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Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – A Welcome Investigation into Arakan State’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

By Burma Partnership  •  August 30, 2016

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (R), former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (C) and former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, members of the Elders group, attend a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not in picture) in Moscow, Russia, April 28, 2015. Members of the Elders independent group are global political and public figures, who held top posts in their countries and international organizations, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia official web site. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov - RTX1AM1EOn 23 August 2016, the Ministry of the Office of the State Counselor announced the formation of a nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. According to the press release, the new commission will hold meetings with relevant stakeholders, so as to “consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine.” Heading the commission as Chair is the former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kofi Annan.

In addition to serving as a peace envoy in various countries, including Syria in 2012, Mr. Kofi Annan’s questioning of whether humanitarian interventions constituted a breach of state sovereignty led to the founding of the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. This doctrine, citing the failure of the UN to adequately respond to humanitarian crises in the 1990s such as the Rwandan genocide and the massacre at Srebrenica, highlighted the responsibility of the international community to intervene in instances in which a state was not adequately protecting civilians within its own borders. Subsequent contributions to the notion of Responsibility to Protect further entrenched the responsibility of the international community to intervene, stating, “exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law which sovereign governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.”

The relevance of Mr. Kofi Annan’s experience with the Responsibility to Protect doctrine cannot be overstated, as Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya minority has often been likened to that of “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide.” Hopefully, Mr. Kofi Annan’s involvement in Burma will not repeat the past failed acts in places such as Rwanda.

Displaced as a result of the 2012 Arakan State riots, roughly 140,000 Rohingya continue to live in dire internally displaced persons camps, with state-imposed limits on their freedom of movement. The Rohingya minority group has been continually denied citizenship in Burma, making them effectively stateless. In a recent end-of-mission statement, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yanghee Lee, expressed concern over ongoing restrictions of the Rohingya, stating that it prevented them from accessing essential services and livelihoods. Ms. Lee also spoke out against the pervasiveness of “hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence, and of religious intolerance” against Muslims and other religious minorities.

The creation of the Advisory Commission follows Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly created Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State. Comprised of 27-members, the Central Committee has vowed to look into resettling IDPs, social development, and coordinating UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations throughout Arakan State.

So far, the reaction to the proposed creation of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State has been largely positive. Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Rafendi Djamin, was cautiously optimistic, remarking, “Today’s announcement is a sign that Myanmar’s authorities are taking the situation in Rakhine state seriously. But it will only have been a worthwhile exercise if it paves the way for the realization of human rights for all people in the state.” Matthew Smith, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights also welcomed the creation of the new body, stating, “This is a step in the right direction to address ongoing human rights violations in Rakhine State. The Commission should focus on the totality of the human rights situation in Rakhine State to establish the facts and identify solutions for decades of violations.”

However, both Amnesty and Fortify Rights – and a number of other human rights organizations – expressed concern that the Advisory Committee did not include any Rohingya person among its nine members. Considering the long legacy of mistreatment and systematic violations of human rights against the Rohingya, it is both unfortunate and exclusionary that the minority group lacks formal representation within the Advisory Committee.

In addition, two individual Rakhine members among the nine-member Committee – Win Mra and Saw Khin Tint – are not likely to support investigations into the plight of the Rohingya. Win Mra, as Chair of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, has made it clear on numerous occasions that both he and his organization will not recognize the identity of the Rohingya. Saw Khin Tint, an ethnic Rakhine nationalist leader, actively condoned violence against the Rohingya in a December 2012 speech, stating, “Seeing their [non-Rohingya natives of Myanmar] great anger and compassion, and hear them say, ‘We just want to go and kill all of those Bengali people with our own hands!’ We’ve now got the advantage of gaining the support of all the national races all over Myanmar on the incidents that we’ve sacrificed so far.”

Two political parties also opposed the formation of the Advisory Committee. The Arakan National Party, representing ethnic Rakhine, expressed that the Advisory Committee would potentially cause alarm for the “ethnic sovereignty” of the Rakhine people. Similarly, the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party noted that the humanitarian goals of the Advisory Committee might override the national security concerns of Arakan State. These responses are indicative of the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment that has been backed by the country’s political entities and thus will likely cause further obstacles for the Advisory Committee.

None of this comes as any surprise, as even the alleged pinnacle of democracy and human rights in Burma, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has struggled hard to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya. Mr. Kofi Annan’s work is clearly cut out for him: in order to find a solution to the situation in Arakan State he and his committee must target the entrenched and systemic racism against the Rohingya people that exists in Burma. When Mr. Kofi Annan and the Advisory Committee produce their expected annual report on the situation in Arakan State, they must demonstrate a clear commitment to impartiality and neutrality with sound solutions to restore the rights of the long persecuted minority.

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