I’ve recently returned from Rakhine State. There to cover the first visit by Kofi Annan and the other members of the Rakhine Advisory Commission to the troubled region, I stayed on to speak to people in a number of communities about their current concerns.
There was no shortage of issues to look at: restricted healthcare, inadequate shelter, ongoing and increasing food insecurity, gender-based violence, police intimidation, lack of access to justice, and everywhere the miserable, endless cycle of poverty in which people across all communities in Rakhine State find themselves trapped.
Many of these abuses and troubles are intertwined, but one single factor stands out as contributing across so many issues to the plight of the state’s Muslim population: the restriction on the movements of those who self-identify as Rohingya and assert a long history in the region, but who are considered illegal “Bengali” immigrants by most in Myanmar.
Which is why, however positive the commission’s intentions and however much Mr Annan illustrated a sensitivity to the need to be seen as remaining “impartial” – recognising the concerns of the ethnic Rakhine community as well as the Muslim one – his response to a question at a press conference in Yangon after his Rakhine visit was concerning.
The commission was asked, “Did any of you witness anything you would describe as oppression?” The former UN secretary general diplomatically replied, “Personally, I did not see it there.”
But Mr Annan and his team did see a major and ongoing rights abuse in the very first community they visited in Sittwe – one which did not involve obvious violence, but which contributes directly to death and misery because it restricts access to medical care, adequate shelter, food and justice.
The convoy of delegates and media that rolled through the entrance to the Aung Mingalar ghetto was not, on this high-profile occasion, stopped by armed guards and asked to prove it had permission to pass the barriers. Any of Aung Mingalar’s Muslim residents wishing to leave, however, were certainly not going to receive the same courtesy.
The very existence of Aung Mingalar – a fenced-off ward in which Rohinyga are confined on ethno-religious grounds – is a human rights abuse, and the residents Mr Annan met with were suffering the impacts of restriction on their movements even as they spoke to him.
The removal of that basic right to freedom of movement – the same right that is denied to most of the state’s 1 million-plus Rohingya population – contributes to so many other violations. It restricts access to vital medical care and contributes to food insecurity because they cannot travel to seek work to feed their families.
Any organisation tasked with addressing sectarian divides in Rakhine State must tackle far more problems than the original tensions that sparked the violence. They now must also try to unpick the incredibly complex set of deliberate and incidental rights violations which occurred in the riots’ wake. That includes what has become an entrenched system of apartheid, imposed by the state and tacitly supported for the past four years by an international community unwilling to risk the potential consequences of leaving Muslim IDPs without aid.
The deep mistrust of international actors that has arisen among many ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the face of the ongoing UN and INGO response to the crisis only further complicates attempts by the commission to resolve community tensions. This was underscored by the rent-a-crowd bussed in toprotest against the appointment of Mr Annan, a foreigner, as chair of the advisory body.
“We are not here to do a human rights investigation or to write a human rights report … I hope our recommendations will be helpful as we intend to reduce tension and support development,” Mr Annan told press after his visit.
It is hardly surprising that the ethnic Rakhine representatives on the commission would emphasise development over rights. That also suits a wider Union government approach.
Commission representatives and the UN in Myanmar have stressed that the commission is an entirely separate entity from the UN – a distinction necessary to assuage concerns among those in Rakhine who accuse UN organisations of pro-Rohingya bias in the state.
Nonetheless, the influence of those with UN connections is evident. It is not unexpected that the commission is following the current emphasis by the UN leadership in Myanmar which stresses development as the way forward for Rakhine. It is an approach that has created bitter divides within the UN in Myanmar between those agencies with a focus on rights and those supporting development.
Unquestionably Rakhine, the poorest or second-poorest state in the country depending on whose definition you use, could benefit from development.
The state is invaluable in terms of its geopolitical position, and its oil and gas resources have so far been used to benefit others and not allowed to generate the community dividends they ought to have. People of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in Rakhine need help to escape the poverty cycle.
But attempts to boost development and end community tensions and injustices, while over 1 million people remain trapped within their own villages because of their ethnic background, are doomed.
The reality is that outside Sittwe, many ethnic Rakhine communities and their Muslim neighbours who identify as Rohingya have a functioning relationship, particularly when it comes to trade. But the fact that exchanges are in large part based around Rakhine traders bringing in goods to Rohingya who are not allowed to travel just underscores the intrinsic disparity.
Likewise, I heard reports from credible sources that a small number of Rohingya labourers are being employed by contractors on some state development projects – but given the current movement restrictions, such work is effectively illegal and the potential for labour rights violation is enormous.
To support the idea that development holds the key to ending community tensions while one group of people are denied basic rights and treated as second-class citizens, or in this case deemed not worthy of citizenship at all, is to support the development of a society that will be fundamentally unequal and unjust.
The very existence of the commission is a positive step forward. Muslim representatives have expressed hope that it can secure them a better future. Meanwhile, if most ethnic Rakhine people I spoke to questioned a foreigner’s ability to understand their problems, they were also willing to acknowledge Mr Annan’s international experience and expressed respect for the fact that, like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he is a Nobel laureate.
There is room for the commission to do great good. But to do so it must be brave and it must be honest. The temptation to avoid the thorny issues of rights abuses and focus on the diplomatically acceptable language of development must be strong.
If Mr Annan is to leave a worthwhile legacy in Rakhine State, however, he must not just ignore, but instead champion, human rights.