While many speakers that the UN General Assembly, particularly those from Muslim nations as diverse as Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, have called on the body to do more for the Muslims of the state of Rakhine in Myanmar, the people known as the Rohingya.
Yesterday, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went further calling for ‘safe zones’ inside Myanmar. However, the majority of her comments on foreign policy were a condemnation of Pakistan with references with the war of 1971 which saw East Pakistan breaking away and becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh.
However, few have examined what Myanmar has had to say. In general, Myanmar has been quiet on the subject, although not totally silent. One of the problems Myanmar has created for itself from the onset of the world turning its attention to the long-running Rohingya crisis, is that in an age of 24 hour news media, Myanmar has not been very adept at explaining its position.
By contrast, outside of Wahhabi and crypto-Wahhabi circles, most people have come to understand Syria’s noble position of fighting terrorism in order to preserve a multi-culture, tolerant, modern, secular, pluralistic society which lives up to the modern revolutionary ideals of Ba’athism.
This is partly because many individuals in Syria’s government are astute at speaking before international audiences and international reports. President Bashar al-Assad is eloquent and gentlemen even when discussing very difficult issues and Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s envoy to the UN, is scholarly and extremely well spoken in several languages, including English and his native Arabic.
In Myanmar by contrast, the public voice of leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi is largely a figurehead who has been expected to do things she has never prepared herself for. Without meaning the following as an insult, she attained her position more because of her lineage than because of any real achievements. Her period of “house arrest” was a generally placid affair compared for example to the jailing and torturing of Nelson Mandela by the racist former regime of South Africa.
So while not a classic freedom fighter like Mandela or Arafat, but also not a processional political speaker like Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad, her position has largely been one of sticking to the more mundane issues she has felt comfortable speaking about ever since she emerged as the Sate Counsellor of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s real power base, the Tatmadaw (military), has likewise not been adept at PR, just as for example the Greek military regime of Colonels (1967-1974) had equally bad PR problems.
This is deeply unfortunate however, because while Myanmar is miles away from the simple fight of good versus evil that one sees in Syria, it is also not a matter of a text-boook genocide such as the one currently taking place in Yemen where expensively armed Saudi armed forces are killing and starving civilians in Yemen while adding fuel to the flames of a civil crisis which prior to the Saudi invasion was political with sectarian overtones. Saudi has made the Yemen conflict into one that is sectarian with political overtones.
Another reason that explaining the Myanmar crisis isn’t easy is because few political leaders are telling the full complex truth, though many are telling bits of truth. It must be said that while the multifaceted and long running Civil War(s) in Myanmar are not a matter of non-Muslims killing Muslims in an ethnic cleansing, civilians are dying, including Muslims. Non-Muslim civilians, including Christians are dying as well. All of this should be condemned and it in fact was condemned by Myanmar.
In this sense, the sympathy felt by Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, parts of the Arab world and particularly by the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kydarov, should not be dismissed as “propaganda”.But neither is it true that the government is intentionally targeting civilians. ONe has to ask why would the government do such a thing? There is no logical answer in this context. It is also not true that jihadist style terrorists are not emended among the Rohingya.
With these realities in mind, here are the remarks on the subject, offered by Myanmar’s Vice President Henry Van Thio, before the UN General Assembly:
Yesterday, the State Counsellor briefed the Diplomatic Corps on the government’s efforts regarding national reconciliation and peace. She highlighted the achievements in the past 18 months and challenges that remain. In touching upon the situation in Rakhine, she said that Myanmar shares the concern of the international community regarding displacement and suffering of all communities affected by the latest round of terrorist attacks.
She also stressed that “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace, stability and rule of law throughout the State. The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the Code of Conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians. Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice. We feel deeply for suffering of all the people who have been caught up in the conflict.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The situation in Rakhine has been one of the top priorities of the government since it assumed office. The government has been endeavoring to restore peace and stability and to promote harmony among all communities. The Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State, chaired by the State Counsellor herself, was established on 30 May 2016 to address the specific needs of the State. Additionally in August 2016, she set up a commission headed by Dr. Kofi Annan to advice the government on sustainable solutions to the complex situation in Rakhine.
We have been striving to ensure that the Rakhine State is duly developed while
ensuring peace, stability and societal cohesion. This is no easy task. Deep mistrust developed over decades has to be slowly chiseled away.
On 24 August 2017, the Kofi Annan Commission released its final report. Our government immediately welcomed it.
We had hoped that today’s occasion would be an opportunity for us to
communicate to the world the progress that we have made towards implementing the Commission’s recommendations.
It is therefore with deep regret that instead, I must primarily address you on the
current state of affairs in Rakhine State, following the recent attacks by the terrorist
group known as ARSA (the terrorist group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) last month.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As you are aware, within hours of the release of the Advisory Commission’s report,
a series of coordinated attacks were carried out on 30 police outposts in Northern Rakhine. The ARSA claimed responsibility for the attacks. These attacks ignited fresh violence in the region, resulting insignificant loss of life, widespread suffering and mass displacement of all communities.
Those who have had to abandon their hearth and home are many – not just Muslim
and Rakhine, but also small minority groups such as Daingnet, Mro, Thet, Mramagyi
and Hindus. Most of the world has been oblivious of their existence and plight.
Let me be clear. The government of Myanmar is deeply concerned about the
present situation in Rakhine. Our deepest sympathy goes to the families of all innocent
civilians and members of the police and security forces who have lost their lives. There
is no denying that this is a problem of significant magnitude.
I am happy to inform you that the situation has improved. No armed clashes have been reported since 5 September. Accordingly, we are concerned by reports that the numbers of Muslims crossing into Bangladesh remain unabated. We would need to find out the reason for this exodus. What is little known is that the great majority of the Muslim population decided to remain in their villages.
We share the need to ensure that vital humanitarian assistance is provided to all those in need.
Moreover, we acknowledge that the duty to respond to the challenges in Rakhine
State is first and foremost the duty of our national government. The situation in
Rakhine is complex. The challenges we face are significant. We have accordingly
adopted an integrated national strategy to address this problem.
I am pleased to announce the launch of a committee chaired by the Union Minister
of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to implement the recommendations of the
Advisory Commission. To ensure transparency and accountability, the Committee is
mandated to publicly issue a progress report every four months. In addition to the
Committee, we intend to establish an Advisory Board comprised of eminent persons
from both Myanmar and abroad.
At present, humanitarian assistance is our first priority. We are committed to
ensuring that aid is received by all those in need, without discrimination. We have
already dedicated significant national funds and resources to humanitarian relief
I am also pleased to inform you that a new government-led mechanism, established
in cooperation with the Red Cross Movement, has also started its humanitarian
On behalf of the government of Myanmar, I would like to express my gratitude to
all those countries who have offered to contribute towards this assistance programme.
In particular, we are grateful for the generous offers of support that we have recently
received from many of our friends across the world.
At the same time, we are working hard to enhance relations with Bangladesh. The
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and the National Security Advisor visited
Bangladesh in January and July of this year. We were hoping for a visit from the Home
Minister of Bangladesh but it had to be postponed as the Minister could not come in
August. We will welcome him at any time that he is able to come and hope to take
forward our cooperation on border security matters.
There has been a call for the repatriation of displaced people who have recently fled
from northern Rakhine to Bangladesh. The State Counsellor in her speech yesterday
stated that Myanmar was prepared to start the verification process at anytime. Our two
neighbors have had the experience of such a process in 1993 through the establishment
of a joint working group for implementation of repatriation process. We can develop a
process based on the experience of 1993.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Myanmar stands together with the rest of the world in condemning terrorism in all
its forms and manifestations. Terrorism constitutes one of the most serious threats to
international peace and security. Our position is clear. We cannot condone terrorism.
At the same time, the government is working to ensure that acts of terrorism will
not distract us from pursuing the long term strategy that is necessary to address the
complex challenges in Rakhine State today.
The recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission provide us with a
clear roadmap. Our implementation Committee began its work last week and in due
course we will be inviting observers to witness some of our programmes.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The recent events in Rakhine State are a painful reminder that we face difficult
challenges ahead on the long journey towards peace, prosperity and democracy.
However, please allow me to reiterate this: our commitment to peace remains as
strong and as unwavering today as it was one year ago when our State Counsellor,
DawAung San SuuKyi, first addressed you from this podium.
As part of this commitment, we have made the national reconciliation and peace
process our top priority. Our vision here is clear: to achieve a democratic, federal
Union, based on the principles of freedom, justice, equal rights and self-determination.
With regard to the peace process in the country, I am pleased to inform you that in
May this year, we successfully held the second session of our Union Peace Conference.
For the first time, we were able to discuss and define key principles that will form the
basis of a federal, democratic Union. The Union Accord, consisting of thirty-seven
principles covering the political, economic, social and environmental sectors was
signed by representatives of the government, the parliament, the military, ethnic armed
organizations and political parties.
Although we have made real progress, we know that the road ahead is long and
convoluted. Our democratic transition is fragile. At this important juncture in our
nation’s history, we only ask that the international community continues to support our
efforts to achieve peace, prosperity and democracy.
The remarks by Myanmar’s Vice President constitute the most throughout explanation of the government’s position to-date.
The danger however, is that the statement might be drowned out by both the well-meaning and devious voices who have taken on board, a more simplistic explanation of the crisis. India, which seeks to use its support of Myanmar towards its own economic gain, is employing an exploitative tactic which is ultimately unhelpful, especially when one accounts for the deeply discriminatory policies against minorities which has become a feature of the current Indian government.
What will therefore become necessary is for Myanmar to borrow a page from Syria’s book and internationalise the conflict on a limited basis and more importantly, on Myanmar’s own terms. The fact that Syria invited Iran, Russia and Hezbollah into the conflict to help fight terrorism, has meant that there is increasingly little room for others to get in the way. This has helped Syria preserve her sovereignty and end the crisis on terms set by Syria, not foreign actors.
Myanmar could and should work on putting together a regional peace keeping initiative (certainly not a military contingent) made up various nations. China and Russia come to mind and as a Muslim nation of South East Asia, Indonesia could also help assist, if the terms agreed to met various preconditions on all sides.
The danger for Myanmar is that if the issue is internationalised by Myanmar’s enemies, it could put Myanmar’s territorial integrity into danger. It could also lead to terrorist groups in Rakhine receiving additional arms both through a misunderstanding of their role and due to the fact that some international players, want to purposefully inflame the situation for their own perceived gains.
The statement Myanmar’s Vice President delivered before the UN is actually a very good start, but unless Myanmar continues to positively engage with her allies and the United Nations, there could be a slippery slope for a country that many seek to destabilise, not because of real sympathies with any one faction in the Civil War, but because of Myanmar’s strategic importance for China.