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Hundreds protest as Kofi Annan arrives in Sittwe

Protestors wait for the arrival of former UN chief Kofi Annan in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe on 6 September 2016. (Photo: DVB)

Hundreds rallied on Tuesday against an advisory commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan to find solutions to the conflict between the country’s Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, which has cast a pall over democratic reforms.

The plight of the Rohingya has raised questions about Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to human rights and represents a politically sensitive issue for her National League for Democracy, which won a landslide election victory last year.

Local residents and Buddhist monks joined the protest overseen by dozens of police, despite rain in the northwestern Arakan State, also known as Rakhine, challenging what they perceived as “foreigners’ biased intervention” from the nine-member panel.

Jeers and chants denouncing the panel intensified upon the arrival of Annan’s plane. The crowd soon followed the convoy into town, where Annan will deliver a speech and meet with members of both the Rohingya and Arakanese Buddhist communities during his two-day visit in the state capital Sittwe.

“I don’t want to see foreigners involved in this commission. I want to see a commission involving people of the Rakhine nationality,” Kyaw Zin Wai, a 52-year-old carpenter told Reuters, adding that the two ethnic Arakanese commission members were not “representative” of people in the state.

More than 100 people were killed and some neighborhoods were razed to the ground as local ethnic Arakanese Buddhists clashed with Rohingya Muslims across the state in 2012.

Some 125,000 people are still displaced, the vast majority of them Rohingya, who are prevented from moving freely, have their access to basic services restricted and are mostly denied citizenship in Burma. Many have fled by sea in rickety boats.

Suu Kyi, who is barred from the presidency by the junta-drafted constitution but leads the country as state counselor and foreign minister, formed the commission last month to find solutions to the issue.

She plans to visit the United States this month, where she is thought to be seeking further sanctions relief for her country but is likely to face questions over her efforts to improve conditions for the Rohingya.

The protest was called by some leaders in the state’s powerful Arakan National Party (ANP), which has criticised the commission, insisting that foreigners cannot understand the history of the area.

“This country has its own sovereignty, so we will not accept foreign interference in local affairs,” said Aung Than Wai, secretary of ANP’s executive committee.

Annan told fellow commissioners and Suu Kyi at the panel’s first meeting in Rangoon on Monday that he planned to approach the region’s long-running conflict with “rigorous impartiality” and would listen to all sides of the conflict.

“Dialogue will be the order of the day,” Annan said.