Former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, head of the Advisory Board to the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, appointed by Burma’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, discusses the challenges of his new role.
Why did you decide to accept the role as the chairman of the advisory board despite the tough challenges ahead?
I met Aung San Suu Kyi on 9 August last year in my capacity as the chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC). At first, we discussed the South China Sea issue and then reconciliation in Rakhine State, where problems are taking place.
An advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan then delivered its report with recommendations which included the formation of a ministerial-level committee, while Ms. Suu Kyi also wanted to appoint an advisory board comprising international experts and Myanmar’s high-level officials to advise on how to implement the recommendations of the Annan-led commission.
The Annan panel came up with 16 recommendations which include education, fostering good relations with Bangladesh and ASEAN and public health for migrants. The Myanmar government agreed with the panel, but the Myanmar military did not. She wanted to know how the recommendations should be implemented, how the conflict can be eased and how the international community should be involved. We are not a fact-finding mission.
For me, it’s about peace efforts. I am pleased to devote my time and put my experience to use. So I thought I should accept and get to work. We have a one-year mandate and it can be renewed for one more year. We cannot solve all the problems. We can only give advice on how to implement the recommendations of the Annan panel.
Ms. Suu Kyi gives the advisory board a free hand. She never interferes or tells us not to speak about this or that issue to the international community. We are not a spokesman for the Myanmar government. Most importantly, Ms. Suu Kyi met the 10 people in person to invite them to join the advisory panel.
Until now, do you still believe Ms. Suu Kyi is sincere and determined to solve the violence in Rakhine State?
I can see Ms. Suu Kyi’s sincerity and determination. But she still has constraints. This is because she has no control of military affairs. If clashes or fighting occurs, she has no authority and cannot give any orders. The defence minister, the minister of border affairs and the minister of home affairs in her cabinet were all appointed by the military.
It is good for Ms. Suu Kyi to decide to work with all stakeholders in Myanmar to solve the problem. She wants to work with government officials, the military, police and all ethnic minority groups to tackle the problem in Rakhine State.
I think that if she did not work with all parties involved, everything would go back to square one. Ms. Suu Kyi still represents hope … I don’t want to pinpoint who is right or wrong, but there is a big gap between the international and Myanmar government narratives of the situation in Rakhine.
The advisory board wants to find ways to narrow the gap and this requires an understanding of the international community and a dialogue with the UN.
We cannot decide whose narrative is correct or incorrect. But we focus on how to bring together the Myanmar government, the Myanmar military and ASEAN for more interaction.
We offer advice with an emphasis on the importance of wider media access to all affected areas in Rakhine State. The board also recommends that the UN agencies participate very closely and maintain close consultation, rather than set its own agenda.
Do people think you have changed since you began work for Ms. Suu Kyi?
I think it depends on how people see it. I don’t feel any worse. We have to put our experience to good use, not work for the limelight. There’s no desire for recognition, no ladder to climb. This conflict cannot be solved in one year, but we need to work with an open mind and it is up to the Myanmar government to decide how much of our advice it will follow.
While the APRC focuses on Rakhine State, we also met many other ethnic groups. We talked to the media from the West. I met for talks with diplomats from several Western countries. This shows the issue is important and gains attention from the international community.
Also, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Singapore on 6 February welcomed the establishment of the advisory board. Mr. Annan also believed that ASEAN should be engaged in the matter. We have met with all stakeholders as well as the NGOs. We also wanted to meet with Singapore’s foreign minister … I think ASEAN can provide humanitarian assistance and Singapore should help Rakhine State by advising on how to bring about harmony and a peaceful co-existence between people holding various religious beliefs.
Singapore is the biggest investor in Myamnar. ASEAN should also think of ways to invite ASEAN businessmen to help Rakhine State, which is badly in need of electricity and irrigation systems. It has the potential for tourism but its roads are in poor condition and ASEAN can help it increase agricultural output too.
How do the displaced persons feel about their safety if they are to be resettled in Myanmar? How will the board advise on the matter?
I think the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] should at the early stage take part in the various stages of return and resettlement. The International Committee of the Red Cross may be allowed to enter. ASEAN should play a role in giving reassurances that the displaced people will return safely. But if everything is done and they still don’t want to return, it will be the responsibility of all sides.
Regarding the claim that our advisory board was set up to whitewash the alleged crimes by the Myanmar government, this is not true. Our advice to the implementation committee is not what the Myanmar government said.
We do not know yet what the Myanmar government thinks of our advice, which was a press release [on 25 January]. We asked that the media be also informed of the advice.
It is initial advice which reflects what observations we have.
This interview was first published by the Bangkok Post here.