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New multinational ‘advisory team’ for Rakhine State created

Burmese border guard police patrol near the Burma-Bangladeshi border outside Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine State, on 12 November 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

President Htin Kyaw has established yet another governmental body to address the situation in troubled Rakhine State, this one comprised of Burmese and foreign members including the chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and a former US presidential aspirant.

The 10-member “Advisory Team for the Committee for the Implementation of Recommendations on Rakhine State,” made up of five Burmese and five foreigners, is the latest of several panels set up by the government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi since her administration was sworn in to office in late March 2016.

Prior to the latest creation, the government established the Committee for Implementation of Recommendations on Rakhine State, a body jointly headed by the Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye and Rakhine State government Chief Minister Nyi Pu, effectively replacing the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

The latter was chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and delivered a report on 24 August that listed dozens of recommendations for how to improve the situation in Rakhine State. The former, established on 12 September, has been tasked with implementing those recommendations. In addition, it is to address issues raised by the Maungdaw Region Investigation Commission — a separate body created on 1 December 2016 to probe attacks by Rohingya Muslim militants on police posts in October 2016, and allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces in subsequent “area clearance operations” to root out the insurgents.

Preceding both of these commissions was the formation of the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development in Rakhine State, chaired by Suu Kyi and announced on 31 May 2016. There is also a Rakhine State-level committee established by the regional legislature in October 2016 in the aftermath of the Rohingya militants’ attacks.

As the number of panels on Rakhine has grown, some have questioned whether there is a clear delineation of mandates.

In contrast to the Committee for Implementation of Recommendations on Rakhine State, details on the new team’s objectives were more vague: “The advisory team will provide advice and assume charge of stipulated duties,” read a notice published in state media on Saturday; Order No. 98/2017 and dated 8 December.

Win Mra is arguably the most prominent of the Burmese nationals appointed to the new team, as current head of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. An ethnic Rakhine, he leads a commission that has taken flak in recent years by critics who have questioned its independence and effectiveness.

Fellow commission member Khin Maung Lay is also part of the Advisory Team for the Committee for Implementation of Recommendations on Rakhine State, as is former ambassador and sitting member of the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights Hla Myint, and Khin Nyo, a Lower House MP.

Bill Richardson, who ran unsuccessfully for the US Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, has long taken an interest in Burma and will assume a new role in his relationship with the Southeast Asian nation via an appointment to the advisory team. His Richardson Center for Global Engagement nonprofit runs a programme in Burma, with the organisation’s overarching goal focused on promoting “global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities not usually open to more formal diplomatic channels,” according to its website.

Working through formal diplomatic channels has been a challenge for Suu Kyi’s administration in recent months, as the country’s treatment of the Rohingya has repeatedly come in for criticism by human rights groups, foreign governments and the United Nations.

A former governor of the US state of New Mexico, Richardson was one of only a few foreigners to visit Suu Kyi in the early years of her house arrest, paying a call to her lakeside home in Yangon in 1994 as a then-congressman.

Among the non-Burmese appointed to the team, Richardson is joined by former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who currently serves as chairman of the Asia Peace and Reconciliation Council, and Roelof Petrus Meyer, a former South African defence minister who participated in negotiations to end apartheid in that country.

The advisory team’s formation comes less than a week after Burma faced renewed scrutiny on the international stage, as the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelming to censure the country over its treatment of the Rohingya.

The latest data put the number of members of the Muslim minority to have fled the country since late August at 646,000. The refugees — crowded into camps in neighbouring Bangladesh that are increasingly struggling to cope with the influx — have alleged grave atrocities at the hands of Burmese security forces since a second major attack by militants under the banner of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on 25 August prompted a fierce counterinsurgency response.

The mass exodus has been described by the UN human rights chief as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and is the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, though the Burmese government denies that any widespread misconduct by security forces has taken place.

With hundreds of thousands displaced, repatriation will presumably be among the matters that the new advisory team will be involved in. The UN refugee agency has been invited to assist in the process, which will be carried out jointly by Burma and Bangladesh after the two countries inked an agreement last month.