Aung San Suu Kyi hopes to restore her battered reputation by allowing UN human rights and development organisations to enter Myanmar to prepare the ground for the large-scale return of Rohingya Muslims. Her aides hope the offer, linked to internal political changes strengthening her position and the appointment of a UN special envoy for the crisis, can mark a turning point in her relations with the international community. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled violence in Myanmar since a military crackdown began last August, joining an estimated 200,000 who have sought shelter in Bangladesh over the past few decades.
In a highly unusual move, senior diplomats from each of the 15 UN security council member states will travel to Bangladesh and Myanmar, starting on Saturday. The ambassadors will visit refugee camps in Bangladesh before meeting Aung San Suu Kyi and going by helicopter to Rakhine state, the centre of what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi’s allies are hoping she can convince the diplomats that an agreement on the introduction of UN organisations into Rakhine can help speed up the safe, voluntary return of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees in the Bangladeshi camps. The UN bodies could also monitor the situation and prevent a repeat of the violence that prompted the exodus.
Repatriation is becoming a matter of urgency, Aung San Suu Kyi’s allies concede, due to the imminent monsoon season. But the UN high commissioner for refugees has recently said conditions in Myanmar are not yet “conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees,” and said the responsibility remains with the government to change this. The refugees say they need assurances from Myanmar about concrete progress over their legal status, citizenship and security in Rakhine. A first step would be to ease restrictions on movement for the internally displaced people encamped in the central townships of Rakhine, which would also help build confidence among refugees in Bangladesh. Another urgent step is to repatriate the 6,000 or so refugees caught in the no man’s land of the “zero line,” a buffer zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The visiting ambassadors are likely to press Aung San Suu Kyi on the progress she is making in implementing the reforms proposed by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a body she established and which was chaired by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The commission’s report called for a review of Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on the minority group to prevent further violence.
The ambassadors, including the UK envoy to the UN, Karen Pierce, will visit Rakhine. They are likely to push for progress on the approximately 8,000 refugees who have said they want to return to northern Rakhine but have so far been prevented from doing so by the government. Pierce said it was “incredibly important” for the council to see the situation on the ground as it considered “what needs to be done next to help Myanmar develop as a modern political and economic entity.”
The election last month of Win Myint, a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, as president is seen as having strengthened her position. Myanmar’s constitution prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from being president as her children are foreign nationals, but she has been appointed state counsellor, a position above that of a president. Win is seen as a much more assertive figure than his predecessor. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing aid to those affected by the violence in Rakhine, said the Myanmar government was rebuilding villages and taking steps to allow the Rohingya to return. “But what we see is that people don’t yet trust that this will give them safety and security,” he said. “We are at the beginning of such a confidence-building process. It’s a very long way to go.” Aung San Suu Kyi has privately welcomed the decision of the UN secretary general, António Guterres, to appoint Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, Christine Schraner Burgener, as special envoy on Myanmar.
Credit: Patrick Wintour for The Guardian, 28 April 2018.