INTERNAL POLITICS has been among the factors behind the failure of international panels to tackle the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. While countries overtly say they support these boards’ efforts to address the problem, politics within Myanmar and within those countries too often obstructs the mission.
After the violence erupted in 2016, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose fellow Nobel laureate Kofi Annan, the former United Nations chief, to chair the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. It was tasked with examining the complex challenges facing the state and proposing solutions.
Last August 23, after a year of consultations across Rakhine and in other parts of the region, Annan’s commission submitted its report to Suu Kyi. It recommended urgent and sustained action on a number of fronts to prevent violence, maintain peace, foster reconciliation and offer a sense of hope to the oppressed population.
Two days later, a militant group – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – launched a series of attacks on Myanmar security outposts. The response from the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar military – was brutal, culminating in a “clearance operation” in which thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. An estimated 700,000 Rohingya were uprooted from their homes after soldiers and police chased them out of the country and into Bangladesh. There were accounts of rape, torture and mass killings. The international community and UN raised concerns over ethnic cleansing.
Rather than immediately implementing Annan’s recommendations, Suu Kyi tapped Thai former foreign minister Surakairt Sathirathai to chair an Advisory Board to the Committee on the Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State.
Surakiart meets with Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw during a meeting on Rakhine crisis recently--Picture: surakiart.com
Surakiart’s board faced its first setback in January when former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, a long-time friend of Suu Kyi, quit the board, accusing it of whitewashing the government’s excesses and acting as a cheerleader for Suu Kyi. The board suffered another blow last month when veteran diplomat Kobsak Chutikul resigned to send what he called a “cautionary message” to Myanmar.
In reality, Surakiart’s panel had a shaky foundation from the start, because Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak instructed Thai ministries and agencies not to lend it support.
According to Thai official sources, the Tatmadaw, the most powerful institution in the country, was concerned that Thailand was playing a “double game”. The suspicion was that Surakiart was there to influence affairs in Myanmar while Thailand officially maintained a guise of friendship. Thailand had declined to criticise Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims. Fellow Asean members Malaysia and Indonesia, which are predominantly Muslim, were more critical.
According to the sources, the Thai government wants to relieve the Tatmadaw of any such suspicion. Thus government agencies and ministries were told to refrain from supporting Surakiart and his panel.
Somkid could not be reached for comment on the matter. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai rejected the allegation, saying the panel has coordinated closely with the Thai government and the military. Thailand has played a key role in development schemes in Rakhine, he said.
Thailand, together with China and Japan, has expressed economic interest in Myanmar’s western state. Myanmar and a Thailand-based business institute last month discussed recruiting investors for large-scale projects, while China is mulling a deep-sea port as part of a special economic zone, Don said.
Setting up and dealing with international panels is entirely Myanmar’s affair, he said.
According to one source, Surakiart and his panel, which came into being last December, have five times asked to meet Myanmar army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, always in vain. The panel met State Counsellor Suu Kyi, but she does not control the security forces.
Myanmar's Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces.AFP PHOTO
Moreover, the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, a high-level panel of international statesmen that Surakiart was also chairing, refused to lend its name to the peace initiative because it believed the government was insincere about solving the crisis. It did not want its name “exploited” for that reason.
While the ability to implement the Annan recommendations is in doubt, Myanmar has established yet another “independent” board to investigate human-rights violations in Rakhine.
Asean expressed its pleasure about the new board led by former Philippines deputy foreign minister Rasario Manalo. Don said it might do well because countries such as Japan supported its creation, but other observers have denounced it as a political gimmick.
From the Rohingya point of view, advisory boards are useless unless the authorities are sincere about addressing their plight. “All the solutions are already there [in Annan’s report],” Rohingya activist Khin Maung Myint said. “We don’t ask for anything more than our rights.”