UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Can Kofi Annan Bring Peace to a Troubled Region?

The former Secretary General is taking on a new challenge: bringing peace and reconciliation to a desolate, troubled corner of South East Asia.

Rakhine State in Myanmar is a conflict prone region in the western part of the country that has seen widespread abuses against the country’s Rohingya muslim community.  Things became precipitously worse  in 2012, when clashes between various groups killed hundreds and displaced some 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya. Since then, thousands of Rohingya have sought to flee Myanmar, many on rickety boats across the Andaman Sea to Thailand and Malaysia. Many thousands more live in squalid camps in southern Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are essentially a stateless people. They have been long discriminated against by the majority populations in Myanmar, often with official government backing. An official census taken last year included 150 ethnic groups, and purposefully excluded Rohingya. They are most certainly not welcome over the border in Muslim majority Bangladesh, which has harassed aid organizations that provide a modicum of relief to Rohingya. Even as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi took the reigns of the government in Burma earlier this year, she has come under widespread international criticism for refusing to even mention the name “Rohingya” and excoriated an American diplomatic who did.

Ethnic Rohingya with weapons walking away from a village in flames while a soldier stands by. Rakhine State, Burma, June 2012. © 2012 Private/HRW
Ethnic Rohingya with weapons walking away from a village in flames while a soldier stands by. Rakhine State, Burma, June 2012. © 2012 Private/HRW

Needless to say, the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine State and beyond is a highly sensitive topic for a number of historical and cultural reasons. But the ongoing abuse and discrimination of the Rohingya is also threatening to undermine Myanmar’s historic opening and democratic transition, and this is probably why Aung San Suu Kyi took the rather bold decision to solicit the aid of someone as high profile as Kofi Annan to lead an “Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State.” The Annan-lead commission includes both national and international officials who will recommend “lasting solutions to complex and delicate issues” in Rakhine state.

Since the leaving the UN, Annan has undertaken a few of these missions. In 2007, a disputed election in Kenya lead to widespread communal violence and threatened to unravel and otherwise thriving country. Kofi Annan, who is from Ghana, mediated between the two parties and helped establish a commission of inquiry that investigated post-election violence, turning its findings over the International Criminal Court. Kofi Annan was personally instrumental in mediating a power sharing agreement that ended the prospect of further violence.  He was able to do so, at least in part, because he is a hugely popular figure in Kenya and carries a great deal of political clout there.

This is probably less the case in Myanmar where he is certainly less well known. Still, groups like Amnesty that have been calling for greater international attention on the plight of the Rohingya are cheering this decision.“Today’s announcement is a sign that Myanmar’s authorities are taking the situation in Rakhine state seriously. But it will only have been a worthwhile exercise if it paves the way for the realization of human rights for all people in the state,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific said in a statement released today.

The commission is expected to start work in September and will release a full report, including a set of recommendations on “conflict prevention, prevention, humanitarian assistance, rights and reconciliation, institution building and promotion of development of Rakhine state” by the second half of 2017.

The key test going forward is whether or not the government will accept and implement those recommendations. But appointing someone as high profile as Kofi Annan to this job is a good sign that the government is prepared to take seriously these recommendations.