Annan braced for Rakhine protests

Sittwe remains an impoverished corner of one of the region’s poorest countries. Source: Flickr

Myanmar de facto prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan have overseen the first meeting of a panel tasked with bringing peace to Rakhine State where violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has undermined the Nobel peace laureate’s international reputation.

The treatment of the Rohingya has raised questions about the state counsellor’s commitment to human rights and her National League for Democracy is struggling to address the issue.

The nine-member commission, chaired by Annan, includes two other foreigners and six domestic representatives.

“This is an issue that we have failed to meet squarely and fairly, and to which we have not been able to find the right solution,” Suu Kyi told the media in Yangon.

“We hope that this commission will help us to find solutions to the problem.”

More than 100 people were killed in Rakhine State in 2012 and some 125,000 Rohingya live in apartheid-like restrictions in squalid camps while thousands have fled persecution by boat to be mistreated in other Asean members or to starve at sea.

The Rohingya are regarded by many Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who must be denied citizenship. The Burmese media regularly refers to Muslim Rakhine residents as “Bengalis”.

Buddhist protesters recently surrounded the US embassy after it wrote a letter of condolence using the word “Rohingya” after a boat sank, killing many Muslims.

The Arakan National Party (ANP), which has a majority of seats in the Rakhine State parliament, recently condemned the appointment of Annan and the other foreigners to the commission, arguing that outsiders could not understand the state’s history and traditions, saying the matter should be handled domestically.

The military-allied Union Solidarity and Development Party, which ruled before handing power to the National League for Democracy in April, made a similar announcement.

Suu Kyi is planning to visit the UN General Assembly this month in New York where she is likely to face questions over her efforts to improve conditions for the Rohingya.

The nine commission members will travel to Rakhine capital Sittwe, where Annan is due to deliver a speech today (Tuesday) and meet members of both communities. The commission has a year to report its recommendations.

“I can assure you, and the people of Rakhine, that the advisory commission will deploy every effort with rigorous impartiality to find and propose ways to address these challenges,” Annan said.

The ANP will participate in a protest against the commission on Tuesday.