The Myanmar government is tentatively seeking to mend fences with the UN in an effort to solve the problem of the Rakhine Muslim refugees, according to sources close to the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Senior members of the government are reaching out to UN officials in an effort to resolve the current impasse and the mistrust on all sides. The Myanmar government is in the process of offering several concessions to try to engage the UN on a number of fronts. Discussions are ongoing behind the scenes. The State Counselor understands that UN participation in the repatriation is essential, and not optional.
But the UN though remains skeptical about Myanmar’s efforts to tackle the issue of the 70,000 thousand of refugees that have fled the violence in Rakhine and are crammed in makeshift camps across the border in Bangladesh. Amid the government’s efforts to connect with the UN, the comments by the latest high ranking official to visit Myanmar and see the situation in Rakhine first-hand, will do little to temper the growing divide between the two sides.
“From what I’ve seen and heard from people – no access to health services, concerns about protection, continued displacements – conditions are not conducive to return,” Ursula Mueller, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said after a six-day visit to Myanmar. She was also allowed to travel to Rakhine, which is also another sign of the government’s thaw in relations with the UN.
In the meantime, thousands of Muslim refugees in Bangladesh — who call themselves Rohingya — are already facing nightmare conditions and fear they will become pawns in this tussle. With monsoon floods only weeks away, aid groups and UN officials working in the refugee camps fear that if nothing is done soon there will be an epidemic of disease and deaths. They say the Rohingya will be at risk of landslides, heavy rains and diseases when the monsoon season hits in June – and is worst in July and August.
Bangladesh is understandably worried about the situation, which is putting an enormous strain on government resources and the local economy. Dhaka is obviously anxious to start the repatriation in earnest – agreed in January, between the two governments, brokered by the Chinese – as only a handful have returned so far this year. The Bangladesh authorities fear the Myanmar authorities are deliberately dragging their feet. But for its part, the Myanmar ministers, involved in the repatriation programme, insist that all the refugees’ names, credentials and papers need to be checked and their status verified before they can be allowed to return.
This has been a painstakingly slow process so far. Several months ago, Bangladesh submitted a list of more than 8,000 refugees who want to return home to Myanmar. So far, the Myanmar authorities have approved less than a thousand for repatriation. The problem according to Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, who also heads the ‘Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State’ drawn from Kofi Annan’s report, is that many of the refugees had failed to fill in the necessary forms.
“The forms they filled out were not according to the instructions in the agreement,” the minister told reporters recently. “That’s why we need more time to verify people. We sent a list of those whom we could verify but haven’t heard anything back yet,” he said. The minister is travelling to Bangladesh this week to iron out the kinks in the process, in the hope that some of the refugees can start returning soon.
Ministers involved in the repatriation programme and the broader plans for reconciliation in Rakhine have been talking to relevant UN agencies – particularly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) who are heavily involved in the preparation for the return of the refugees. But according to sources in the Myanmar government, there is hesitancy on the UN’s part to cooperate, and there is an acute absence of coordination amongst the agencies operating in Myanmar.
One way to minimize these problems would be for the UN Secretary General, António Guterres to appoint the special envoy, the Security Council requested some six months ago. The Myanmar government is mystified by the delay, according to government insiders. Several names are being bandied about, but the only thing that seems certain is that Guterres wants to appoint a woman to the post.
In the meantime, Myanmar has now agreed to a visit by a Security Council delegation – originally proposed in February but rebuffed by Myanmar because of continued security concerns, though no date for the visit as yet has been agreed. The Security Council team is to be accompanied by representatives of five neighbouring countries — China, India, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh — as well as Singapore – as the current Chairman of Asean. Myanmar made the offer in response to a suggestion by the chair of the advisory panel set up by the government, former Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai that the Myanmar government allow independent observers to visit Rakhine State.
This would seem to be an olive branch on the part of the government after it repeatedly rejected calls for an independent international inquiry into the violence in Rakhine state. The first proposal came last March when the UN Human Rights Council set a three-member fact finding mission in response to the call for it by the UN human rights envoy for Myanmar, as a result of her investigation into the security crackdown in late 2016 that followed attacks by the insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) leaving more than a dozen border security guards dead.
The international community has stepped up its calls for an international commission of inquiry into the violence in Rakhine, because of fresh accusations of human rights’ abuses committed that followed the Myanmar military’s draconian counter insurgency operations in the wake of fresh terrorist attacks by ARSA last August. The UN’s human rights envoys have described it as akin to ethnic cleansing.
The military are adamantly opposed to any international investigation – having conducted their own inquiries into the soldiers’ conduct but which are less than credible. But the military did investigate recent allegations of mass graves, and admitted soldiers and police were involved. As a result, more than 16 people – including soldiers and policemen – suspected of being involved in the massacre, have been detained and charged.
But the Myanmar government cannot continue to resist an independent enquiry into the Rakhine violence, amid the growing international clamour for an independent international inquiry. At present Myanmar is caught between Western pressure to allow an independent investigation, and Asia (along with Russia) who have resisted these calls at the UN and the Human Rights Council.
For the growing gulf between the West to be reversed and the international community to be reengaged, a compromise needs to be found to solve the impasse on the issue of an independent international investigation. For it to work it has to be “owned” by the Myanmar government and acceptable to the military. Senior diplomats in Yangon have been brainstorming behind the scenes and have come up with what on the face of it is a workable solution: a fact-finding team of international and local experts.
The most viable suggestion under consideration is a team of three international representatives and two nationals: their selection would be carried out in consultation with the Myanmar government and military – effectively allowing them a veto on the international participants. But the members of such an inquiry team would have to be acceptable to all sides – including the international community. This committee would be set up and owned by the Myanmar government.
This also has to happen if the State Counselor’s resolve to mend fences with the UN generally, and involve them both in the repatriation programme and the reconciliation process in Rakhine. She understands the UN must be part of the solution, she recognizes this is not optional: the UN’s participation is essential if the government is to fully implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission, according to government insiders. Myanmar cannot go it alone. But it also needs to be a constructive engagement. It is now time for the international community and the UN to meet the Myanmar government of Aung San Suu Kyi halfway.