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Kofi Annan, the former United Nations chief, has called for cooperation among neighbouring countries to address tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State.
Annan, who is chairing a nine-member commission to advise State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the situation in the troubled state, where ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have lived separately since clashes in 2012, made the remarks at a press conference on Thursday following his first visit to the region.
Speaking to reporters, Annan stressed the need to acknowledge the international dimension of the conflict between the two communities.
“We are dealing with an issue which, whether we like it or not, has some international elements when you have movements of people,” said Annan. “You have in the region people crossing borders either into Myanmar [Burma] or from Myanmar into Bangladesh, [and] there is movement across the Thai border and other movements.”
He said that by cooperating with neighbouring countries, and by exploring how movements across borders can be better handled, Burma could achieve “peaceful borders”.
“One country alone cannot deal with it, without understanding from the neighbours,” he added.
When asked about local protests that greeted his visit to the state capital Sittwe, where he met with both Buddhist and Muslim leaders, Annan called the protests a “healthy sign” of democracy and freedom of expression.
“I do understand that there are people in society and the community who see [the] international community as one-sided because they are always talking about the rights of the Rohingya,” he said, acknowledging opposition to the commission among many ethnic Arakanese.
However, he assured “those in Rakhine [Arakan] State who believe their interests are of no concern” to the commission that “this is an independent commission … concerned and determined to put forward proposals that will be of benefit to all residents of Rakhine State and be in the interests of Myanmar.”
During their first trip to the state this week, members of the commission visited camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from both communities — one near Sittwe for Buddhists whose homes were destroyed in communal clashes, and the Aung Mingalar camp, where Rohingya IDPs continue to face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Referring to the hostile welcome he received from local Buddhists opposed to his involvement in the commission, and to a failed bid in parliament by the Arakan National Party (ANP) to oust the three foreigners on the commission, Annan said, “I hope we can put this issue behind us.”
Asked about his use of the term “Rohingya”, which Suu Kyi had previously requested diplomats to avoid on the grounds that it was too “emotive”, Annan said that the Burmese leader had not asked him not to use the word.
“We all know the words ‘Rohingya’ and ‘Bengali’ are both emotive,” he said, adding that he hoped that the work of the commission would “help reduce tensions and make this issue less prominent”.
While the commission has come under fire from the ANP and other nationalist forces who believe that the issue is chiefly a question of national sovereignty, it also faces pressure from human rights groups that insist that rights abuses must be addressed.
Annan also reiterated at today’s press conference that the commission would seek to address the concerns of all affected by the conflict in the state with “rigorous impartiality”.