Myanmar finds itself in a new international quagmire as it attempts to redefine its solutions for reconciliation in Rakhine. In the past, Myanmar found itself in the middle of a tug of war, between the West and the East, as the US, UK and Europe imposed punitive sanctions in an attempt to coax the military regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and return the country to democracy. Whereas Asia believed engagement was the only way to draw Myanmar out of its isolation.
Now Myanmar faces the same battle between the West and the East, as it grapples with international criticism and offers of assistance. There is no denying the human tragedy of the mass exodus of nearly a million Muslim refugees – who call themselves Rohingya — across the border to Bangladesh in the wake of the horrendous violence amidst the Myanmar army’s security operations in Rakhine, following the terrorist attack of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) which left scores of security forces dead. Of course, that paled significantly compared to the subsequent number of civilian deaths at the hands of terrorists, Rakhine villagers and the army.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding now in Bangladesh, as the monsoon season starts, has given this a new dimension of urgency. But the West seems oblivious to the Myanmar government’s attempts to find solutions to the crisis and find a longer-term solution to the problems in Rakhine. This was exemplified again over the weekend with the launch of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s interim report in the Danish capital Copenhagen.
This grew out of the work of the original Kofi Annan Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which spent a year researching the problems of Rakhine and developing solutions, which were outlined in its report launched on 24th August 2017. The Commission was in fact set up with the approval of the civilian government, and with the State Counselor strong endorsement. It had a mix of international experts, including the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan and local representatives. It was meant to come up with a blue print of how to handle the violence and mistrust in Rakhine, after decades of inter-communal animosity, according to a government insider. It was though, a thorough piece of research and the suggestions extremely detailed, well thought through and practical.
However, it was almost immediately made superfluous by the ARSA attacks and the subsequent events in Rakhine – the day after the report’s recommendations were made public. But instead of looking forward and suggesting ways the recommendations could be better implemented and suggesting fresh ideas for consideration, the Commission decided to review what had happened since.
Their report “Lessons Learned” launched in a lavish and expensive manner in Copenhagen – with hundreds of participants all flown in at the expense of the Danish government, who had been a major funder of the original project – was essentially a report card on the Commission’s original work. It was essentially a white wash to justify the millions Western donors had contributed.
“The operation was good, except the patient died – less than 8 hours afterwards,” reflected one of the diplomats at the launch. This is indeed the crux of the matter, that the terrorist attacks and the aftermath really made this report and its recommendations redundant. 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. The recommendations have been universally endorsed, including by the UN Security Council. But it is far from reality, to allege that this set of recommendations is the only game in town, as some senior Western diplomats seem to believe.
It is not a solution to demand the “full implementation” of the Commission’s recommendations – all 88. Of course, the report did not prioritize them nor suggest a time frame for implementation. At least 8 of them cannot be attempted at the moment, a senior government official told South Asian Monitor (SAM). Senior government officials also candidly admit that some national government instructions are simply ignored by the Rakhine regional government and the local community. But the circumstances have changed since August last year.
The Myanmar government is 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.
Of course, there has been a change in attitude on the part of the country’s civilian government. In the months after the ARSA attacks and a myriad of 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 what had happened, 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 new era for our government,” said a Myanmar diplomat. “There is a strategy in place,” he said. “A more responsive approach, as the enormity of the Rakhine tragedy has dawned on us.” The government, the bureaucracy and even the country’s top leaders have been traumatized by the events of Rakhine and the international reaction. But now there is a realization 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 Christine Schraner Burgener – a Swiss career diplomat, who also served as Ambassador to Thailand recently — as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar. 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, her mission is to cover Rakhine state, the peace process, democratization and human right issues. Afterwards, she will also visit countries in the region, including Bangladesh, according to the UN.
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 request of the government, according to diplomatic 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.
And finally, the government has announced it plans to form an independent inquiry into 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.
As yet it is unclear if the international representative will chair the investigation or whether it will be one of the Myanmar representatives. This move has been warmly welcomed by the international community, which also insists that it be independent and credible. Any short of that would rebound on the Myanmar government’s efforts to re-engage with the international community.
The other unheralded initiative taken by Aung San Suu Kyi, and separate from the Annan Commission, was the establishment of the Advisory Board, led by the former Thai foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Dr. 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 the idea of an independent inquiry team as well as lobbying Aung San 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. This seems to be the best the Annan Commission follow-up report can also claim: “While the relationship between Myanmar and its international partners has deteriorated sharply, the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations remains a unique platform for cooperation and mutual agreement,” it concludes.
But while the Myanmar government may have a new strategy – one which is more than rhetoric – the problems in Rakhine will never be solve until the issue of citizenship is tackled head on. This is something which the government understandably seems loathe to do.