[But the panel has faced criticism from multiple directions. Some rights groups have accused it of playing down the Rohingya’s plight, while some critics in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, say it has advocated for the Rohingya at the expense of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority, some of whom clashed with the Rohingya in 2012 in a spasm of violence further south in the state that left dozens dead.]
By Mike Ives
Kofi Annan, second from right, the former secretary general of the United Nations,
in Myanmar on Tuesday, where he urged the army to adhere to the "rule of law"
and said that "civilians must be protected at all times." By REUTERS.
Photo by Lynn Bo Bo/European Pressphoto Agency.
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HONG KONG — Kofi Annan, the former head of the United Nations, said in Myanmar on Tuesday that he was “deeply concerned” by reports of human rights abuses in the country’s restive Rakhine State, where dozens of Rohingya Muslims are said to have been killed since October in a crackdown by the military.
Mr. Annan, who leads a commission that was formed in August to study conditions in Rakhine, spoke to reporters at the end of a weeklong visit to Myanmar, which included a trip to the northern areas of northern Rakhine where the army has been conducting a counterinsurgency campaign. Activists have relayed stories of rapes, arson, targeted killings and other atrocities said to have been committed against the Rohingya there by the army since Oct. 9, when insurgents killed nine police officers in attacks on border posts.
“We stressed in all our meetings that wherever security operations might be necessary, civilians must be protected at all times, and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law,” Mr. Annan said on Tuesday.
“We also stressed that security operations must not impede humanitarian access to the population,” he said. “We have been given the assurance that humanitarian assistance is allowed access and trust that all communities in need will receive the assistance they require.”
Rights groups have reported that some villages in the area have been sealed off by the military, and that organizations that provide food aid and other assistance have been denied access.
Mr. Annan’s commission was formed with backing from Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, weeks before the military crackdown began in October. The panel is expected to make recommendations to the government in late 2017 for alleviating Rakhine’s ethnic strife and impoverished conditions.
But the panel has faced criticism from multiple directions. Some rights groups have accused it of playing down the Rohingya’s plight, while some critics in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, say it has advocated for the Rohingya at the expense of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority, some of whom clashed with the Rohingya in 2012 in a spasm of violence further south in the state that left dozens dead.
Perhaps the only point of agreement among the critics has been that they expect the panel to do little to improve the dire situation in Rakhine.
Speaking of Mr. Annan, Syed Hamid Albar, a former Malaysian foreign minister and the special Myanmar envoy for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said, “He’s a former secretary general, a very experienced diplomat and very well accepted, and he does not want a repeat of Rwanda” in Southeast Asia, referring to that African country’s 1994 genocide.
However, speaking about the panel’s members, he said, “The perception outside is that, even facing this serious situation, they don’t seem to be able to move.”
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, as Mr. Annan’s commission is formally known, was created at the Myanmar government’s behest, and in collaboration with Mr. Annan’s charitable foundation, as a “neutral and impartial body, which aims to propose concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine State,” according to its website. It has six experts from Myanmar and three from overseas, including Mr. Annan. None of its members are Rohingya.
Some human rights experts said the commission’s mandate was flawed from the start. Myanmar, they note, has said that the panel will operate in accordance with a 1982 law that is used to deny the Rohingya citizenship, on the pretext that they are not among Myanmar’s recognized “national races.”
Another problem, they said, is that the commission’s mandate focuses broadly on development and does not take an investigative approach to human rights violations, which they argue is essential, especially in light of the recent deaths.
Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based advocacy group that has monitored human rights violations in Rakhine, likened the commission’s approach to “sending an ill-equipped plumber to fix an electrical problem.”
“We want the commission to succeed and we welcomed it, but if the commission isn’t careful, it may inadvertently participate in a whitewash,” Mr. Smith said in an email.
While the crackdown in Rakhine began in response to the killings of police officers in October, human rights groups say the response has been disproportionate to the scale of the threat, especially because the area, along the border with Bangladesh, has never been a hotbed of Islamic militancy. Thousands of the Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and the United Nations human rights agency has said that abuses against the Rohingya may amount to crimes against humanity.
The crackdown has led to growing international criticism, including by the government of Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, whose Foreign Ministry has called it “ethnic cleansing.” Prime Minister Najib Razak led a rally on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, protesting the crackdown in Rakhine.
At the rally, Mr. Najib singled out Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. “Does she really have a Nobel Peace Prize?” he asked.
On Tuesday in Yangon, Mr. Annan told reporters that the recent violence in Rakhine had underscored the “importance and immediacy” of his commission’s work. But some analysts said the mounting international criticism of the government’s actions in Rakhine made the commission’s work look even less relevant.
Penny Green, a law professor and expert on genocide at Queen Mary University of London, said that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had most likely chosen Mr. Annan, a fellow Nobel laureate, to lead the commission because he was a public figure whose “enormous moral capital” would portray her government in a positive light. But “his personal reputation as somebody who has defended human rights should be on the line here, too,” Professor Green said.
Muhammad Noor, the managing director of Rohingya Vision, a satellite television broadcaster with offices in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, said the panel was overly concerned with diplomacy at the cost of ignoring what he called a human rights “disaster.”
He said his own information, compiled from sources within Rakhine, indicated that more than 200 Rohingya had been killed in the north since October, a far larger number than rights groups had reported.
“It’s not helping at all,” Mr. Noor said of the commission.
Saw Nang contributed reporting from Mandalay, Myanmar.