Wed 13 Aug 2014
Filed under: Ethnic Issues,News,Opinion
The timing was conspiciously reminiscent of old junta tactics. Two days before newly appointed UN special human rights rapporteur Ms Yanghee Lee wrapped up her first visit to Myanmar with a highly publicised news conference at Yangon International Airport on July 26, the government extended its hand to Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The Rakhine State government took the initiative with an announcement (1/2014) published in the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar on July 24. It invited all UN agencies and international non-government organisations “including MSF, to participate in development, humanitarian, education and healthcare programs in accordance of the wishes of the Rakhine people.”
The Ministry of Health and President’s Office Minister U Soe Thein made similar noises. “As human beings we all commit errors and the errors usually lie on both sides,” AFP quoted U Soe Thein as telling a news conference on July 24.
MSF was cautious in its response. It needed to hear the details first, it said in a statement issued on July 25, which noted that it had been negotiating a return to Rakhine since February, when it was evicted from the state on the grounds that it was giving preferential treatment to stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Why this U-turn all of a sudden?
The timing just before the departure of the special rapporteur was no coincidence. A positive step by the Myanmar government would undercut her warning (that its plans for Rakhine could lead to the “permanent segregation” of its Buddhist and Muslim communities) and steal some of her limelight, as it did.
One can also wonder what the invitation actually means. The Rakhine government’s announcement referred to the Action Plan for Peace, Stability and Development in the state. The plan is being discussed behind the scenes by the government and international organisations. It is aimed at raising living standards for the people of the poorest – but resourch rich – Myanmar region and dealing with communal tensions and security issues.
One of the bones of contention in discussion about the plan is over the use of ‘Bengali’ to describe the people who call themselves ‘Rohingya’ because it is the term they prefer. If the international community demands that the deregatory term ‘Bengali’ be removed from documents referring to the Muslim community this will further enflame tensions between the international community, the government and large sections of Myanmar society. As the government made clear in its response to the special rapporteur’s statement, it does not accept the term ‘Rohingya’. The term had “never existed in the country’s history,” it said, adding, “The people of Myanmar will never recognise the term.”
If international organisations, including NGOs, refuse to support a Rakhine Action Plan because it uses ‘Bengali’, it will bolster the argument of Rakhine Buddhists that the international community wants to deny them the development they so desperately need. If the international community agrees with the use of the term ‘Bengali’ it will betray a key principle, as espoused by Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Patrick in an interview with Mizzima Business Weekly in May when he defended the right of the Rohingya to self-identify. “Generally in the UK, and in Europe, ethnic groups are allowed to call themselves by the name they want to use, whether or not that name has any historic validity,” he said.
It’s a dilemma not easily solved.
The cleverly crafted statement that seemed to invite MSF to return to Rakhine is in fact a trap door. Not only did the government time the gesture in such a way that it undercut comments by the UN special rapporteur, it also puts the international community in a difficult situation. By publicly inviting international organisations and NGOs to work with the Rakhine Action Plan the government is putting pressure on them to accept its conditions.
Those who don’t play ball with the plan could find themselves in a situation where standing by their principles may leave them no option other than to withdraw voluntarily from the state.