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Myanmar's human rights commission nothing more than PR stunt

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By Joseph K. Grieboski
October 20, 2016

Following the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' report on June 20, 2016 — which condemned the systematic and widespread human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya — the government of Myanmar was compelled to show some initiative on the matter.

As a result, on Aug. 23, 2016, the government announced the establishment of an advisory commission to address the situation in the Rakhine State, chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has since visited the state in September.

While the move to establish the commission might come as a welcomed effort, it has already raised some concerns, including how the former secretary-general responded to a question asking if he had witnessed anything he would describe as oppression.

In response, the former secretary-general replied, "Personally, I did not see it there."

As one of the poorest states in Myanmar, the Rakhine State is rendered with limited access to health, education and other basic services. This is especially true for the Rohingya in Myanmar, whose approximate population of 1 million faces constant discrimination, exclusion, restrictions and persecution. After major outbreaks within the Rakhine State during 2012, hundreds died, were injured and had their properties destroyed. This devastation resulted in the displacement of 140,000 individuals in the region.

Currently, the Rohingya represent the largest Muslim population in Myanmar, with approximately 120,000 internally displaced people in central Rakhine State alone. Within the displacement camps, approximately 30,000 Muslim children must use temporary learning spaces, but are barred from studying a number of professions, or attending the only university in the Rakhine State.

The widespread discrimination against the Rohingya has been perpetrated through the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982. By enforcing it, the Burmese government — now run by Aung San Suu Kyi — continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship, while 315 other ethnic groups are included in the law.

The situation in the Rakhine State has been aggravated by the rise of ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups in Myanmar. These groups have given added force to anti-Muslim sentiment, resulting in violence based on racial, ethnic and religious hatred. Between 2014 and 2015, 94,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries, resulting in trafficking, extortion and other abuses of the Rohingya.

Ultimately, the Rohingya are left without a place to go, or the necessary legal, economic or social means to carry out dignified lives in their home country.

Since the 2012 events and despite their current oppression, the threat of U.S. sanctions has prevented further violence against the Rohingya in recent years. Now, however, matters have been aggravated by the lifting of sanctions on Burma by the United States. A high-level Burmese state official has suggested that 12 mosques and 35 Islamic religious schools in Maungdaw and Buthidaung would be destroyed just a week after sanctions were lifted.

The situation in Rakhine State has once again grown restive and violent. On Oct. 10, 2016, attacks were carried out on a border guard post in Rakhine State, spurring a surge in violent raids in Rohingya communities that has left over 30 dead in one week. Government forces have poured into Rakhine State, a crackdown that the government has justified by claiming that Islamist militants, harbored in these communities, are responsible for the attacks.

However, reports have emerged of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and raids on Rohingya homes, once again raising concerns that a genocidal situation is becoming ever more a reality.

Rakhine State is politicized and polarized, with numerous issues that the Annan Commission is supposed to address. This newest surge of violence highlights the urgency of the situation and calls even further into question Annan's statement that he did not observe any incidences of oppression on his visit. This egregious oversight is due, in part, to the fact that the commission is formed by six Myanmar nationals and three foreigners, but no ethnic Rohingya.

If the commission truly intends to tackle effectively the various issues and human rights violations in the Rakhine State, it cannot do so without including persons affected by it.

The exclusion of Rohingya is another disappointing act by the Burmese government. While there were high hopes for the newly instated National League for Democracy government, its refusal to act on the persecution of the Rohingya has shown the government's position on the matter. Their stance has become even clearer with State Chancellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's disapproval of the term "Rohingya," as she advised the U.S. ambassador to avoid the "emotive term" as it presents challenges on dealing with the issue at hand.

Now, without the recognition of the Rohingya as a population, or their voices as part of the conversation, the government demonstrates that its commitment to the commission may serve as a P.R. opportunity, rather than an actual attempt to assuage dire situations and systematic repression in the Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi was among those in attendance at the first meeting of the Rakhine State advisory commission held on Sept. 5, 2016. The inclusion of foreigners on the committee has ignited major protest from nationalists who believe foreign consultation is being allowed on domestic affairs without the consent of ethnic minorities. Additional claims of sovereignty infringement have also gained traction as Myanmar political parties express their opposition to the creation of the body.

In a recent meeting, President Obama praised Suu Kyi on the establishment of the commission and reiterated the United States' support toward ending the conflict in Rakhine State. (Despite the rampant persecution of the Rohingya still occurring, though, Obama announced the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar in response to their progress on democratization.)

Similarly, outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his full support for the commission and, in reference to the Rohingya, stated, "People who have been living for generations in this country should enjoy the same legal status and citizenship as everyone else."

The failure to include an ethnic Rohingya as a member, however, proves the commission to be ill-advised and likely ineffectual. Still, supporters of the commission continue to denounce the opposition toward its creation and call for the embracement of this so-called shift in paradigm.

While the commission was created to address the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights' concerns over crimes against humanity in the region, the outcome of the commission is unknown, although former Secretary-General Annan stated after his visit to the camps that his visit was not to conduct a human rights investigation or write a human rights reports.

Without engaging and representing perspectives from all of the stakeholders of Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya, it will be impossible to fully address and prevent the ongoing human rights issues.

At this moment, the commission frankly appears to be nothing more than a perception strategy rather than an actual and appropriate step to resolving the horrific injustices committed against the Rohingya.

Grieboski is the chairman and CEO of Grieboski Global Strategies, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, and founder and secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.

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