October 16, 2017
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has announced plans to set up a civilian-led agency, with foreign assistance, to deliver aid and help resettle Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
A close adviser, speaking with Aung San Suu Kyi’s knowledge, said the proposed body had been long planned, and was part of an attempt to show the civilian government she leads, rather than the Burmese military, can deliver humanitarian relief, resettlement and economic recovery.
The Nobel laureate has been criticised for failing to denounce a brutal army crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Thousands of refugees have continued to arrive in recent days from across the Naf river separating the two countries, even though Myanmar insists military operations ceased on 5 September.
Aid agencies estimate that 536,000 people have arrived in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, straining scarce resources of aid groups and local communities.
About 200,000 Rohingya were already in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced restrictions on their movements and access to basic services.
The adviser said Aung San Suu Kyi had been deeply affected by the crisis in her country, and was determined to fix it, but needed to be careful not to inflame the situation further.
“She is appalled by what she has seen. She does care deeply about this. I know that does not always come across. But she really does,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named. “What was not clear to her [before now] was how to fix it, and how to give the civilian government the powers it needed”.
In a speech carried by state TV late on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “There has been a lot of criticisms against our country. We need to understand international opinion. However, just as no one can fully understand the situation of our country the way we do, no one can desire peace and development for our country more than us.”
Many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s former allies have been exasperated by her failure to criticise the military, but the adviser said she was treading a fine line, knowing her government could become under threat of being overthrown by the military.
The adviser added her speech marked an attempt to wrestle Buddhism out of the hands of extremists.
Aung San Suu Kyi came to power ending years of military rule in a compromise that left the military with sweeping powers.
In her new proposal, she said she was setting up a new body to deliver relief and resettlement on the ground, as well as implement projects in all sectors of the region.
“It is going to be an implementation unit and will introduce a degree of transparency into the government that will allow the international community to participate and provide aid”, the adviser added.
The aim is for the body to be a vehicle through which recovery aid, including that delivered by the UK, can be funnelled.
Her adviser said Aung San Suu Kyi understood the moral priority of humanitarian assistance, the need to build new homes for those who had to flee as well as the need for economic development in the region.
“She has put herself front and centre of this and said ‘I will lead this’ ”. The adviser added: “She is someone who through her whole life has been committed to the values of human rights. That has not gone away, but she is very focused on fixing the problem, rather than identifying it.
“She recognises there have been particular tragedies amongst the Muslim communities, and amongst other small minority groups. But, yes, she does see this latest and most dreadful upsurge of violence as stemming from carefully timed political attacks on police stations.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech made no mention of the allegations levelled against security forces, over which she has no formal control under the military-drafted constitution. State media in recent weeks, however, has offered repeated denials of the human rights allegations, often blaming misreporting by the west.
In her speech, she said: “Rather than rebutting criticisms and allegations with words, we will show the world by our actions and our deeds. In the Rakhine state, there are so many things to be done.”
Her adviser said: “She is trying to move away from inflammatory and divisive remarks towards a coherent national solution that is civilian-led. The perilous state of the democratic transition in her country is understood.”
Aung San Suu Kyi listed repatriation of those who have fled to Bangladesh as a top priority, a task that faces political and practical hurdles, notably due to the fact that tens of thousands of Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh do not have the documentation likely to satisfy the military that they have a right of return.
However, detailed work remains on possible forms of new registration to allow the Rohingya to return.
In another attempt to respond to western criticisms, Myanmar’s military has launched an internal investigation into the conduct of soldiers during the army’s offensive in Rakhine, which was launched after attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts in late August.