Rohingya refugees stand in an open area with their belongings during heavy rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya refugees stand in an open area with their belongings during heavy rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

With over 70,000 Rohingya fleeing recent escalated fighting between Muslim militants and Myanmar state forces, and the potential for a full-blown humanitarian crisis rising by the day, the long-anticipated Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations for peace and reconciliation have fast fallen from view.

That report, commissioned by Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 and drafted by a team of foreign and Myanmar experts, was designed to provide a series of detailed policy recommendations to seek long term solutions to communal divisions, underdevelopment and rights issues for all ethnic and religious communities in Rakhine state.

The launch of the commission’s final report on August 24 was overshadowed within hours by a series of lethal attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) against police and military targets in the Rakhine townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.

An estimated 400 security forces and suspected militants have been killed over the last week, while tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, Rakhine, Mro and other religious minorities have been internally displaced or fled across the border to Bangladesh. Thousands of houses have been burned and destroyed in the spasm of shadowy violence.

The Annan Commission was widely lauded upon its formation as a principled move to tackle various thorny issues. Yet just as the commission was starting its work, the security situation in Rakhine state deteriorated last October with a series of insurgent attacks on border police by a new Rohingya militant group, then known as the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) and since rechristened as ARSA.

Police officers guard near a house that was burnt down in recent violence in Maungdaw town, Rakhine state Myanmar August 31, 2017. Photo: Reuters /Soe Zeya Tun

The security force response to those attacks evinced widespread international condemnation, as over 80,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh. Over 1,500 houses were burned in that assault, with reports by the United Nations and rights groups claiming widespread violations were tantamount to crimes against humanity.

The commission’s work proceeded in the aftermath of that violence, with numerous visits made throughout the state to all religious and ethnic communities, as well as most community leaders. The final report reflects the immense challenges of compiling sound policy suggestions in such a complicated and vexed environment, particularly when, as the report notes, domestic and international forces were driving the commission in opposite directions.

The main recommendations address a host of important issues broadly viewed through development, human rights and security lenses, with a hard focus on the lack of citizenship rights for the Rohingya. Those include restrictions on their freedom of movement, blocked access to humanitarian services, health and education and other basic security issues, including a growing drug trade that has thrived in the shadows.

The report looked not just at the plight of Rohingya Muslims – which is what most people think of when envisioning Rakhine state – but also at other disenfranchised groups resident in the large and highly underdeveloped state. As such, recommendations stressed the need for inclusion in public life and inter-communal contacts for all groups.

On the day the commission’s report was released, Suu Kyi’s office announced the formation of a ministerial level committee responsible for implementation of the report’s various recommendations, as well as an advisory board comprised of foreign and Myanmar experts to guide the implementation of a ‘roadmap.’

ARSA’s attacks, launched strategically several hours after the report’s release, has now thrown these carefully considered recommendations into limbo as security concerns take government precedence.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gives a memorial speech on August 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

One challenge to the government’s plans for Rakhine state was the formation of a United Nations Fact Finding Mission (FFM), established by a resolution at the Human Rights Council in March this year following the brutal military ‘clearance operations’ launched in response to the ARSA border guard post attacks last October.

The FFM was mandated to “establish facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine state.” For such a wide-ranging investigation, the timeline is short: the FFM is scheduled to report to the UN in September and produce a final report by March next year.

Some observers point to the broad purview of the mandate, which could potentially include widespread allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by the security forces across Myanmar, including in the ongoing grinding civil wars in Kachin and northern Shan states. Amnesty International, for one, has concluded that war crimes are being committed in those conflicts.

But much of the international reporting on the FFM has misleadingly claimed it is a probe only on recent violence in Rakhine state. The FFM got off to an inauspicious start when its original chair, Indian lawyer Indira Jaising, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “The situation of the Rohingya community in Myanmar is especially deplorable because they face the risk of a genocide.”

This was a premature assumption for a fact-finding exercise. She has since been replaced with a formidable composition of human rights experts, but the Myanmar government has rejected the UN Human Rights Council resolution, with Suu Kyi criticizing the FFM’s formation and vowing to deny its members’ visas and any official access to the country.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee at a news conference in Yangon, Myanmar July 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

But the government arguably missed a perfect opportunity to leaven international criticism by cooperating more with the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Yanghee Lee. Her visit to Myanmar in July was marked by official obstruction and strained cooperation, including a precondition that she must not to have any contact with the FFM, an insult to the independence of her mandate.

Lee’s carefully calibrated assessment of the human rights situation, which presented first on the deteriorating conflict situations in Kachin and northern Shan states, and recent arrests of government critics and journalists, before outlining rights-related issues in Rakhine state.

Further inhibiting the UN’s work is the almost complete absence of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in-country staff. The previous Thein Sein administration made a pledge to US President Barack Obama in 2012 that his government would facilitate the opening of a formal OHCHR office in Myanmar.

That pledge was still honored as of early 2014, but was derailed in the aftermath of the alleged massacre at the village of Duu Chee Yar Tan in Maungdaw, Rakhine state, an incident investigated by the UN but disputed by a series of government investigations. Significantly, Suu Kyi’s government has not granted regular visas to OHCHR staffers, unlike Thein Sein’s military-propped government.

Rohingya refugees walk on a muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on September 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

So where does this all leave the Annan Commission findings? The implementation of the commission’s recommendations will have to be driven by government will and capacity, both of which are currently in short supply. The military, as well as extremists on all sides, will likely want to impede or control any policy changes.

There are numerous and rising progressive voices in Myanmar who deplore the situation in Rakhine state, but are often drowned out in the media by the snarls of racist demagogues such as Buddhist monk U Wirathu, who spoke to an anti-Rohingya rally outside Yangon’s Town Hall last week.

At the same time, a joint statement by 255 Myanmar civil society organizations from across the country deplored the violence on all sides in Rakhine, and called for human rights to be respected with an end to divisive fake news and rumors. But their calls for inter-faith peace and harmony will likely fall mostly on deaf ears with the deteriorating security situation and fast-spreading hate speech over social media.

The government’s increasingly strained relationship with the UN threatens to circumscribe its ability to implement the Annan Commission’s useful recommendations. But jettisoning or delaying the commission’s prescriptions will not only score a victory for ARSA and military members bent on violence rather than reconciliation, but further condemn all Rakhine state communities to continued poverty, exploitation and communal conflict.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst

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