Myanmar lawmakers remain upset at inclusion of foreigners in panel to investigate alleged abuses of Muslim minority
By Kyaw Ye Lynn
SITTWE, Rakhine State, Myanmar
Much has changed in Myanmar since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was sworn in in late March, but for those behind the barricaded entrance to the Muslim quarter of Aung Mingalar in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe it is as if time has stood still.
The entrance is surrounded by a red-and-white wooden fence ringed with razor wire; no one is allowed to pass a police checkpoint without official permission.
Inside, local Muslim man, 46-year-old Ahmed Maung Sein, tells Anadolu Agency that “they still view us as problem makers,” referring to the local authority and once-neighborhood friends, the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
He says he used to own a pharmacy in downtown Sittwe before communal violence spread to the city in June 2012 following the murder of a Rakhine girl in Yambye Township in Rakhine’s south.
“We are in here like house arrest for years,” Ahmed Maung Sein said, adding that his four children were unable to go to school since they had been moved to the camp.
“We are in [a] hopeless condition now, and hoping someone helps us,” he added.
It has been more than four years since religiously-motivated violence shook Myanmar’s westernmost state, leaving about 140,000 people displaced in camps.
Most of those affected were Rohingya Muslims — described by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minority group worldwide.
They lack citizenship, are denied the most basic healthcare and are reliant on aid due to restrictions placed on their movement — measures the Rakhine authorities have defended, saying that under the continued threat of conflict they are safer where they are.
On Tuesday, an advisory commission led by ex-United Nations chief Kofi Annan arrived for a two-day visit.
The commission was formed last month with the aim of finding lasting solutions to “complex and delicate issues” in Rakhine.
Awaiting them at the airport was around 1,000 hardline ethnic nationalists, many waving banners emblazoned with “No to Kofi Annan-led commission”.
Wednesday saw Annan visit the Rohingya community in the Aung Mingalar quarter, followed by a trip to Rakhine and Rohingya camps in Thetkabyin village outside of Sittwe.
While members of the Rohingya minority expressed hope that the commission will help end the discrimination and violence they face at the hands of the country’s Buddhist majority, Tin Htoo from the nationalist Rakhine National Network has accused it of interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
“Though we respect Kofi Annan and his reputation, we don’t want such a commission,” he said. “The commission should not include non-Burmese persons who don’t care for our views and our history.”
However, international human rights groups have welcomed the move.
On Aug. 30, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon endorsed the government’s efforts.
“We are happy to see the courageous steps the government is taking, including the establishment of an advisory commission headed by my predecessor Mr. Kofi Annan to look at overall issues in Rakhine,” Ban told a news conference in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
He stressed that Rohingya deserve hope, and called on the government to improve the conditions for the around 1.2 million people who have lived in temporary camps since the violence of 2012.
“Like all people everywhere, they need and deserve a future, hope and dignity. This is not just a question of the Rohingya community’s right to self-identity,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Suu Kyi’s government had accurately assessed that without foreign participation, the commission would have limited credibility in the eyes of the international community and donors who have been pressing hard for action to end abuses in Rakhine state.
“By selecting former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Myanmar government has for the first time created real excitement that it might actually be serious about addressing and fixing the root causes of the violence and discrimination suffered by both ethnic Rohingya and Rakhine,” he told Anadolu Agency in an email last week.
“We hope [it] will lead to accountability for past rights violations, and end the pervasive discrimination and abuse that the Rohingya have continuously suffered.”
Suu Kyi, however, has not just been criticized by Rakhine Buddhists. The former ruling party led by ex-President Thein Sein blasted her for taking what he sees as domestic affairs onto the international stage. Parliament has also witnessed arguments over the commission’s foreign make-up.
“Including foreign nationals in the commission to addresses our internal affair puts the country’s sovereignty at stake,” lawmaker Oo Hla Saw from the nationalist Arakan National Party told the lower house Tuesday.
“And the State Counselor has no right to form such a commission,” he added, before parliament — dominated by lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party voted down a proposal to replace the three foreign nationals with locals.
For Rohingya man Ahmed Maung Sein, however, the commission is the first big hope he has ever had that there may be light at the end of what has been a five-year slog down a long very dark tunnel for most Rohingya
“What we want is to live in peaceful conditions,” he told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday. “I want to work regularly. I don’t want to depend on humanitarian aid for my family anymore.”
Robertson, however, underlined to Anadolu Agency that the commission’s trip is just the beginning.
What will be more important is for the government to be politically committed to implement whatever it comes up with, and to state that commitment from the outset of this process.
“Creating the commission is a very important first step,” he stated.