What hope now for the Rohingya in Myanmar?
Observers warn a lasting solution to Rakhine’s problems seems further away than ever
When Kofi Annan first arrived with his newly-formed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in the region's capital Sittwe in early September 2016, the former UN secretary-general appeared shocked by the vehemence of the large crowd who turned out to protest against him. Their banners denounced “foreigners’ biased intervention” in the region which has been blighted by sectarian violence.
One year on, as Mr Annan delivered the commission’s final recommendations on how to ease tensions and end the killing between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the mainly-stateless Muslim minority, the Rohingya, the situation on the ground has deteriorated dramatically. The last five years of violence have claimed hundreds of lives and displaced around 200,000 people. Now there is increasingly bitter resentment at international involvement and observers are warning a lasting solution to Rakhine’s problems seems further away than ever.
In the past two weeks, a significant number of new troops have been sent to Muslim-majority northern Rakhine amid increasing concerning about the killings of civilians from both communities which the government says is the work of Muslim terrorists. The enlarged military presence has in turn sparked fresh concerns of renewed violence against the Rohingya population after last year’s brutal clampdown by security forces in the wake of deadly attacks by Muslim insurgents on border police posts in October.
But fears run high on both side. This week, there were reports that ethnic Rakhine villagers in a more diverse, and previously less volatile part of the state had barricaded hundreds of their Rohingya neighbours inside a village for three weeks and denied them access to food and water supplies.
Meanwhile international aid agencies, who have reported feeling increasingly threatened by local Rakhine hardliners, say that since a change in the travel authorization system last month they have been denied permission to deliver vital supplies into the restricted regions. It is against this background that the Annan-led commission’s report arrived on Thursday.
“The situation [on the ground] is worse than it was two months ago. Villagers are frightened,” said Chris Lewa director of the human rights organisation Arakan Project. “The government has said it will implement the commission’s findings, but how they will do so [is the concern]. They have to be extremely careful they don’t do harm.”
Surge in violence and building backlash against international criticism
When the commission began its work it was clear that some - particula among the Rakhine ethnic community - resented outside interference. But the months that followed brought saw previously unimagined challenges.
In October 2016 – just one month after the Annan commission was launched – the brutal murders of border police in attacks by a previously unknown Muslim insurgent group saw security forces respond with a level of violence that brought international condemnation. A recent UN report said as many as 87,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since the “clearance operations” were launched.
Those in power denied all allegations that the military and police had perpetrated mass rape, large scale burning of properties, murders, torture and arbitrary detentions, against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine.
Foreign media and rights organisations who reported on the claims were publically derided by government ministers and in the state media, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s official webpage for weeks ran a flashing banner headline declaring “fake rape”, accusing Rohingya women of lying and foreign media of bias and deliberately stirring up tensions.
When an initial UN investigation in February concluded that what had occurred “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity and possibly ethnic cleansing, the government strongly rejected their findings. Aung San Suu Kyi said the resulting UN resolution to send an official fact finding mission “would have created greater hostility between the different communities” and the government said it would not issue visas to members of the mission.
Instead the government launched its own fact finding team which has faced criticism for its research methods and military links. Earlier this month it announced that while some small-scale abuses may have occurred, there was no evidence that Myanmar security forces carried out a systematic campaign of rape, murder or arson.
When the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Yang Hee Lee published her end of mission report last month, she expressed concern that the current administration was using “tactics applied by the previous government” and said the humanitarian situation in some of the parts of the country had worsened since the NLD came to power. Parliament responded with a unanimous condemnation of her report.
The government’s accusations of bias appear to have further stoked mistrust of international bodies among the public.
When a government website recently published photos of the site of an alleged Muslim “terrorist camp” they included images of food parcels from an international aid organization. Social media was soon aflame with allegations that NGOs were “feeding terrorists”.
Earlier this week a report by the International Republican Institute (IRI) following a poll of 3,000 people found 55 percent of people believed terrorism to be a “very serious” problem for the country while 25 per cent said they thought it was a somewhat serious problem.
What is the government likely to do next?
It is against this volatile and hostile environment that the commission’s final recommendations arrived. As the Kofi Annan led commission’s mandate comes to an end there is no official internationally-linked body that has government backing to investigate the situation in Rakhine.
Mr Annan has said it will now be up to the government what to do next.
While the government was yet to give an official response to the report at the time of going to press it is expected to give the recommendations a broad welcome, but observers express concern that there will be little enthusiasm for implementing many of the reports suggestions.
According to long-term Myanmar observer and analyst Richard Horsey: "There is an ever-stronger consensus across the political spectrum in Myanmar against making the kind of changes, such as granting citizenship and freedom of movement the Rohingya, that could address the root causes of the crisis. In this environment, it seems unlikely that the government will make significant progress on the issue."
The UN yesterday welcomed the report, and commended the government for establishing the commission.
A media representative of the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar, said: “The UN stands ready to support the Government’s implementation of the recommendations for the betterment of all communities in Rakhine State.”
But with relations between the government and the UN as strained as they currently are, it is far from certain ministers will be keen to take them up on that offer.
For now the fate of the Rohingya and everyone else in Rakhine who has suffered during the recent conflicts lies firmly in the hands of the Myanmar civilian government and their military counterparts.
That is a thought unlikely to be of much comfort to the more than 1 million Rohingya who have so far little reason to believe the government will improve their situation without further international pressure.
Updated: August 24, 2017 10:50 PM