, and helping set up projects to assist the implementation of reconciliation in Rakhine, according to a government insider, familiar with the initiative.

Already their advice has paid dividends, as they suggested establishing an independent inquiry team as well as lobbying Suu Kyi -- to whom they directly report -- to accept a UN Security Council visit. They are proving to be the much-needed bridge between the international community and Myanmar. Adopting the Asean approach, of quiet behind the scenes diplomacy, the group is a crucial vehicle for the development of Myanmar's new strategy for Rakhine, a government insider told the Bangkok Post.

But while the Myanmar government may have a new strategy -- one which is more than rhetoric -- the problems in Rakhine will never be fully resolved until the issue of citizenship is tackled head on. Something the Myanmar government -- understandably -- is loath to do.

While the MoU between Myanmar and the UN appears not to specifically mention citizenship, Knut Ostby -- the UN boss in Myanmar -- indicated in an interview at the time of the signing that discussions were continuing on this issue: "We have been talking for a long time about making a clear and predictable path to citizenship for those who are eligible." But until there are concrete steps -- a roadmap -- announced, encouraging the refugees in Bangladesh to return will remain difficult.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Do you like the content of this article?