When Aung San Suu Kyi was first elected as the leader of Myanmar, she was fully aware the country had an image problem - particularly in regards to it’s treatment of the Rohingya minority. When pressed she always claimed that these were deeply ingrained and complex issues that do not lend themselves to simple prescriptions. In order to untangle this complexity, she therefore commissioned the world’s leading diplomat to study and make recommendations on the issue. The Final Report of UN Commission to Rakhine State was subsequently published in August 2017 and its recommendations were clear:
• Myanmar must use its existing nominal citizenship pathway processes to actually extend citizenship to over one million Rohingya who are entitled to it.
• It must overhaul the 1982 Citizenship Law which the Myanmar authorities have used to render almost the entire Rohingya population stateless in the land of their birth, against the prescriptions of international law.
• It must lift restrictions against the freedom of movement of Rohingya in the state.
• It must close the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps and allow the Rohingya interred there to return to their properties.
• It must allow full humanitarian access to UN agencies and international NGOs.
• It must allow full access to both local and international media to document the situation in the State.
• It must allow the Rohingya and any other minority group equal access to healthcare and education to every other citizen of the country.
• It must allow and facilitate representation of the Rohingya and any other minority groups in local and central government.
• Myanmar’s judiciary must practice the rule of law and abide by international standards of impartiality and transparency.
All perfectly sensible recommendations which those of us in the international community who have been following the plight of the Rohingya have been calling for years.
In the past, the Myanmar government used to deflect such recommendations, whether they were put forward by UN humanitarian officials, or NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières, on the grounds that they were put forward by ‘international pressure groups’ who were politically hostile to the government. Even after the 2015 election which brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to power, the same line was taken: Suu Kyi has always said that the situation in Rakhine state is complicated, and nobody should rush to specific solutions.
It was in fact in this context that she commissioned Kofi Annan to investigate and produce a report on the matter.
In hindsight we can now confidently determine that the entire exercise was nothing but a political ploy to demonstrate to the world that she is doing what she can. It is on the back of this approach that she even managed to get sanctions lifted from Myanmar by convincing former US President Obama that things were moving towards resolution in Rakhine state at reasonable speed. All the while, she was playing to the domestic crowd and to the Army, by dragging things out and taking no action on the ground against either the ultra-nationalist civilian groups, the Rakhine State authorities, or the segments of the federal security forces who were carrying out the abuses against the Rohingya.
After completely ignoring all of Annan’s recommendations, Aung San Suu Kyi would go on and establish a number of other commissions to “get to the bottom of this crisis”. In this spirit, Bill Richardson, one of America’s most experienced diplomats, and a man with a remarkable humanitarian history in the Balkans and Iraq, agreed to join an international panel set up by Aung San Suu Kyi to advise on the Rohingya refugee crisis.
But, only weeks later he quit this position, stating that the “advisory board is a whitewash”, and that he did not wish to be “cheerleading” the policies of the Myanmar government. This was to be expected. Bill Richardson is a man of principle, while the political gestures that Aung San Suu Kyi has been making towards the Rohingya situation ever since she has come to power have never had the weight of conviction behind them.
The story of this advisory panel is the same story as the Kofi Annan commission, and the same story as the repatriation agreement with Bangladesh and now the same story as Ambassador Kobsak Chutikul. While the Myanmar army continued to purge the Rohingya off their native lands, Aung San Suu Kyi made it her business to provide them with political cover by setting up commissions, signing deals and treaties, and generally keeping busy and looking like useful things are being done. But Richardson and Chutikul are highly experienced diplomat, and can spot a stitch-up when they see one. It is hardly surprising that they refused to be complicit in this farce.
To avoid being left exposed, Aung San Suu Kyi, has now decided to set up another “independent commission of enquiry.” We got a taste of things to come in a news conference last week when the chair of the commission, Amb. Rosario Manalo from the Philippines, said: “I assure you there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger pointing of anybody because we don't achieve anything by that procedure.” So a commission set up for accountability will not be blaming anyone for the genocide and ethnic cleansing of an entire people.
The international community should therefore recognise these commissions for what they are: mechanisms to look busy and buy time until world attention moves on and the Rohingya become a permanent fixture in Bangladesh. The late Kofi Annan had no way of knowing at the time that Daw Suu is insincere, however we have no excuses.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim