Dispatches from the Field: Rakhine State, Myanmar
2 May 2018: The final day of the Council mission (Tuesday) saw the delegation visiting Rakhine State before heading back to New York. The day started with a short flight to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
Upon landing members held a meeting with the Union Minister for International Cooperation U Kyaw Tin; Chief Minister of Rakhine State U Nyi Pu; Chief Coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Development, Economic Recovery and Assistance Aung Tun Thet; and representatives from Rakhine State government. Following a short introduction to Rakhine State by Kyaw Tin, U Nyi Pu spoke of the long history of ethnic conflicts in Rakhine State, which he said the government needed to handle carefully. He also said that the state government was working to implement the recommendations of the Annan Commission and towards the repatriation of those who had fled. Council members then heard from Aung Tun Thet. He emphasised the importance of the larger development of the state and outlined what they were doing to achieve this.
The UN presence in Rakhine State was raised. Council members had heard in meetings on Monday that UN agencies were not particularly welcome by many living in Rakhine State. Council members were told that the Rakhine people felt that over the years the UN had neglected them and had focused its assistance on the Muslim community.
Members were told that it was possible that UNHCR and UNDP would be given access in Rakhine State soon. The UN and the Myanmar government have been discussing a memorandum of understanding for several months, which would allow the UN greater access to Rakhine State. Members of the Council emphasised that the refugee crisis was an emergency situation of a scale that would be beyond any government to address without assistance from the UN, that many Rohingya were afraid of coming back, and that the presence of the UN could help increase confidence in their safety when they return. They also suggested that closing the IDP camps that have existed in Rakhine State for six years and having the IDPs return to the area they came from could also build confidence.
The delegation then travelled by helicopter to their first stop in Rakhine State, the Taung Pyo Letwe reception centre, where they were given a short briefing on the purpose of such centres and how they will operate. They are meant to be the first stop for returning Rohingya who would have their papers checked at these centres and stay there for a few days before being allowed to go back to where they originally came from in Rakhine State. Members were then shown the bridge the returning Rohingya would come across and the rooms where their papers would be checked. Members had the opportunity to examine the different forms that the Rakhine have to fill out in order to show that they are from Rahkine State. There was a lot of interest in the information that was needed and how it related to the issues of citizenship that the members had heard about over the last few days. From the reception centre members flew to a transit camp, Hla Pho Khung, which is still being constructed and is expected to eventually house 30,000 people. They received a brief explanation of the structures that were being built to house families.
Members were told that camps like these would house people for 1-2 months before they returned to their villages. However, they were not given a clear explanation about how this timeframe would work for those people whose villages had been burnt and need to be rebuilt.
The delegation then travelled by road to three villages where the inhabitants were brought together by the authorities to meet Council members. The first village had a mix of Muslims, Hindus and Rakhine living together; the second village, which had been added at the last minute to the programme by the state government, consisted of Hindus; and the third was a newly built village for Muslims. In all the villages, Council members told the residents why they had come to Rakhine State, and asked them questions about their experiences living there, especially following the 25 August 2017 attacks by Rohingya armed groups on police border posts and the violence that followed. Those who spoke appeared to reflect many of the views expressed to Council members by government officials, including the view that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was responsible for much of the violence. Council members were interested in hearing directly from those living in these villagers and asked what had made people flee to Bangladesh and what would encourage them to come back; however, many of the respondents found it difficult to answer these questions.
Before leaving Sittwe the Council delegation had a short meeting with six civil society organisations. While there was not enough time for an extensive exchange of views, the organisations they heard from were skeptical of the reasons why the Rohingya had left Rakhine State for Bangladesh.
The visiting mission ended with a press conference by the co-leads (Peru, Kuwait and the UK) and Ambassador Joanna Wronecka (Poland), as the president of the Council as of 1 May. Ambassador Wronecka opened the press conference by explaining why the Council had chosen to embark on a visiting mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar and then handed over to the co-leads. Ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra (Peru) said that the Council, having been to both Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine State, was very concerned about the refugee situation. He stressed that it was important for Myanmar to collaborate with the UN and for there to be an investigation of what happened last year. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi (Kuwait) said that the UN could help with addressing the humanitarian crisis and that the process should be sped up. Ambassador Karen Pierce (UK) spoke about next steps for the Council and said that the first goal would be to focus the attention of international donors to the crisis. She said that Bangladesh needed immediate help because of the potential impact of the monsoon season but added that there is also the longer-term question of economic development. Pierce said that the Council could assist in the implementation of the Annan recommendations.
Among the questions posed by the media was whether the next step for the Council might be a resolution with a referral to the ICC. Pierce replied that while Council members had heard the stories of many of the refugees, there must be a proper investigation for accountability and that this could be done by the ICC or by the governments themselves. She noted that Aung San Suu Kyi had said during her meeting with the Council that having credible evidence of violations would help the country undertake a proper investigation. Pierce suggested that the Council could reflect on the possible ways of assisting the Myanmar government to collect evidence of any crimes.
Over the course of the visiting mission, members were given a vast amount of information by a range of interlocutors. They were exposed first-hand to the challenges facing refugees in Bangladesh and saw the preparations being made to receive the Rohingya in Rakhine State. As they traveled in Rahkine State, Council members saw what might have been villages showing signs of having been burnt and bulldozed. While many of the messages conveyed were not surprising to Council members, there was a sense that it was useful to have had an exchange of views both in Myanmar and Bangladesh and to hear the perceptions of the interlocutors of the root problems of the crisis.
However, it was seeing the reality on the ground in Cox’s Bazar that left members with an indelible impression of the immense scale of the refugee problem, as well as of the immediate need for humanitarian assistance in light of the impending monsoon season. Over the course of the visiting mission, Council members began to show greater unity in some of their messages, particularly related to the humanitarian situation. While there are still differences over taking stronger punitive action, this shared experience may be a good basis to begin to build a stronger foundation for more united Council action on this issue. Discussions are likely on next steps following this Council visiting mission.
Looking ahead, the Council will be briefed on the visiting mission next Tuesday (8 May).