Humanitarian aid and press access into strife-torn northern Arakan State were the main pledges by Kofi Annan, the appointed head of the Arakan Commission, at a press conference today in Rangoon.
The commission held its second press conference today in Rangoon and told reporters that both issues had been discussed with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
“I encouraged him [the Commander-in-Chief] to open up, so humanitarian assistance can get in. I also suggested that press should be allowed to go in and do their jobs and establish the facts,” said the former UN secretary-general.
He explained that this transparent approach will help with eliminating some of the rumours that have circulated in recent weeks, and added: “I don’t think we should be worried about the facts.”
Following attacks on security forces by suspected Rohingya militants on 9 October, when nine police officers were killed, there has been a surge of conflict in northwestern Arakan State. Security forces are accused of committing extrajudicial killings and rapes, and burning down homes, charges the government has steadfastly denied. At least 86 lives have been lost since the violence flared in October.
Previously, Annan expressed “deep concern” over the violence. At today’s press conference, he added that it “underlines the importance and immediacy of the Commission’s task” in facilitating reconciliation between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The two communities have lived separately since hostilities erupted in 2012.
When asked if Burma is committing ethnic cleansing or genocide of the Rohingya population, Annan answered: “This is a very serious charge, a charge that requires legal review and judicial determination. It is not a charge that should be thrown around loosely.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto head of the Burmese government Aung San Suu Kyi has come under increasing pressure from the international community for her muted response to the plight of the Rohingyas.
In a statement released last week, the Malaysian foreign ministry called on the Burmese government to take “all the necessary actions to address the alleged ethnic cleansing in the northern Rakhine [Arakan] State.”
In response to Malaysia’s statement, commission member Dr Thar Hla Shwe interjected that “we will not tolerate discrimination on race or ethnicity or religion.”
Annan also echoed his earlier calls at the commission’s first press briefing, stressing the need for the international community to assist in the crisis.
Yesterday AFP reported that dozens of Rohingya are missing and feared drowned after an overpacked boat sank in a border river between Bangladesh and Burma. One survivor claimed that they were chased by a Burmese army speedboat.
The United Nations confirmed that 10,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since October this year.
Protests in Malaysia have been staged over the past two weeks condemning the crackdown on the Rohingyas. Protests were also held in the capitals of Thailand and Indonesia.
As well as denied citizenship, the Rohingya population face restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare.
Annan reasoned that if humanitarian assistance can be delivered to Syrians in the middle of a war zone, then it should be permitted delivery in Arakan State.
He also singled out Burma’s security forces and reminded them of their obligations to protect the state and protect civilian rights.
“Since 9/11, security forces of some governments felt that if you are dealing with civil liberties you have to curb civilians’ civil liberties. In my judgement there is no trade-off between security and civilians’ civil liberties,” he said.
Rights groups and international humanitarian aid organisations continue to face a blockade to many parts of northern Arakan. For four weeks, aid agencies such as World Food Programme (WFP) and UN refugee agency were unable to conduct needs assessments in the area. Although the government lifted its ban on aid deliveries in early November, access was only granted to four villages.
Arakan Commission members today said that they were encouraged on their recent visit to the region by the willingness for an open dialogue and the “cooperative spirit of the younger generation.”
Commission member Ghassan Salame added that he hoped the two communities could reconcile their past differences, and eventually return to the same schools, community centres and hospitals, thereby transforming Arakan State from a “headache” to a place “they can be proud of.”
The UN estimates that up to 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes since the outbreak of clashes in October.
The Commission, which was established in August, will publish its interim report early next year.