Myanmar was an area where Kofi Annan spent considerable efforts in his final years. His diagnosis of the situation may be accurate, and the prescription the right one, yet the patient – Rakhine State – stubbornly persists in getting worse instead of following his advice.
Kofi Annan, who died aged 80 on August 18, was UN secretary general from 1997 to 2006, and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. He later served as UN special envoy for Syria. Theresa May hailed Annan as a “great leader and reformer of the UN,” while Christine Lagarde called him “a beacon of light to the international community.” Most relevant to Myanmar were Barack Obama’s words: “Long after he had broken barriers, Kofi never stopped his pursuit of a better world.” He had no need to take on what others considered as a poisoned chalice - the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Upon his death, it is worth revisiting his involvement and the lessons offered.
The Ghanaian diplomat put forward a vision for Rakhine which, for many observers, was the best way to start bringing hope to resolving the problems. His commission submitted its final report with 88 recommendations to the government on August 24, 2017. Hours later, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine, prompting a brutal military crackdown that resulted in an estimated 700,000 Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. Reports of serious human rights violations carried out by security forces, Rakhine vigilante groups and ARSA abounded. These destroyed the efforts and good faith stakeholders had.
Revisiting his efforts
The ex-UN chief took from June to August 2016 to secure a workable terms of reference for the commission, including the requirement that recommendations have to “align with international norms and standards” over domestic laws. This saved the commission from lengthy deliberations which could have undermined the group’s cohesion.
Annan first arrived Myanmar in early September 2016. One of the first things he did was to reach out to actors who had explicitly rejected foreigners in the commission, including the Arakan National Party (ANP), the Rakhine State legislature and parts of Rakhine civil society. His decision not to shy away from difficulties yielded results: On at least four occasions, ANP representatives agreed to meet with the commission behind closed doors. Some of the Rakhine civil society groups that initially boycotted also eventually agreed to meet. Kofi Annan made three visits, in September and December 2016 and August 2017, going to Sittwe, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Mrauk-U and Myebon, as well as Yangon and the capital. He personally presided over meetings with hundreds of ethnic Rakhine, Muslims and other smaller communities.
Annan rightly pointed out that Rakhine is not only a development crisis. Diplomatic actors have focused on resolving the humanitarian crisis by development means. Japan, for example, is funding two US$20.6 million projects to “improve humanitarian and development situation in Rakhine State with the approach of the humanitarian-development nexus, which is strongly advocated by the government of Japan.” Proponents of the China-led Kyaukphyu project argued that the investments and job opportunities will be a way forward for Rakhine, seeing the conflicts as mainly a result of a lack of development.
In contrast, Annan’s report noted that Rakhine is also a human rights and security crisis. “While all communities have suffered from violence and abuse, protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made the Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. Some ten percent of the world’s stateless people live in Myanmar, and the Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world,” it stated. He was aware that pledges of humanitarian assistance are alone insufficient to address any human rights crisis.
Crucially, he saw the urgency to address the situation to all communities in Rakhine. He understood that while the Muslims had clearly suffered the most, everyone had suffered from neglect and marginalisation at the hands of successive administrations. The report and recommendations mirrored this, stressing that the country’s leadership will have to chart a positive outlook for the future of Rakhine: economically prosperous, safe and secure, where all communities enjoy basic rights and freedoms.
Honouring his legacy
“In order to move forward together the past must give way to a renewed vision for a dynamic future,” Annan wrote in the introduction to the final report. Realising such a vision will not only depend on sustained political will of Nay Pyi Taw, but also require the support of all local communities. “Inevitably, there will be a minority who oppose change. Yet, while every effort should be made to understand their concerns, they should not be allowed to thwart progress,” he cautioned.
Annan counselled open dialogue, sustained engagement and the rule of law in order for the government to win the trust of both communities. Sadly, looking at the alleged lack of effective access of UN agencies to northern Rakhine and the trial of two Reuters reporters, his words fell on deaf ears in Nay Pyi Taw.
Sadly, looking at the alleged lack of effective access of UN agencies to northern Rakhine and the trial of two Reuters reporters, his words fell on deaf ears in Nay Pyi Taw.
As Commission member Laetitia van den Assum told The Myanmar Times, Myanmar, and Rakhine State in particular, could “pay no greater tribute to Kofi Annan’s legacy than to embrace the need for a renewed vision with diversity and equality at its core.” Indeed, it is time to stop the “minority” from derailing the efforts to set Myanmar on a new course, one with respect for diversity and dialogue.