Veteran Burmese leader and state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is to head a high-level committee to address the ongoing concerns about peace and coexistence between the Buddhist majority and the effectively stateless Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.
The Central Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development was officially formed on 30 May, with 27 members, including ministers and permanent secretaries as well as Rakhine State chief minister U Nyi Pu. However, according to a Reuters report, “The announcement gave only the names of those on the committee and offered no details on how the group would address the state’s multitude of problems.”
Reuters also reported that Zaw Htay, a spokesman at the state counselor’s office, said that the committee would make a research trip to Arakan “very soon.” However, Zaw Htay did not provide details as to the trip’s date or whether Suu Kyi would join the delegation. The Irrawaddy noted that the committee’s purview includes forming subcommittees for two thematic areas: resettling internally displaced persons (IDPs) and social development, and coordinating the activities of UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations. This seems to indicate that there will be two underlying objectives in managing the Rohingya issue: addressing practical issues like resettlement and empowering or educating Rohingya communities, but also public relations management with foreign NGOs and media.
The Irrawaddy further described the current measures as a possible “change in tack” for Suu Kyi’s governing party the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as for Suu Kyi herself, who came under increased international scrutiny over the past year for what has been perceived as her relative reticence on the issue of helping Rohingya refugees stranded at sea while fleeing to neighboring countries. In May 2015, the Dalai Lama urged Aung San Suu Kyi to use her political capital to “do something” about the crisis.
On 22 May this year, the SCMP reported that Suu Kyi appealed for “enough space” to work out the underlying problems and said: “While we are trying to find that solution, we would like our friends to be helpful in this. That is very difficult, I’m not denying that, and if our well-wishers are not ready to cooperate with us, it will make our task that much more difficult.”
“What we want to do is avoid any terms that just add fuel to the fire,” she also said, likely referring to the fact that the term “Rohingya” does not refer to one of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. The previous ruling junta, according to Reuters, “referred to the group as Bengalis, insinuating that they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.” Nationalist organizations and anti-Rohingya groups, some of them led by Buddhist monks, have also denounced those using the term.
Arakan State is a coastal strip in west Myanmar, along the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in the country, particularly since 2012 and 2013, when 140,000 people (most of them Rohingya) were displaced by anti-Muslim violence. Most still remain in resettlement camps and have limited access to education, health care, and employment. Beyond the camps, the Buddhist majority and Rohingya live segregated lives. The Irrawaddy reports that the state has also suffered armed confrontation between the Arakan Army (an armed ethnic group) and the Burmese army over the past six months.
Lawmakers from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the Arakanese Buddhist majority, have urged the government to include the Arakan Army in any peace talks, but the Burmese military has insisted on defeating them by force. Further complicating matters, relations between the ANP and Suu Kyi’s NLD worsened this year, after a long period of nationalist rhetoric from the ANP about the NLD being sympathetic to Muslims. Meanwhile, the Central Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development does not include an ANP representative, which bodes for further tension and conflict over the Rohingya question in the future.