Ethnicity, Identity and Nationality: A Case Study of Rohingya Problem - II
by R Hariharan on 21 May 2018 1 Comment

Part II: Myanmar Response to Rohingya crisis 2017


Rohingya hopes were kindled when the NLD decided to participate in the 2015 elections.  However, Aung San Suu Kyi’s politically loaded silence on the Thein Sein government’s disenfranchisement of Muslims prior to the 2015 elections disappointed Muslims including Rohingyas. For the first time, the NLD did not field any Muslim candidate in the election. It indicated Suu Kyi’s politics of compromise, rather than fair play, to achieve electoral success.  Perhaps, this was the point of no return for the Muslim community as all avenues of political participation for them were now closed.


Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to resounding victory in the elections. The 2008 Constitution did not permit her to be elected president as she was married to a foreigner. So in April 2016, the NLD struck a compromise and appointed Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, a position specially created for her. There was widespread expectation that she would carry out reforms to improve the human rights record of the state. She released imprisoned student protestors and promised to carry out more people oriented policies.


The year also saw turbulence in clashes with armed ethnic groups particularly in Kachin, Kokang, Arakan and Ta insurgent groups. In order to speed up the reconciliation process with 20 ethnic groups active in the country, the Second 21st Century Panglong Conference was organised from May 24 to 29, 2017. Fifteen ethnic group representatives attended the conference, including eight groups which had signed a ceasefire agreement. Aung San Suu Kyi in her speech outlined three main goals of the conference: emergence of a democratic federal union based on democracy and federalism, all parties to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement, and finally to discuss the principles on which political dialogue will be based.


The conference may be considered a partial success as progressively more and more ethnic groups have participated in these efforts. Significantly, China’s ambassador was present at the conference, indicating China’s role in the ethnic reconciliation process. Though Rohingya were not included in this conference, Aung San Suu Kyi’s goal of a democratic federal union based on democracy and federalism spelled out at the conference provides hope for favourably considering the Rohingya demand for autonomy within a federal union. 


On August 23, 2016, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi appointed an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The Advisory Commission chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan consisted of three international and five national persons of eminence. It was mandated to meet with all stakeholders, international experts and foreign dignitaries to hear their views and consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights and the security of the people of Rakhine.


The Commission was also to undertake assessments and make recommendations on conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, rights and reconciliation, institution building and promotion of development. The Commission had over 150 consultations and meetings, travelled extensively throughout Rakhine State and held meetings in Yangon, Naypyidaw in Myanmar and Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Geneva.


Even as the Advisory Commission was deliberating, Rohingya terrorists in large numbers attacked three Myanmar police posts located along the Bangladesh border on October 9, 2016. HaY based in Bangladesh claimed responsibility for the attacks that resulted in the death of 40 people. They killed nine officials and looted 51 weapons from the posts. According to the Myanmar Army statement on 15 November 2016, in all 69 Rohingya insurgents and 17 security forces including seven soldiers were killed in these clashes, taking the death toll to 134 (102 insurgents and 32 security forces). It said 234 suspects connected with the attack were arrested.


The Advisory Commission submitted its final report to the government on August 23, 2017. The report 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 State’s hard-pressed population.” It considered a broad range of structural issues that were impediments to the peace and prosperity of Rakhine State. Many of its recommendations focus specifically on citizenship verification, rights and equality before the law, documentation, the situation of the internally displaced, and freedom of movement which affect the Muslim population “disproportionately.” Commission chair Kofi Annan proposed a ministerial-level appointment with the sole function of coordinating policy on Rakhine State and ensuring the effective implementation of the Advisory Commission recommendations.


As though to underline the urgency of implementing the Commission’s recommendations, on August 25, 2017, 150 Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents attacked 24 police posts and a military base, killing 12 security personnel. In the military operations that followed, the ARSA lost 59 insurgents. The Guardian report, quoting humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières, said “more than 6,700 Rohingya Muslims, including at least 730 children under the age of five” were killed in the first month of military crackdown that started in August 2017. The Myanmar Army implemented a comprehensive “four cuts” counter-insurgency strategy to deprive the militants of food, funds, intelligence and recruits. During the course of operations, villages were burned, crops destroyed, minefields laid and populations displaced in Rohingya villages.


The heavy handed military operations triggered a massive exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh from August 25, 2017 onwards. According to a Reliefweb report in February 2018 more than 671,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh causing a human rights crisis of global proportions. An Amnesty International report, citing satellite images, said 350 Rohingya villages were completely destroyed and the military was building bases where some of the Rohingya homes and mosques once stood. Bangladesh’s foreign minister AH Mahmood Ali called it a “genocide” waged by Myanmarese troops, while UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. 


According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in addition to the refugees in Bangladesh, around 120,000 internally displaced persons, mainly Rohingya, driven from their homes by inter-communal violence were now in their sixth year of confined encampment. The rise of Aung San Suu Kyi to power has been mainly due to huge international support during her long fight for democracy. The Nobel Prize winner for Peace was seen as the global upholder of universal rights.


After the Rohingya exodus started after the August 2017 violence, the international community expected Suu Kyi to act swiftly to rein in the army, create conditions to halt the outflow of refugees from Rakhine State, and bring to book those who committed human rights excesses. However, she failed to live up to their expectations on the Rohingya issue. She took a month to make an official statement on the issue, which glossed over the army’s excesses and lacked remorse. In her public address, she said she did not “fear international scrutiny.” On accusations of ethnic cleansing against the army, she said “there have been allegations and counter allegations… We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.”


The government has continued to be in a state of denial; till date it has not permitted UN agencies, international NGOs and the press to visit Rakhine State, although allowing free media coverage was one of the specific recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission. Two Reuters reporters filed a highly damaging eye witness account of Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops killing 10 Rohingya men and burying them in the village of Inn Din on September 2, 2017. The two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are Burmese citizens, were arrested on December 12, 2017 and are held on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act. However, since then, the army has admitted the possibility of the massacre and arrested 10 soldiers pending an investigation. 


Aung San Suu Kyi set up a 10-member Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State as a follow up to the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission report. Even as the advisory panel chaired by former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai was preparing to visit North Western Rakhine State, on January 25, 2018, a member of the panel, Bill Richardson, former energy advisor to President Bill Clinton, quit over the issue of the panel refusing to discuss the arrest of two Reuters reporters. He called the panel a “white wash” and accused Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership.” This has further embarrassed the government.


Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January 2018 to complete a voluntary repatriation of refugees in two years, but the refugees continue to fear the conditions are not secure in Rakhine State for them to return.  Myanmar set up two reception centres near the border to receive returning refugees. However, there has been poor progress; Bangladesh has disputed Myanmar claims of receiving the first five refugees made on April 15, 2018 and Rights groups have called it a publicity stunt. Media reports from Myanmar indicate the army is assisting to create Rohingya-free buffer zones in areas where Rohingya had lived, to settle other Rakhine people. This is a disturbing trend as it increases the possibility of Rohingya returnees being endlessly held in holding camps.


It is clear Myanmar and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi are in no hurry to attend to the concerns of UN bodies and the international community in creating a secure environment in Rakhine State for the successful repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Evidently, Myanmar is not implementing the agreement with Bangladesh on repatriation of Rohingyas in letter and spirit. So as in the past, the process of repatriation can be expected to drag on at a pace set by Myanmar.


(To be concluded….)

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 6369, 20 April 2018

[See Notes and references from original]

The views expressed by the author are personal 

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