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Annan-led panel urges ‘ambitious steps’ in Arakan report

Kofi Annan, chairman of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, talks to journalists during his news conference in Rangoon on 24 August 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

The Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has advised Burma’s government to consider 88 “ambitious steps” to bring calm and development to Arakan State. In delivering its final report in Rangoon on Thursday, the panel characterised the situation in the westernmost state as being in the midst of a “human rights crisis.”

The commission, which was formed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in September 2016, was tasked with analysing structural and institutional barriers to peace in the restive, and desperately poor, state.

Addressing concerns that the commission lacked any authority to enforce its recommendations, Annan said the government is considering setting up an “inter-ministerial mechanism” to implement the suggested reform programme.

Chief among the recommendations, and perhaps the biggest political hurdle, is a call for the government to review the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law. In its current form, the law renders the majority of Rohingya stateless – cutting them off from accessing crucial health, education and social services.

The report urges lawmakers to act decisively to align “the law with international standards and treaties to which Myanmar is State Party,” and work to instate freedom of movement for Muslims in Arakan State.

The ongoing strife in northern Arakan has been the biggest thorn in the NLD’s side since their landslide election victory in November 2015.

Domestic and international observers have denounced the government and Aung San Suu Kyi — who had long enjoyed support from abroad for her human rights advocacy prior to taking power — for their perceived failure to adequately address the plight of the Rohingya.

Her government has largely supported the military against accusations of grave human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces during heavy-handed “clearance operations” launched in response to a 9 October ambush on border police outposts in northern Arakan State. Muslim insurgents, who later identified themselves as members of the previously unknown militant group Harakah al-Yaqin, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The office of Aung San Suu Kyi, who once gave a speech condemning the Burmese military’s use of rape as a weapon of war, denied reports that Tatmadaw soldiers committed widespread rape against Rohingya women over the course of the clearance operations.

The advisory panel urged the government to more closely monitor the behaviour of security forces, suggesting that security personnel be required to display visible identification to enhance accountability.

Despite consisting of six national members (Win Mra, Aye Lwin, Dr. Tha Hla Shwe, Dr. Mya Thida, Saw Khin Tint and Khin Maung Lay), the panel faced fierce domestic opposition from the beginning. The criticism, leveled primarily from ethnic Arakanese and Buddhist nationalists, focused predominantly on the inclusion of foreign members on the commission — Ghassan Salame and Laetitia van den Assum, in addition to chair Annan.

Protests were staged in Arakan State and around the country following the announcement of the panel, and reignited on the two occasions Annan toured Burma. In early September 2016, the Arakan National Party sought the removal of the three foreign members in the Lower House, a resolution that was struck down by the chamber.

At the release of an interim report in March, Salame unveiled 13 priority recommendations. Five months later, many of those calls were echoed. Despite a call for unimpeded humanitarian and media access, journalists and aid workers remain largely sidelined from carrying out their work in northern Arakan State.

Three government-sponsored “media tours,” in which reporters from local and international news outlets were escorted to villages in Maungdaw, were roundly criticised by both observers and the journalists themselves for the limitations imposed on those visits.

Responding to these concerns, Annan called upon the government to increase access, saying “transparency is a powerful tool, and it helps everybody.”

Speaking to DVB ahead of the final report, Myanmar Press Council member Aung Hla Tun said: “I believe the government hasn’t done enough.”

“We have, across the board … we have expressed our concerns about improving the media landscape across the country. All I can say is, there is big room for improving the media landscape,” he said.

Other advisory interim  commission recommendations in March included a commitment to rule of law and the establishment of an impartial body to investigate alleged human rights violations.

As yet, the government has not announced plans for the creation of such a body.

In December it appointed Vice President Myint Swe to lead a 13-person investigative commission, as pressure grew on the government in the face of mounting human rights allegations in the aftermath of the attacks.

That panel found “no evidence” to support the multiple claims of state security forces’ excessive use of force, extrajudicial killings, destruction of property and rampant rape. Myint Swe, a former general, was the military’s pick for the vice president role.

US-based Human Rights Watch flagged the glaring discrepancies between the recommendations put forward by Annan’s team versus the Myint Swe commission’s assurances that the Arakan security situation was well under control.

“A fundamental concern remains, which is how will the Myanmar government deal with the Rakhine [Arakan] Commission’s recommendations versus those of the Myanmar committee led by first Vice President Myint Swe,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Thursday.

“That national Myanmar commission arrived in a very different place with different approaches than the Rakhine Commission, and there were areas of overlapping mandates that further complicate the situation,” he said via email.

State media on Thursday seemed to signal that the government would be receptive to the Annan commission’s report.

“The president said yesterday that it was his belief that the advice contained in the final report will be supportive to the peace, stability and development works in Rakhine State, which has experienced renewed conflict, disruption and violence over the past year,” read a report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.

With the release of Thursday’s report, the Arakan Advisory Commission has fulfilled its mandate.

“Responsibility for the implementation of our recommendations now lies with Myanmar’s leaders and institutions: The Union and Rakhine State governments; the national and state parliaments; religious and community leaders; and above all the people of Rakhine,” read the final report.