Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest Rohingya solution: doomed to fail?

Photo: ITU/ J.M. Planche/CC BY 2.0

Former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, will head a commission to investigate solutions for the Rohingya people living in Myanmar. 

[yop_poll id=”2″]

By Dung Phan

There is no warm welcome for Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, as he arrives in Myanmar. Only jeers, shouts and boos followed his convoy into town, where he met with members of political and religious groups before visiting Rohingya camps.

The nine-member Rakhine State Advisory Commission was set up by the government last month with Annan as the chairman. The other foreign experts are the Lebanon-based scholar, Ghassan Salamé, and the Netherlands-based diplomat, Laetitia Vanden Assum. The commission also includes six Myanmar nationals, with two Rakhine Buddhists, two Muslims and two government delegates.

Although the commission is supposed to help with ensuring humanitarian assistance, rights and reconciliation as well as establishing basic infrastructure and promoting long-term development plans, it is suffering from massive objections and a lack of cooperation.

The “international” factor

“No to foreigners’ biased intervention in our Rakhine State’s affairs,” and “No Kofi-led commission”, shouted protesters during a rally against Annan’s visit. The protest was organised by leaders of the region’s largest political group, the Arakan National Party (ANP). They insist that foreigners cannot understand the history of the area and their presence could encourage external intervention into Myanmar’s domestic affairs. “Our country has its own sovereignty, and there is no way we can accept a commission that is formed by foreigners,” ANP official Aung Than Wai said.

Some of the local protesters did not even know or care about what the group would do. “We came here because we don’t want that foreigner coming to our state,” said May Phyu, a local Rakhine Buddhist resident.

In a news conference in Yangon, Kofi Annan emphasised that “we are not here as inspectors, as policemen.” The commission, however, has still been widely perceived as a foreign intrusion and people are mainly concerned about the huge influence of Annan over the international community. “Since he is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and also the former head of the UN if he says that the ‘Rohingya are really Myanmar people existing here as refugees’ the international community will accept that,” said U Zaw Win, a protest organiser.

The commission’s appointment comes amid urgent calls from international human rights groups regarding the Rohingya’s plight. In this light, Suu Kyi has again shown her pragmatism regarding foreign policy by summoning Annan. In fact, the diplomat’s first visit comes ahead of Suu Kyi’s visit to the US and her meeting with President Obama. She needs to build on recent successes; on Wednesday Obama announced that the US would lift economic sanctions and restore trade benefits to Myanmar.

A state-supported strategy?

Since she took office, Suu Kyi has been widely criticised by the international community for taking too soft a stance on the plight of the Rohingyas. She does not want to call them Rohingya and has also asked the US ambassador not to use the term. It means the government’s official position is that the Rohingya are Bangladeshis living in the country illegally.

But it is not a problem she could ignore forever. A 2015 study by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) concluded that “the Rohingya face the final stages of genocide,” in which they have been experiencing the first four stages: stigmatisation and dehumanisation; harassment, violence and terror; isolation and segregation; systematic weakening. Now they are on the edge of “mass annihilation.” The report also presents evidence that the attacks on the Muslim population involved, and were possibly inflamed by, the local authorities.

Above all, Suu Kyi has admitted herself she is a politician. “I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician. I’ve been a politician all along. I started into politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party,” she said in an interview with CNN.

That might be the reason why Suu Kyi remains reluctant to embrace the Rohingya cause publicly. There is no doubt that she does not want to mess with the Buddhist nationalists who angrily protested en masse against the commission.

And although the presence of Kofi Annan and hs colleagues might imply some ongoing progress, it is worth noting that there is no Rohingya representative on the panel. The team now have 12 months to conduct their research and submit their findings before making any recommendations. Annan already failed to bring peace to Syria; is he up to the world’s other great humanitarian challenge?