Crisis averted, or avoided?

Despite star panel, Myanmar may only be avoiding its Rohingya crisis

Hunter Marston

PHOTO: EPA / Lynn Bo Bo

Government and governance, International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

13 September 2016

The Kofi Annan-led Rakhine State Advisory Committee will bring welcome attention to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, but those affected need immediate stability and basic provisions, not government delays, Hunter Marston writes.

Myanmar’s government has appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lead a major panel to find “lasting solutions” to the humanitarian crisis posed by racial and religious tensions in the country’s western Rakhine State. However, despite the headline-grabbing appointment, the panel may just be the latest scapegoating tactic of the Burmese government.

Rakhine, the second poorest state in Myanmar, is home to the majority of the country’s persecuted Rohingya population (in fact, not all Burmese Muslims identify as Rohingya). Four years after the initial spark of communal violence, roughly 125,000 Rohingya remain confined to abhorrent conditions in camps, unable to safely return to their homes (more often than not destroyed by riots) and livelihoods for fear of violent attacks. And the Rakhine Buddhist population, already impoverished, is now worse off due to the conflagration.

Yet the government has avoided taking any proactive policy approach to the crisis and continued to deny the existence of Rohingya, preferring to label the population ‘Bengali’ or ‘Muslims in Rakhine State,’ adhering to the state-sponsored message that Muslims, many of whom have lived in Rakhine State for centuries, immigrated from Bangladesh. As such, Myanmar’s census does not recognise the existence of Rohingya Muslims, despite officially listing 135 ethnic identities in the country.

More on this: Myanmar's Rohingya need tomorrow's fairer world today | Ronan Lee

The recent appointment of a high-profile commission to address the issue is a noteworthy accomplishment and a move in the right direction. It is encouraging that de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military have both nodded their approval for the committee’s mission to resolve the “protracted issues” and heal the “wounds of [the Myanmar] people”. Unfortunately, the new Rakhine State Advisory Committee will likely fall short of achieving lasting peace, for several reasons.

First, the international nature of the panel means that Burmese officials can avoid directly engaging on politically sensitive topics and can place the blame squarely on outsiders if they don’t accept the committee’s findings.

The committee’s diplomatic celebrity status adds a degree of credibility, objectivity, and resources to the issue that have been heretofore lacking. Kofi Annan brings a plethora of experience and wisdom to the job and his presence will shine an international spotlight on an already critical crisis. But the internationalisation of the situation may deflect culpability for the problem’s underlying conditions away from the Burmese government and society more broadly, while lending the appearance that they are doing something to solve the problem. It will be essential to the panel’s success that it avoid being cast as a scapegoat, while also downplaying Burmans’ concerns that the international community is meddling in its internal affairs.

Secondly, and relatedly, there are already signs that the committee’s founding was the result less of a genuine desire to resolve the issue and more accurately due to overwhelming international pressure.

The deputy director general of the State Counselor’s Office, U Zaw Htay, commented at a press conference in Naypyitaw: “No matter how unwilling we are to accept it, international pressure does exist. International involvement could clearly be seen in the previous boat people crisis,” referring to the tragic attempts by many Rohingya to leave the country in shoddy and overladen boats seeking refuge in neighboring countries like Malaysia and Thailand.

“The government does not necessarily have to follow the commission’s recommendations. It is the government’s choice. The issue is not an international issue but draws huge international interest and therefore is politically sensitive,” U Zaw Htay told reporters.

The motive for the committee’s establishment is important: by making explicit that it is bowing to international pressure and not acting on its own convictions, the government of Myanmar is signaling it doesn’t buy in to an inclusive reconciliation process – and warning that it may reject the panel’s findings.

Further undermining the committee’s integrity, the panel itself includes no representatives of the Rohingya community. Rather, the panel includes two Yangon-based Muslims, two Rakhine Buddhists, and two government representatives, alongside three international experts.

Finally, the committee’s timeline leaves open to question its ability to address the immediate crisis. The panel first convened in Yangon on Monday, 5 September, but it will only issue a final report with its recommendations in the latter half of 2017. The grave humanitarian catastrophe confronting thousands of vulnerable, internally displaced Rohingya living in squalid camps has been ongoing, and worsening, for more than four years now and cannot wait another year to be addressed.

The Rohingya already grapple with a variety of health concerns such as lack of access to medical attention and supplies, as well as food and clean water. As the community continues to face the breakdown of social order, children remain out of school, and men and women remain unable to work and provide for their families, thereby compounding the problem.

Despite the welcome high-level attention brought by the new Rakhine State Advisory Committee, it remains to be seen whether the star-studded international panel is adequately equipped to tackle this crisis. Sadly, the Rohingya and Rakhine affected by communal violence are in immediate need of stability and basic provisions, they cannot wait as the government delays dealing with the issue.

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Citation

Marston, Hunter. 2016. "Crisis Averted, Or Avoided? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/crisis-averted-avoided/.

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