International relations, National security | Asia, South Asia

6 September 2017

Kofi Annan’s advisory commission offered some sensible ways to tackle issues in Rakhine State, Ronan Lee writes, but will they be heard above the violence?

Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, is the home of the Rohingya. This Muslim ethnic minority’s claims of a centuries-long Myanmar heritage are frequently denied by the authorities who treat the Rohingya like illegal immigrants and routinely deny their human rights. Under international pressure to tackle the Rohingya’s rights situation, Myanmar’s de-facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked ex-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission to consider how this might be achieved. On August 23, Annan delivered the recommendations of his year-long Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to Myanmar’s government.

Annan’s commission urged concrete steps to end the enforced separation of Rakhine’s Buddhist and Muslim populations, full humanitarian access to Rakhine state, holding perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable, ending restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement, tackling Rohingya statelessness, and a “revisit” of Myanmar’s controversial Citizenship Law.

There are few Rohingya who would not gladly accept the immediate implementation of these recommendations. But these were always likely to be a tough sell in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country (around 87 per cent of Myanmar’s residents claim to be Buddhist) that is increasingly becoming known for an aggressive brand of xenophobic Buddhist nationalism.

The Rohingya’s situation is unquestionably dire. For decades they have been collectively denied human rights including freedom of movement, access to education, and healthcare. Even their labour and marriage rights are restricted.

More on this: The international community cannot fix the Rohingya crisis

Today, more than 100,000 Rohingya remain confined to the displacement camps they were moved to following 2012 violence which the Myanmar authorities describe as communal conflict between local Buddhist and Muslim communities, but which researchers at the International State Crime Initiative describe as part of an officially orchestrated anti-Rohingya campaign that amounts to genocide.

The long-term denial of the Rohingya’s human rights by Myanmar’s authorities has been well documented by researchers, humanitarian groups and the UN, but violent attacks by a newly emerged Rohingya armed group last October greatly reduced domestic sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight and strengthened Myanmar public opinion in favour of a strong military hand.

Following the attacks, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, aggressively undertook a “clearance operation” ostensibly to root out the attackers but which was described by Amnesty International as amounting to the “collective punishment” of the civilian Rohingya population.

Accusations of widespread Tatmadaw beatings, rapes, burning of villages, extra-judicial killings, and the arbitrary detention of hundreds led to around 90,000 Rohingya seeking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. A UN official described the Tatmadaw’s actions as “ethnic cleansing”. However, rather than causing consternation in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw’s aggressive actions were considered by many of the country’s Buddhist majority to be an effective defence of their national interests against an emerging Muslim military threat.

More on this: Aung San Suu Kyi is caught between a rock and hard place

In this fraught context, the Annan commission was considered by many as a possible political circuit-breaker which might be able to chart a course through Myanmar’s politics to improve Rohingya rights. While there have been criticisms of Suu Kyi’s attitude towards Muslims and of the slow pace of change since she took the reins of government in early 2016, she nonetheless chose Annan for a role where she knew he would be likely to recommend significant policy change.

However, it is the precipitous actions of a Rohingya armed group that are now presenting the biggest stumbling block to any political solution that might deliver the Rohingya improved rights.

Within hours of Annan’s announcement, a group known variously as Harakah al-Yaqin/Faith Movement/Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (HaY/ARSA) launched a series of attacks on Rakhine state security posts and government facilities, actions they knew would invite a shockingly aggressive Tatmadaw response. This is precisely what has occurred.

These events represent a significant change in the Rohingya’s political strategy. For decades mainstream Rohingya leaders have opposed a strategy of political violence. The last widespread Rohingya insurgency ended with surrender in 1961 (albeit having briefly achieved a semi-autonomous Muslim-majority zone). Since then most Rohingya leaders have considered violence likely to invite an aggressive Tatmadaw response, turn public opinion overwhelmingly against them, and so be contrary to their people’s long-term interests.

More on this: Confronting genocide in Myanmar

Rohingya leaders instead hoped Myanmar’s democratic transition might provide the political opening their people needed. While there is no guarantee this peaceful strategy would ever deliver meaningful change (there are dozens of ethnic minority groups within Myanmar who adopted a different strategy to the Rohingya and have embraced political violence), the Annan commission may well have been the Rohingya’s best chance.

HaY/ARSA says it acted to defend a civilian population from the rapacious Tatmadaw, but they knew they were inviting the Tatmadaw into communities which they could never hope to defend, and nor did they try.

The Tatmadaw’s actions, towards Rohingya civilians, are unquestionably shameful – there is evidence they fired mortars and machine guns at fleeing civilians, and sickening witness reports of children burned alive. But the timing of the HaY/ARSA attacks suggests they were at least partly motivated by a desire to take political oxygen from the Annan Commission’s recommendations, and so delay the implementation of policy proposals that do not deliver on all their demands.

The Annan Commission’s recommendations have been all but forgotten among the chaos and rights abuses now raining upon Rohingya civilians. This raises important questions about the motivations of HaY/ARSA – if it is not supporting recommendations like those of the Annan Commission, and cannot militarily defend the Rohingya civilian population, then why would they provoke Myanmar’s military, and just what is their end game?

It seems that ordinary Rohingya are being made victims of rights abuses by the Myanmar military, and victims of dubious political decisions made for them by HaY/ARSA. Rohingya civilians deserve better treatment by both.

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