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August 24, 2016

Geneva – At the request of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Su Kyi, Kofi Annan will chair an advisory commission on Rakhine State. The overall objective of the Commission, which will be assisted by the Kofi Annan Foundation, is to provide recommendations on the complex challenges facing Rakhine.

The Commission will initiate a dialogue with political and community leaders in Rakhine with the aim of proposing measures to improve the well-being of all the people of the State.

In its work, the Commission will consider humanitarian and developmental issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine.

It will submit its final report and recommendations to the Myanmar government in the second half of 2017.

“I am pleased to support the national efforts to promote peace, reconciliation and development in Rakhine”, Mr Annan said. “I look forward to listening to the leaders and people of Rakhine and to working with the State and central authorities to ensure a more secure and prosperous future for all.”

The Commission will convene for the first time on Monday, 5 September 2016 in Yangon, Myanmar.

The commissioners are:
  • Kofi Annan (Chair), Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation, Secretary General of the United Nations (1997 – 2006), Nobel Peace Laureate (2001)
  • Mr U Win Mra, Chair of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission,
  • Dr Thar Hla Shwe, President of the Myanmar Red Cross Society
  • Mr Ghassan Salamé, Lebanese Minister of Culture (2000-2003), UN Special Advisor to Secretary General (2003-2006)
  • Ms Laetitia van den Assum, Special Advisor to the UNAIDS (2005-2006), the Netherlands’ Ambassador to the United Kingdom (2012-2015)
  • Mr U Aye Lwin, Core Member and Founder of Religions for Peace, Myanmar
  • Dr Mya Thida, President of Obstetrical and Gynecological Society of Myanmar Medical Association, Member of the Myanmar Academy of Medical Science
  • Mr U Khin Maung Lay, Member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
  • Ms Daw Saw Khin Tint, Chairperson (Rakhine Literature and Culture Association, Yangon) and Vice-Chairperson (Rakhine Women Association)

NLD central committee member and spokesperson U Win Htein. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

By Kyaw Hsu Mon
August 24, 2016

RANGOON — For the second time this year, National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesperson U Win Htein lashed out at a reporter, who was enquiring about an anticipated cabinet reshuffle, repeatedly calling him sauk yū [“deranged”].

On Wednesday, the Ludu Pone Yeik [People’s Image] weekly news journal featured the exchange between U Win Htein and one of their reporters, and the use of the offensive term, on its front page.

“What am I supposed to say?” U Win Htein responded to the reporter’s questions over the phone. “Sauk yū, sauk yū, you are sauk yū to ask me that.”

When the reporter pressed on, citing recent speculation over a cabinet reshuffle, U Win Htein repeated the offensive term. He used it six times in total during the exchange, according to the journal’s coverage.

Sai Wunna, the reporter who had attempted to interview U Win Htein, told The Irrawaddy that the exchange took place over the phone on Monday evening. He had made a voice recording to prove it.

“He sometime talks to the media about the government, that’s why I asked him,” he said, stating that the extract quoted in the journal was verbatim and unedited.

News of Win Htein’s verbal abuse spread on social media, attracting criticism of the NLD’s treatment of, and degree of openness to, the independent media.

Sein Win, director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, said that, as the ruling party’s senior spokesperson, U Win Htein should not respond so harshly to the media.

“He has the right to say that he doesn’t want to answer, or that it is not his responsibility to do so, but this could seriously tarnish the party’s image,” he said.

“Politicians and journalists are not enemies; it’s important that they have smooth relations with one another,” he said.

In early January, before the formal handover of power to the NLD government, U Win Htein chastised a Radio Free Asia reporter.

At the end of an interview focused on the NLD’s potential presidential candidate—which the party was reluctant to reveal—the reporter thanked the senior NLD officer. U Win Htein retorted, “Don’t thank me. Think seriously before you ask me questions.”

U Ye Htut, a former information minister and spokesperson to Burma’s previous president U Thein Sein, told The Irrawaddy that the NLD was in danger of taking its widespread support in the private media for granted.

“The NLD may think that the media will always support them, and therefore disregard them. If they have such a view […] they will have trouble in the long run,” he said.

He said that the NLD should learn from public relations mistakes made by the previous military-backed government—which, despite support in state media, did not enjoy the endorsement of Burma’s burgeoning private media.

He cited the need for “mutual respect” in the government’s relations with the media, based on “ethics”: they need to “understand the nature of journalists’ work” and “show no anger during interviews.”

Myanmar's new president Htin Kyaw (L) and outgoing president Thein Sein (R) shake hands during the handover-of-power ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

August 23, 2016

Myanmar’s main opposition party elected members to new key positions on Tuesday, displacing ex-president Thein Sein as chairman of the former ruling party in a strategic reorganization before by-elections early next year.

Party members elected 237 central members and 38 central executive committee (CEC), representatives during a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) conference at its headquarters in the capital Naypyidaw, said USDP spokesman Khin Ye.

Than Htay, a retired brigadier-general and former minister of rail transport and of energy, replaced Thein Sein as party chairman, he said.

Nine leaders from the military-backed USDP, including Thein Sein and vice chairman Htay Oo, now serve as members of the party’s CEC, he said.

Others newly elected to party positions include former air force commander Myat Hein as vice-chairman, Thet Naing Win as general secretary, Khin Ye as disciplinary officer, and Soe Naing as head of operations, Khin Ye said.

New leaders have also been elected for all state and regional USDP branches.

Before stepping down, Thein Sein called for a reassessment of the 2015 general election results and party reform at all levels, emphasizing interparty consolidation, the revival of democracy within the party, and working with the new generation of USDP members, according to a report on Monday by China’s Xinhua news agency.

Khin Ye indicated that more changes are still to come.

“The party’s future agendas will be decided tomorrow, the last day of the conference,” he said.

Preparing for by-elections

The changes come as Myanmar election officials announced Monday that by-elections to fill vacant seats in parliament will be held in January 2017 and national elections three years later.

“We heard that there are 13 seats to contest in the by-elections,” Khin Ye said. “The USDP will contest them.”

The USDP, which was in power from 2011 to 2016, lost by a landslide to the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in general elections last November.

Earlier this year, the NLD’s Htin Kyaw became president, and NLD party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed state counselor—a new position designed to give her considerable influence in the executive and legislative branches and make her Myanmar’s de facto national leader.

Laws passed earlier by the military made her ineligible for the presidency because her sons do not hold Myanmar citizenship.

Aung San Suu Kyi also holds the positions of foreign minister, minister of the President’s Office, and chairwoman of the government’s peace negotiation arm, the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, as part of goal to forge lasting peace and national reconciliation in the country after decades of ethnic separatist civil wars.

The USDP grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an organization created by the former military junta that ruled Myanmar for 50 years.

The party won nearly 80 percent of the seats contested in the upper and lower houses of parliament during general elections in 2010, the results of which western countries considered fraudulent.

Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

August 23, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar — Officials in Myanmar say United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend a peace conference next week that seeks to end decades of armed conflict with ethnic minority groups.

The U.N. is expected to soon confirm Ban’s attendance at the conference, which begins Aug. 31 in the capital, Naypyidaw.

The deputy director of the President’s Office, Zaw Htay, said Tuesday the government invited Ban to what is informally dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference after he expressed an interest in attending. The plans were confirmed by Sai Kyaw Nyunt, general secretary of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which is organizing the event.

“Ban Ki-moon will come to represent the U.N.,” he said.

It will be Ban’s first visit to Myanmar since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party replaced an army-backed government in March this year. His last visit was in November 2014.

Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, chairs the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, which includes representatives of the government, ethnic armed groups and political parties. She has issued a call for mutual trust and unity ahead of the meeting.

Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, arranged the first Panglong Agreement with ethnic minority groups in 1947. It sought to meet their demands for more autonomy from the central government, but broke down following Aung San’s assassination shortly afterward. Conflict with armed ethnic minority groups has been an almost constant factor of Myanmar’s politics since then.

Eight smaller ethnic groups signed a cease-fire agreement last year under the previous military-backed government of President Thein Sein, while seven have not yet agreed to put down their arms, and fighting continues in Kachin and Shan states. All the groups say peace cannot be sustained unless political arrangements are also made to accommodate demands for greater autonomy.


By Pankaj Mishra
August 23, 2016

Yangon is suddenly a city of phablets. Nowhere in Asia, let alone Europe, have I seen so many supersized smartphones in public spaces, and with such egalitarian appeal: Pavement vendors selling early 20th century British guides to English grammar seem as transfixed by them as Yangon's smart set playing Pokemon Go.

For many in an isolated country, a 4G smartphone is their first taste of modern consumer luxury. Its proliferation, in a country where a SIM card once cost more than $2,000, seems an example of "leapfrog development," in which economically backward countries take quick shortcuts to modernization and urbanization.

Of course, in Myanmar as elsewhere, inexpensive Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo make it easier to project an appearance of affluence and entrepreneurial dynamism. A poster dubiously advertising, "Rolex -- Opening Soon" at a construction site in Yangon’s crumbling downtown is a good reminder of the limitations of a consumer revolution in an overwhelmingly poor country.

Myanmar’s GDP may be growing at more than 8 percent. But the economic challenges in this country, where 70 percent of the population is employed in low-yield agriculture, are rendered formidable by crumbling and non-existent infrastructure, archaic laws, unskilled workers, low tax revenues, budget deficits and high inflation. Long power cuts, housing shortages and gridlock traffic still define everyday life for city-dwellers. Debt crushes many in the rural population.

Far from leapfrogging, Myanmar, recently liberated, and only partially, from military rule, is inching up a steep learning curve under its first elected government in more than 50 years. Its first experiment in self-rule ended, like that of many multi-ethnic and poorly imagined nation-states in Asia and Africa, in civil war, the empowerment of the military and eventually a coup in 1962. The outcome of its second experiment still depends a great deal on how Myanmar’s new leaders deal with the country’s restive minorities.

Certainly, their agenda is full. Last week the headline in one of Myanmar’s English dailies read: "FM crams for China visit." It referred to Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds the office of "state counsellor" and foreign minister (and several other portfolios in an attempt to circumvent the constitutional bar on her becoming president). Suu Kyi was visiting China in her first major foray outside Southeast Asia after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was elected to power four months ago. Her biggest challenges, however, are at home.

Of Myanmar’s numerous sectarian conflicts, none has challenged her moral authority as much as rising anti-Muslim sentiments have. In 1982, Myanmar’s military rulers stripped the Muslim population in the western state of Rakhine of citizenship, despite their centuries-long presence in the region. More recently, while transitioning from military to civilian rule, Myanmar has witnessed an explosion of hatred, not only in Rakhine, where in 2012 mobs killed scores of Rohingya Muslims and drove more than 100,000 from their homes, but also in other parts of the country.

The advent of electoral democracy this year and the empowerment of an international icon like Suu Kyi don't necessarily presage a change in the circumstances of besieged minorities. Even the Dalai Lama has expressed his disappointment with Suu Kyi’s less-than-Buddhist silence over the plight of Rohingya Muslims.

Sporadic mob violence continues to drive Muslims into refugee camps, or onto rickety boats sailing for Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia -- perilous journeys with extortionate human-traffickers that rarely end well. I met the daughter of a former legislator in Rakhine who now languishes in a refugee camp near his old house in Sittwe. She had herself escaped Rakhine after bribing an immigration officer. Like many others, she was increasingly pessimistic about Suu Kyi’s capacity or willingness to resolve the issue.

Certainly, Suu Kyi, though widely popular in Myanmar, must move cautiously through a thicket of aggressive claims and counter-claims. Democratization is far from a benign process, as Iraq, Egypt and Turkey have most recently shown; the merest semblance of political freedom releases many toxic fantasies forged in the furnace of despotism.

In Myanmar, too, unleashed passions have been exacerbated by global economic and cultural forces. Realigning political identities, they've encouraged such patent incongruities as "militant" Buddhism, which thrives on widespread anti-Muslim sentiment.

The fluidity of the country’s situation contains both promise and danger; it calls for both moral leadership and political pragmatism. While a return to military rule might seem inconceivable at this point, excessive centralization by heavy-handed civilian leaders can also breed sectarian passions in a multi-ethnic country like Myanmar. The best way to forestall them would be to accommodate, as Indonesia did, the country’s many sub-nationalisms through greater autonomy and federalism.

Suu Kyi was an exemplary political prisoner, brave and principled. She now has to set a very different example for her fledgling democracy by using power wisely -- or, in other words, sharing it broadly.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.” 

By Faisal Kutty
The Express Tribune
August 22, 2016

“It is not the United Nations,” said Ashin Wirathu, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Indeed according to Wirathu, a Buddhist monk dubbed by Time magazine the “The Face of Buddhist Terror”, even US President Barack Obama was duped by Muslims, and this is the reason why he spoke in defence of Rohingya rights during his visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 2014.

In fact, Wirathu believes that the conspiracy to defame Buddhists and Myanmar is even broader, because the world’s news media are also controlled by Islamic extremists. In his mind, this is why many media outlets have called him out on his hate. “They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” says Ashin Wirathu.

Human rights groups claim that Wirathu and his radical organisation, called 969, are the main forces behind sectarian riots that have killed scores and displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya (a million-strong ethnic Muslim minority living among more than 50 million Buddhists) since 2012. Over the last few years, entire villages inhabited by the Rohingya have been razed or forcibly displaced with scant global attention.

Disturbingly, evidence suggests he has significant support within the country and even the acquiescence of the government. In fact, decades before Wirathu, described by some as the “Buddhist Bin Laden”, came on the scene, the government had set in place policies to render the Rohingya an oppressed group.

Global reaction appears to be too little, but hopefully not too late. Some attribute the hesitation on disbelief about the religious identity of the perpetrators. “In the reckoning of religious extremism — Hindu nationalists, Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews — Buddhism has largely escaped trial,” noted Timemagazine more than three years ago. But as the cover story went on to note, “Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.”

As with most violence attributed to religious causes, the nuances of political and social influences are mostly minimised. In any event, whatever the impetus, their victims are real.

Last month, the European Parliament became the latest international body to highlight what it termed the “brutal repression” and “systematic persecution” of this group. The Resolution also noted that the Rohingya are “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”.

Around the same time, the US State Department downgraded Myanmar to Tier 3 (lowest) on its closely watched annual Trafficking in Persons report, which examines 188 governments’ efforts in combating modern-day slavery. Rights groups welcomed it as long overdue.

A few weeks before that, a Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights issued a report calling on Canada to take note. The recommendations include reassessing the effectiveness of economic sanctions targeted against the military, Naypyidaw repealing discriminatory laws, restoration of full citizenship and rights to stateless persons, and calling on the government to allow humanitarian groups unrestricted access.

The Subcommittee report notes: “The extent of the Buddhist nationalists’ political influence was exemplified by the previous Myanmar (formerly Burma) government’s decision to ban the Rohingya from voting and running for elected office in the 2015 elections.” The report titled “Sentenced to a Slow Demise: The Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority” highlights the predicament of the more than a million-strong ethnic minority at the hands of Buddhist extremists with official complacency and impunity.

The International State Crime Initiative at the University of London released a report in November 2015 stating that the Rohingya now face the final stages of state-sponsored genocide. While most shy away from the term genocide, rights groups, include Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations have all suggested that the pogroms may amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

While debate rages about whether they are indigenous to Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state or migrants from Bangladesh, the undisputed fact is that they have inhabited Myanmar for hundreds of years. Indeed, a British survey confirmed a population of 58,255 in just the state of Arakan dating back to 1891. Today they number 4,000 in a ghetto in the capital of Rakhine state.

Due to repressive government initiatives (denial of citizenship, forced labour, sexual assault, a restrictive two-child policy, etc.) and hate from fellow countrymen, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. According to Matthew Smith, executive director of human rights group Fortify Rights, 150,000 live in ghettos which are essentially internal displacement camps, while 500,000 who sought asylum in Bangladesh live in squalor. The Dhaka government strapped with its own problems has refused to allow comprehensive aid or resettlement initiatives.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights wrote in 2015: “The longstanding persecution of Rohingya has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea [in the region] since the US war in Vietnam.”

As if to assist the efforts of Wirathu and those of his ilk to single out victims, Myanmar banned its officials from referring to the oppressed minority as Rohingya, instead insisting they be called “people who believe in Islam”.

Four months after democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi wrested power from the military in national elections, calls to end the mistreatment of the Rohingya have been ignored. In fact, the Nobel Laureate also refuses to use the name ‘Rohingya’, because they are not considered citizens of Myanmar. More disturbingly, she revealed her own prejudice when after a heated interview with a BBC reporter, Mishal Husain, she was reportedly heard to say angrily, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”

The question of Myanmar is about more than democratisation, it should also be about ensuring protection, fairness, and justice for all of its people. The plight of the Rohingya is inhumane. It is high time for donors to leverage their aid, and for the broader international community to pressure the Suu Kyi government to end the repression. It is well past the time to demand that Myanmar respect international law, end its complicity in violating Rohingya rights and punish those promoting and carrying out ethnic cleansing whatever their motivation.

The writer is counsel to KSM Law, an associate professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. He tweets @faisalkutty

RB News
August 19, 2016

Sittwe, Arakan – According to the local residents in Sittwe, the capital city of Arakan State, Rizwana (daughter of Yakub, Aged 25) was believed to have been gang-raped by soldiers of Myanmar Army’s Artillery in Sittwe. 

On Tuesday, 16th August 2016, she was taken to the Artillery cantonment by a group of soldiers while she was on her way to Thet Kay Pyin village from Lat-Ma-Shay village. On 17th August 2016 early morning, Rizwana was discarded near the cantonment, and soldiers informed the village chairman of Thet Kay Pyin that they have found a Muslim lady nearby their cantonment and asked the village chairman to take her. 

The village chairman went there and took her to the rural clinic in Thet Kay Pyin while she was unconscious and injured. She was given some medical treatment after arriving at the clinic but she died at 7pm on that day. 

Today (19th August 2016) the security personnel at Thet Kay Pyin clinic asked the village chairman U Hla Myint to find any of relatives of the victim, Rizwana. The chairman was connected with an Aunt of the victim while searching intensely for a victim to hand over the dead body from the clinic, as it was ordered by the security personnel. Her dead body was taken from the clinic by her Aunt at 10am today and she was buried at Latt-Ma-Shay village cemetery at 2:30pm after Friday congregational prayer. 

Her body didn't receive any post-mortem examination. 

According to sources familiar with the area, she is originally from Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe. Her mother, brother and herself left for Bawdufah camp after her father passed away in 2013. They then faced several crises inside the ghetto. After arriving to the camp, her mother and brother left for Malaysia by boat and she had struggled alone. Since she became alone she worked at houses to wash clothes inside her camp weekly for 3-4 days in Thet Kay Pyin. 

A reliable source said that Rizwana was detained by the soldiers on Tuesday while she was going to Thet Kay Pyin. An eyewitness stated that she saw bleeding around the private parts of the victim while she was at the clinic. 

Many believe that she was gang-raped until unconscious and thrown away. 

No medical report has been released by the doctor at Thet Kay Pyin and there won’t be justice for this Rohingya woman. 

Additional reporting by Peace Muhammad Arkani.


By Mayyu Ali (MYARF)
RB Poem
August 19, 2016

Some say Rohingyas are Bengalis 
Who came from Bangladesh.
Some say Rohingyas are Kalars
Who immigrated illegally.
Some say Rohingyas are no ethnic group in Myanmar
Who included in history.
Ah! What a man can make a pure heart in worldly life!
It's your man-made of heart'
Afraid of affirming
That doesn't learn to let for truth
And it's your double-life of soul'
Afraid of dying
That doesn't learn to live in peace
Verily, this makes you trembling the muscle of your cheek,
Whenever you see me.
Why of a long-term of gaffe that you take to your heart!
Indeed, neither it's your innate faulty
Nor my everlasting doom.
Our time goes so fast.
Firstly, do change yourself
Then the world would be, too.
Common! Oh, my state-siblings,
Just drop the rope of ignorance.
And hang on the aft of truth.
Let's count on once!
In the winter,
For the beneath
The bitter snow lies the seed
When that's with the sun's love
And in the spring,
It becomes a truth for you.
Then, you'd have your scrupulousness again
Just to confess your heart-word of
"I'm a Rohingya."
"I'm a Rohingya."
"I'm a Rohingya."
“For Sale” protest posters have been pasted to the outside of houses and businesses owned by Buddhist Arakanese in Buthidaung, northern Arakan State. (Photo: Aung Ko Ko)

By Moe Myint
The Irrawaddy
August 18, 2016

RANGOON — Thirty-one Muslims who applied as “Bengali” have been recommended for citizenship by a verification committee in Buthidaung Township of northern Arakan State, the head of the immigration department for Maungdaw District Than Shwe told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

This has already prompted fury from local Buddhist Arakanese, who launched a poster campaign on Wednesday.

Than Shwe said that only “two or three” had been recommended for “full” citizenship; the remainder were recommended for “naturalized” citizenship. Their applications have been passed to the state-level committee on citizenship verification, which will make the final decisions on eligibility.

The 1982 Citizenship Law outlines three tiers of citizenship, with diminishing rights: full, naturalized and associate. Those holding the latter two categories are denied certain rights, including the right to be elected to political office. They are also vulnerable to having their citizenship revoked by the government under vague pretexts, including “showing disaffection or disloyalty to the state.”

However, most of the more than 1 million Muslims in Arakan State that identify as Rohingya—around a third of the state’s population, and forming the large majority in the northern two townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung—are denied any form of citizenship. Buddhist Arakanese insist that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and refer to them as “Bengali.” The 1982 law places significant barriers to citizenship for those, such as the Rohingya, who are excluded from the list of 135 officially recognized ethnicities.

After anti-Muslim violence wracked the state in 2012 and 2013, an “Action Plan” for Arakan State was introduced in 2014 under former President Thein Sein. Included was a citizenship verification drive aimed at stateless Muslims in Arakan State—some of whom have other ethnic affiliations, such as the Kaman, an officially recognized group. A significant catch was that those identifying as Rohingya would be compelled to state their ethnicity as “Bengali” in their application papers, or not be considered at all.

The drive has met delays due to anger from local Buddhist Arakanese. In the middle of last year, the applications of the 31 Muslims in Buthidaung Township were put on hold after protests from Arakanese locals. The new National League for Democracy government, installed in April, has chosen to push on with citizenship verification in June, as part of its “100-day plan.” It appears that the requirement to identify as “Bengali” has not been changed under the new government.

Than Shwe told The Irrawaddy, “We just recommended those who are eligible and will wait for the decision of the [state-level committee], which includes five ministers in the Arakan State government. We have no right to issue [citizenship] cards to them ourselves.”

Than Shwe confirmed that their recommendations had been delivered the previous week, and that all applicants had consented to identify in the documentation as “Bengali.”

News of the citizenship recommendations quickly reached the ears of the Buddhist Arakanese community. On Wednesday, about 400 Arakanese residents of Buthidaung gathered at the local Aye Zedi monastery and decided to launch a poster campaign against the recommendations. They also read out the names of those on the township verification committee and denounced them.

Local Buddhist Arakanese residents—who number a small minority in Buthidaung Township—put “For Sale” posters [pictured] at the front of their homes and businesses, to suggest that they would leave the township if ineligible “Bengalis” started being recognized as citizens, against what they felt was growing Muslim domination of northern Arakan State, which has led to a rise in land disputes and crime, they claim.

An Arakanese community organizer, Zaw Win, told The Irrawaddy over the phone that, if the committee had properly adhered to the 1982 Citizenship Law, there would be no objections from the “native” Arakanese community. He cited a grievance that two “respected men” from the local Arakanese community, who were included in the committee under the previous government, had not been been reinstated.

“We strongly condemn the erroneous action of the committee”, said Zaw Win, regarding the citizenship recommendations.

Arakan National Party secretary Tun Aung Kyaw told The Irrawaddy that the party had requested a meeting with the Arakan State government to discuss the objections from the Arakanese residents of Buthidaung, but had received no response as of Wednesday.

He said, “We basically agree with giving out naturalized or associate citizenship in accordance with the 1982 law, but the government should not restrict [recipients] to Arakan State, but give them freedom of movement, including freedom to travel to other parts of the country.”

He explained that the Arakanese community was advocating for strict adherence to the 1982 Citizenship Law because, if the government gave out citizenship “recklessly,” a large proportion of the state’s population would suddenly be given voting rights—causing the dominance of the Arakan National Party to “disappear.”

“Think about what would be happen if one million people got the right to vote in this state. We are deeply concerned about it,” said Tun Aung Kyaw.

The majority of Muslim residents of Arakan State that are without citizenship were barred from voting in the 2015 general election, although these communities participated in all previous elections in Burma, including as “temporary” citizens. Naturalized and associate citizens still retain the right to vote.

Media Release from Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK)

For Immediate Release Thursday 18th August 2016

NLD Government Must Lift All Aid Restrictions in Arakan State

Tomorrow, Friday afternoon Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK is organizing a demonstration in front of Burmese Embassy in London as part of a global day of action being organised by the US based Burma Task Force. Demonstrations are also being held in Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and Stockholm. Rohingya organisations in more than 10 European countries are supporting the day of action, along with other organizations including Burma Campaign UK, Burmese Muslim Association UK and others. 

Four months after coming to power, the NLD led government has still not lifted severe restrictions on humanitarian aid delivery in Rakhine State. Government restrictions on aid are causing death and suffering for Rohingya and Kaman people living in squalid camps after being forced from their homes in 2012. Ethnic Rakhine, Rohingya, Kaman and all people in the State suffer because of the restrictions.

Since increased violence and repression in 2012,Rohingya people have faced a worsening humanitarian situation. Restrictions on travel and lack of security have made growing and buying food much more difficult for Rohingya people. Restrictions on international humanitarian assistance to those in IDP Camps and the rest of Arakan State also make the humanitarian crisis much worse. Since 2012 140,000 internally displaced people have been trapped in camps which UN officials have described as having some of the worst conditions in the world. These restrictions and lack of security force Rohingya people to make long and sometimes dangerous journeys to find food. More than ten percent of the Rohingya population have fled Burma since 2012.

Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said "Our people are dying in the camps where they fled to four years ago after they fled mobs burning their homes and villagers. They are dying in part because the new government has kept in place severe restrictions on delivery of aid. The NLD-led government should immediately lift all restrictions on international humanitarian aid in Arakan State, and ensure security for aid workers.” 

Protestors are also calling on the international community, including the British government, to apply pressure on the NLD led government to lift restrictions on aid. 

For more information please contact Tun Khin +44 7888714866.

The Central Committee for Peace and Development in Arakan State convene in Napyidaw on August 9. (Photo: Myanmar State Counsellor Office / Facebook)

By Lawi Weng
The Irrawaddy
August 17, 2016

RANGOON — Plans are underway to form a new commission to resolve the communal and humanitarian crisis in Arakan State, which will include Muslim and Buddhist Arakanese representatives—but from Rangoon rather than Arakan State.

The new nine-member commission is to play a consultative role in Arakan State—soliciting views from local Buddhist and Muslim communities, to be forwarded to the central government, which is keeping a tight rein on the region and delegating few decisions to state-level leaders.

The news was imparted during meetings in the state capital Sittwe on Monday, conducted separately with Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya “community leaders” by the Central Committee for Peace and Development in Arakan State—a body chaired by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, involving Union-level ministers and the Arakan State Chief Minister.

Suu Kyi was absent from the meetings. Lt-Gen Ye Lwin, the Union Minister for Border Affairs, was the highest-ranking member of the committee present.

The new nine-member commission will include three members from “the international community”—The Irrawaddy could not ascertain who this referred to—two Buddhist Arakanese members, two Muslim members, and two government representatives, according to Tha Pwint, a retired Arakanese lawyer from Sittwe who was present at one of the Monday meetings.

He said that Arakanese representatives in their meeting with the high-level committee had expressed dissatisfaction that the Muslim and Buddhist Arakanese members of the new commission would not be local to Arakan State, but be from Rangoon. No objections were reported from Rohingya representatives during their own meeting.

One of the proposed Buddhist Arakanese representatives is Win Mya, the current chairman of Burma’s National Human Rights Commission, which has been widely criticized as ineffective since its formation in 2011.

One of the proposed Muslim representatives—who is seemingly not required to be Rohingya or “Bengali,” as most Burmese term them, or have actual links to Arakan State—is Aye Lwin, a Rangoon-based religious authority and member of Burma’s Interfaith Friendship Organization. The other Arakanese and Muslim representatives have yet to be revealed.

Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese self-described community leaders, speaking to The Irrawaddy, expressed skepticism over the ability of the new commission to resolve the communal conflict, which has been largely frozen since anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013.

Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist from Sittwe who also joined one of the Monday meetings, said he would only be satisfied when “direct action” is taken by the central government in Arakan State, suggesting that the new commission is a distraction.

“The day the government gets involved directly, will be the day when our problems can be solved,” he said.

Tha Pwint, the local Arakanese retired lawyer, said the crisis could be resolved only with the imposition of the rule of law.

He accused the government of “not taking action” against “illegal migrants who come to stay in our region”—a reference to the largely stateless Rohingya, whose claim to belonging to Arakan State is strongly denied by most Buddhist Arakanese, and much of the wider Burmese public.

Suu Kyi may visit Arakan State at the end of this month, along with the new commission, and consult with community leaders from both sides, according to Aung Win.

Demonstrators, including Ashin Parmoukkha and Win Ko Ko Latt, are pictured at the protest outside the US Embassy on April 28, 2016. (Photo: Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy)

By San Yamin Aung
The Irrawaddy
August 17, 2016

RANGOON — The Kamayut Township police have brought charges against seven Burmese nationalists on Tuesday who, in April, protested outside the US Embassy in Rangoon against the American mission’s use of the word “Rohingya.” A trial is scheduled for August 30.

Hundreds of protesters, including Buddhist monks, held a demonstration outside the US embassy on April 28 in Rangoon. They condemned the embassy for using the term “Rohingya” in a statement issued on April 20 after more than 18 people belonging to the Rohingya minority were killed when their boat sank off the coast of Sittwe, Arakan State.

A police officer from the Kamayut police station told The Irrawaddy that they opened the case against the seven protesters under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, accusing those involved of “illegal assembly.” Among the charged are three monks, including Ashin Parmoukkha, formerly a prominent member of the ultranationalist organization best known by its Burmese acronym—Ma Ba Tha. Win Ko Ko Latt of the Myanmar Nationalist Network also faces charges.

Ashin Parmoukkha said that Win Ko Ko Latt originally sought permission to protest in front of the US Embassy, but the police put forward the Bo Sein Hman grounds in Rangoon’s Bahan Township as an alternative protest site. The group instead gathered first in front of Rangoon University, before marching to the nearby US Embassy.

“We are not guilty,” the monk said. “We just protested since the US ambassador used the term ‘Rohingya.’ The ones who use that term are cunning. And I didn’t participate in the march. I just gave a speech there.”

The protesters reject the term Rohingya—with which the Muslim minority self-identifies—and instead refer to the group as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya among the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, contributing to widespread statelessness for the community.

August 17, 2016

There’s no denying that there can’t be a quick fix for the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. But how much more time does the new government need to, at the very least, acknowledge it?

The transition from long-standing authoritarian, military administration to a democratic one was, of course, never expected to be an easy task for the new rulers, especially when their predecessors have left them with challenges, including failing economy, flourishing drug trade and fragile peace with ethnic minorities.

Yet, Myanmar’s people had many hopes when their country’s human rights champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party National League for Democracy (NLD) won a parliamentary majority last November.

While Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from becoming president, she nevertheless became the de facto ruler as she assumed the responsibilities of minister of foreign affairs of Myanmar and the minister of president's office.

So far, she has touched upon issues from economic development to illegal cross-border trade. But the one problem she appears to be hesitant to tackle is that of the persecution of religious-ethnic minority Rohingya.

Myanmar is a 53 million-strong Buddhist majority country that includes a diverse set of ethnic minorities – but the Rohingya people, despite being a population of nearly 1.3 million people and living there for centuries, are not one of them.

Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are officially stateless. The government regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. On the other hand Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.

The situation grew uglier for them in 2012, when Ashin Wirathu launched an anti-Muslim genocidal campaign, which set off a wave of bloodshed, resulting in hundreds of deaths of Rohingya Muslims, leaving more than 140,000 left homeless and over 100,000 forced to flee.

It became worse due to former Burmese President Thein Sein’s criminal silence over the actions of extremist Buddhists.

Many believed things would change for the better after Suu Kyi’s ascension to power. After all, she is someone who spent 15 years under house arrest for her pro-democracy stance and human rights activism.

But things have not changed, and by the looks of it, they are not going to change anytime soon either.

Granted, expecting a quick fix for a problem of this magnitude is naïve and impractical. However, the problem with Suu Kyi, when it comes to the Rohingya issue, is that she seems as disinterested to solve it as her Thein Sein, which would yield the same disastrous results from his rule.

Hopes for any betterment dimmed even further when she banned the term “Rohingya” and instead asked foreigners to refer to them as “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine state.” By doing so, she essentially gave a major victory to all the Buddhist nationalists and extremists who want to get rid of the Rohingya from Myanmar.

Thein Sein was a military ruler who believed in appeasing Buddhist extremists to maintain his power, rather than focusing on human rights abuses being committed against an unwanted people.

But why is Aung San Suu Kyi adopting the same callous approach? What is her excuse?

By Lucy Purdon
The Myanmar Times
August 16, 2016

Since Myanmar’s landmark election in November 2015, the National League for Democracy government has publicly condemned the use of so-called hate speech on several occasions and indicated that a new law may be drafted to tackle the problem. The issue is particularly evident in online attacks against Muslims, women and LGBT people. While Muslims receive most of such attacks, women have also received anonymous threats for standing up for women’s rights and for LGBT people targeted for abuse.

A supporter of nationalist group Ma Ba Tha speaks in Yangon on May 22. The line between free speech and hate speech can be hard to define. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

Since the government was installed earlier this year, the Ministry of Information (MOI) website has made clear that there is no place for hate speech in Myanmar society. MOI website statements have also urged all Myanmar people to avoid hate speech and to “live in unity within diversity”. The Ministry has called for “retributive action” against those who “make” hate speech.

U Aung Ko, the Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs, recently referred to plans for a new Hate Speech Law – which would criminalise verbal attacks on other religions besides Buddhism – being developed in consultation with “interfaith groups” comprising members of Myanmar’s various religious communities. Such a law, whose precise contents are not yet known to the public, would empower ordinary citizens to report discriminatory speech.

Article 364 of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution prohibits the “abuse of religion for political purposes” and “any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects”. It allows for the “promulgation of laws to punish such activity”.

A former legal adviser to the NLD, U Ko Ni was recently interviewed by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and suggested that a draft law on hate speech had been circulated in 2013 and that the drafting process could be revived under the new government.

In September 2015, the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business published an ICT Sector Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA), which featured an extensive analysis of hate speech in the Myanmar context. An important recommendation made in the SWIA was that clear public signals should be sent from the highest level of government and by all political parties that hate speech is unacceptable. That is now happening and is welcome.

However, legislation needs to be carefully considered. Many other countries struggle with legislating against online hate speech because it is not always easy to distinguish where freedom of expression ends and legitimate restriction on expression begins. What is considered hate speech in one country may not be considered hate speech in another; it may be region- or culture-specific, rooted in a country’s history. The lack of an internationally agreed definition of hate speech has made it difficult to clarify how such acts should be dealt with, including in the digital world.

One statement published on the Ministry of Information website defines hate speech according to the definition published on Wikipedia. While we welcome the government’s concern about hate speech, we also call on government officials to draft any future law using international human rights law rather than any other definition.

Freedom of expression is protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The right to freedom of expression and opinion extends to ideas deemed unpopular, shocking, offensive or disturbing.

The former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, outlines this in a 2012 report: “The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinize, openly debate and criticize, even harshly and unreasonably, ideas, opinions, belief systems and institutions, including religious ones, as long as this does not advocate hatred that incites hostility, discrimination or violence against an individual or a group of individuals.”

This is the nature of freedom of expression: Someone may express an opinion others disagree with, but they nonetheless have a right to say it, except in certain narrowly defined circumstances. When it comes to determining what speech should be restricted in order to protect the rights of others, international human rights law provides a very high threshold that must be met before the expression can be legitimately restricted or in some cases prohibited.

International human rights law does not use the term “hate speech”. It has become a vague term that often encompasses both expression that can be restricted under international law, and legitimate expression that cannot, even if it is offensive.

Article 19, paragraph 3, of the ICCPR outlines a basis for legitimate restrictions “as are provided by law and are necessary … (c) for respect of the rights or reputation of others; (d) for the protection of national order (ordre public), or of public health or morals”.

Article 20 of the ICCPR elaborates on these restriction in more depth and prohibits by law “any propaganda for war” and “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

In other words, according to Article 20 (2), hatred, by itself, would not be subject to restriction. It is only when advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence that is prohibited under international law.

Incitement is also recognised as a crime in other international human rights treaties. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) criminalises a “direct and public incitement to commit genocide”. The International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966) requires states to criminalise the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority and assisting or financing racist activities.

Therefore the government should avoid vaguely defined terms in any future law such as “hurting religious feelings”, which could be applied too broadly and does not address the real damage of language that incites, discriminates, and is hostile and violent, as outlined in international human rights law.

In addition to considering and consulting widely on appropriate legislation – which should protect all those who are vulnerable to online abuse, including women and LGBT – the government could also support civil society and corporate efforts aimed at what is known as “counter speech”. This is where users challenge “hate speech” by exposing false rumours, ideally with the support of the police, and encouraging peaceful expression.

While researching our assessment, interviewees told the MCRB that there was a lack of guidelines across public and private institutions on how to use social media appropriately. Many interviewees also said they did not report online hate speech to website administrators because either they didn’t know how to or the internet connection was too slow. Owners of social media platforms should take note of this and educate their users on how to report abusive behaviour online, while taking into account possible low bandwidth.

Yangon Region Religious Affairs Minister U Tun Nyunt suggested that complaints could be made to police stations. However, police will need training and guidelines on how to deal with complaints, and the government should manage people’s expectations about prosecutions. In 2013, the UK director of public prosecutions issued guidelines for prosecutions involving social media communications to assist both the police and prosecutors in this new area.

The government of Myanmar has the opportunity to lead from the front in tackling hate speech and to present an example of good practice to the world. But it must tread carefully by ensuring that any restrictions on speech do not stifle free expression and are aligned with international human rights law.

Lucy Purdon is an adviser to the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business on ICT and human rights, and a research fellow of the Institute of Human Rights and Business.

Aung San Suu Kyi attends an event in Rangoon, Burma on July 19, 2016.
© 2016 Reuters

By Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch
August 16, 2016

Leaders Should Discuss Refugees, Imprisoned Nobel Laureate

As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for her first trip to China since her National League for Democracy party swept Burma’s elections last November, her to-do list could be impossibly long: managing a new and delicate era in bilateral relations, development aid, the resolution of the stalled Myitsone Dam project, and disputes about management of their shared border. There’s also the complex peace process involving the Burmese government, its military, and the country’s ethnic armed groups – some of them backed by China.

Suu Kyi should make sure two other issues get attention. In 2015, roughly 27,000 people displaced by fighting in Burma’s northern Shan State sought refuge in China. Additionally, thousands of Kachin refugees remain in China’s Yunnan province from the conflict that raged in Burma from 2011 to 2013. Another 100,000 internally displaced persons are in squalid camps in Kachin State. Nongovernmental organizations that have visited the camps in Burma and China have called conditions deplorable and cramped, with poor sanitation. Yet international aid is being reduced, and abuses by the Burmese military continue to be reported.

China has not allowed officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to visit the camps in Yunnan to assess conditions. While Suu Kyi no doubt plans discuss the peace process with Chinese leaders, it’s not clear that the status of refugees and internally displaced persons will make the agenda. If China wants to further the nascent peace process, it’s crucial that the fate of these people gets serious attention.

Suu Kyi should also use her platform and pro-democracy credentials to call for the release of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from prison in China. When she visited China in June 2015, as leader of the opposition, she did not publicly raise his case. This disappointed many Chinese democracy activists, particularly given that her release from years of house arrest was hastened by winning that same prize, and by having other Nobel laureates, heads of state, and prominent rights activists intervene on behalf of her freedom.

This is a new era in Burma-China relations. Burma and China are heading in different directions, with one country taking steps towards ending authoritarian rule, while the other makes it state policy. Will Suu Kyi demonstrate leadership in support of human rights beyond Burma’s borders? Will China, reflecting on its low standing in Burma after decades of support for the military junta, find a way to work with the new government to improve the lives of the Burmese people?

By Jiyoung Song
August 16, 2016

When Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy finally came to power in Myanmar last year, there was much scepticism among ethnic minorities as to whether the nobel laureate would speak up for their rights. So far, the new government has not done much to change this view, particularly among the Rohingya minority whose lack of citizenship and poor living conditions are a recurring theme in refugee movements around the region.

No-one in Myanmar has any doubts as to Aung San Suu Kyi's central role in government, even if she is constitutionally barred from becoming president. Her titles include state counsellor, foreign minister and minister of the office for president; her responsibilities include international relations and internal peace negotiations with ethnic minority groups.

Outsiders might assume such minority groups would include the Rohingya. After all, there are around 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar (total population around 53 million), concentrated in Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest states located in the northwest of the country. However, while there was anger among Rohingyas that Aung San Suu Kyi has opted to treat them as foreigners staying unlawfully in Myanmar who have no role to play in the internal peace process, there was not much surprise. The new government has also decided to no longer use the term 'Bengali', instead favouring 'Myanmar Muslims'. This has been met with a mixed response. One Rohingya activist I spoke to based in the Myanmar capital of Yangon is pleased the pejorative 'Bengali' has also been dropped. A Rohingya leader based in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, however, sees it differently. He claims that by grouping Rohingyas and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar together, the new government intends to discriminate against all minority Muslims in Myanmar. He cites as evidence the recent displacement of Kaman Muslim population in Rakhine.

About one third of the Rakhine population are Rohingya. The state's economy has been stagnant for some time; there are not enough jobs, and there are no substantial industries. The Chinese pipeline project at Kwaukpyu and the Indian company developing the Sittwe port are the only visible source of foreign investment; their actions have not benefited the local economy. The locals depend on fishing and agriculture for subsistence. Tourism may grow, but it would require Yangon to invest in infrastructure and training, which does not seem likely in the near future at least.

Rakhine streets are largely safe with no soldiers or police patrols. There are some areas where foreigners cannot go without permission, but otherwise they are allowed to move around as they please. Rohingyas, however, cannot. Much of what was once their land has been confiscated. Their mosques are abandoned. Most live in designated areas, largely in northern Rakhine, near the border with Bangladesh. These are highly restricted environments with little support from Yangon. Groups like the UNHCR, the UNDP and other NGOs try to fill the gaps in education, training and healthcare. Measured against a developed country standards, the IDP (internally displaced person) camp conditions are appalling.

Often Rohingyas have no option but to travel to Bangladesh for basic services including health. Yangon is highly suspicious of these cross-border movements which it believes could provide entry points for Islamic radicalism into Myanmar. Rohingya leaders reject such allegations. UNHCR Myanmar staff also doubt the government claim, saying the harsh living conditions make radicalisation unlikely; even basic resources are scarce.

The Rakhine Rothingya in poverty with no official state and appear to have no means of support beyond international aid. The reality, however, is a little more complicated.

Rohingya communities are very hierarchical. Their leaders are all men, highly revered, internationally connected, and well-organised. Some are quite entrepreneurial. Rohingyas who are settled in developed countries can connect to Rohingya in Myanmar through social media and by phone. They can even guide foreigners through tours of the camps, with or without state authorisation; a half-day visit costs around 110,000 kyats (US$100). At every checkpoint, visitors pay 10,000 kyats.

Always, it seems, there are people who can make money out of misery and in this case some Rohingyas are among those making money out of Rohingya misery. This obviously poses a moral dilemma for those who work with refugees; some of those who appear to be in need of international protection are also corrupt, abusive, law-breaking and dismissive of gender equality.

Some in Yangon believe that if Rohingyas’ movements remain restricted, their citizenship revoked, and their lands confiscated, they will either move en masse to Bangladesh (where many believe they originated from), or their ethnic identity will fade eventually. In fact, the opposite is likely to occur. The Rohingya population will continue to grow and, with no basic healthcare, there will be more irregular movements to Bangladeshi, Malaysia and Thailand, and more illicit activities in and out of the semi-permeable boundaries. This could create serious security challenges for Myanmar and beyond.

Myanmar is now in transition to democracy after decades of military dictatorship. It could still choose to recognise Rohingyas as citizens (or at least permanent residents with rights equal to those of citizens), and offer proper education and training while seeking a regional solution for those in Malaysia and elsewhere. In the longer term, this could lead to economic opportunities for the state of Rakhine and for the country as a whole.

There would be plenty of global support for such move. Myanmar’s institutionalised discrimination against Rohingyas has prompted international campaigns that have spurred considerable and widespread sympathy. The UN has identified them as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. With their stateless status, they have been able to apply for asylum in many developed countries which actively promote Rohingyas’ right to identity. However only a tiny number have been accepted as refugees. The majority remain internally displaced. This too could change, with some considerable acts of collective will.

In Malaysia for example, as of June 2016, there were about 55,000 Rohingya asylum seekers. Since Malaysia treats them as illegal migrants, they don’t have a right to work. The UNHCR Malaysia office receives 600 applications every day, many from self-claiming Rohingyas, and has suggested the Malaysian government allow Rohingyas to work. This would seem to be a win win as Malaysia's fast-growing cities need manual labour in industries such as construction. Empowering the Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia could also help Myanmar’s marginalised Muslim communities, and eventually contribute to regional development. This would be a sensible, realistic and mutually beneficial solution for both the state and asylum seekers. Whether Malaysia has the necessary political will remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya remain a long way down Myanmar's to-do list. One retired government official in Yangon said Aung San Suu Kyi 'has a very difficult job to do. She’s better sort out the easy ones first, and the most difficult last'. He thinks Rakhine and Rohingyas should stay in the too hard basket. .

However, Aung San Suu Kyi has a huge reservoir of goodwill to draw on. Inside the new Myanmar, many are hoping for compassionate, inclusive and democratic leadership. She also has strong international support. Judicious combinations of foreign aid, direct and joint investment, with more relaxed trade regulations and visa restrictions could see Myanmar become a leading country in Southeast Asia once again.

Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO

Land—reportedly confiscated from local farmers—is fenced off for an industrial ward outside of the Arakan State capital of Sittwe, and pictured on Sunday, August 14, 2016. (Photo: Min Aung Khine / Sittwe-based Journalist)

By Moe Myint
The Irrawaddy
August 15, 2016

RANGOON – After meeting with local farmers on Saturday, Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu has ordered a halt to fencing around the perimeter of an industrial ward located outside Set Yoe Kya village near the state capital of Sittwe.

According to a post from Nyi Pu’s official Facebook page, farmers told the Chief Minister that their lands had been confiscated 15 years earlier, and that they had been informed the area was under the ownership of senior and former government officials.

Nyi Pu said that the National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government would investigate the allegations of land grabbing, and uncover whether land could have been taken legally in the interest of development, or seized for personal gain.

“If they confiscated land for personal benefit, we will take action against them according to the existing laws. If the land was grabbed in the public [interest] we will address the farmers’ losses in line with current laws,” Nyi Pu stated.

According to Nyi Pu, since 2001, the Industrial Land Committee has designed 466 estates and sold just over 400 yards of land at the price of 250,000 kyats (US$210) in 2015. Another 65 estates were used as camps for displaced communities in the region.

Arakan National Party lawmaker Kyaw Zaw Oo submitted a question to the regional parliament last Wednesday, inquiring whether the Arakan State government’s quick allocation of the land to develop an industrial zone near Set Yoe Kya’s creek was enacted legally.

He told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the previous Arakan State chief minister, Mya Aung, the Border and Security Affairs Minister Htein Lin, as well as around 50 high-ranking bureaucrats were implicated in the alleged confiscation of 515 acres of land in Sittwe District.

Minister Kyaw Lwin, the NLD appointee for mining, agriculture and livestock within the Arakan State cabinet, explained that the shift in land ownership was carried out legally by the previous government. When he spoke with The Irrawaddy by phone last week, he described the problem as “complicated” and not easy to solve, as people had constructed houses on the farmland.

He declined to comment on whether action has been taken against those involved in the reported land grabbing, or if the land is required to be returned to the original owners or if compensation will be allocated.

In a letter to parliamentarian Kyaw Zaw Oo, Minister Kyaw Lin explained that before former president Thein Sein transferred administrative power to NLD, in March he ordered the transformation of the contested land into residence quarters in Sittwe, specifying the names of owners.

According to articles 29, 30 and 31 of 2012’s farmland laws enacted by Thein Sein, confiscated land for a project must be developed within six months of the proposal’s specifications. If it fails to be carried out during the project’s timeframe, the applicants must return the land to the original owners. In the case of the contested land in Arakan State, it has been 15 years since the land was reportedly taken and it still lacks any basic infrastructure, said MP Kyaw Zaw Oo.

He pointed out that since there had been no fence around the land, the farmers from Set Yoe Kya had continued cultivating their rice paddies there until 2015, and regularly registered with the government’s land department until 2012.

Kyaw Zaw Oo suggested that since the new government is planning to construct a bridge connecting Set Yoe Kya and Sittwe, the land price had risen; thus, he alleged that the previous Arakan State government had exploited the unused land confiscation order to avoid returning it to farmers before the administrative handover to the civilian-led government earlier this year.

When The Irrawaddy spoke with MP Kyaw Zaw Oo, he said that some influential figures in Sittwe had been named in the list of beneficiaries of the confiscated land, including known Arakanese nationalists, former members of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and a former Sittwe District administrator now serving in the office of the state government.

Maung Htun Thein, a farmer from Set Yoe Kya village who has had 12 acres of his land confiscated since the early 1990s, confirmed that he and up to 16 other villagers and some from the surrounding area had not received any compensation from the government. He recalled that one acre was valued at approximately 150 kyats—or $0.13—and now each acre is priced at up to 15 million kyats ($12,600).

“I want my land back if they continue to construct an industrial zone,” he said, demanding that the government should “compensate in line with the local real estate market price.”

Rohingya Exodus